If you have a smartphone, which almost everyone does nowadays, then you already have a good camera. Smartphone cameras have almost as many megapixels as DSLR’s do, so why should you fork out more money for an DSLR? What if you wanted to try astrophotography with your smartphone? Is it possible?
In short, yes you can… well, kinda… er, maybe?
There is a name for this type of astrophotography! We call it, the “afocal” method, where you simply put your camera lens in front of the eyepiece and take a shot. It only works for something bright and can be taken quickly.
When you first get your telescope, let alone see something impressive through it, it’s understandable that you would want to try and take pictures of what you see. I cannot tell you how many people put their smartphones up to observatory owned eyepieces and attempt to take a shot of the moon.
I did it too, I can remember painstakingly getting my iPhone 5 up to my old 114 mm Celestron and steadying my hand just enough to get shots of a lunar eclipse. As such, during a 2019 lunar eclipse party hosted by Orion Bear Astronomy, I let every attendee have a chance to do it.
But then I attached my DSLR to the telescope and put their shots to shame.
Get an Adapter That Holds the Phone Steady!
That is the main secret!
Adapters can cost anywhere from $15 to $100. They are a life saver when it comes to astrophotography with a smartphone. They are set to clamp onto the eyepiece you’re using, and align the camera.
Without it, you will spend a long time trying to get your hand steady enough, plus get the camera at just the right alignment to make the object visible on your screen.
Another useful tool is a remote shutter, so that there is no shake every time you try to snap a shot.
This makes it super easy to take the shots you want! The wider the eyepiece, the easier it is to get the camera aligned. My 2017 Solar Eclipse shots were all done with this setup!
Make Sure Your Telescope Can Move with Earth’s Rotation
While it is still possible to get that coveted shot of the Moon on a telescope that isn’t automatically moving along the RA axis, you will have to work harder for it.
Remember that there’s two focus points you’re dealing with. and getting both of them in sync is the hardest part. First you have to make sure through the telescope the object is in the sharpest focus possible, and then you need to get your camera focused.
Just like DSLR’s, smartphone cameras focus on incoming light. As smartphones don’t have manual focus in the sense of fine adjustment, the camera automatically focuses on the object with a tap – and sometimes you don’t get the desired result.
As such, if the object starts drifting off, or if you shake the telescope too much (often from twisting the fine adjustment focus knobs), then the camera stops auto focusing.
Smartphones CAN Get You Great Solar System Shots!
It takes work, but it can be done!
Low magnification (<50x) shots of the Sun and Moon are super easy with the adapters. You can even zoom in with your camera for a closer shot.
Higher magnification shots of the moon and planets can done with the correct combination of eyepieces and Barlow lenses. All of the shots below were taken with my 8″ Skyview Pro at 300x magnification, made possible with a 10mm eyepiece and a 3X Barlow.
However, when attempting these shots, you must account for the much more narrow view these eyepieces give, and through smartphones, you’ll initially see it on the screen. The lunar or solar landscape will appear cropped out. Using your fingers to zoom in will solve that problem, but at the same time it’s not going to be the sharpest image.
Planets will appear small on the camera screen. The goal is to get the object’s disc as sharp as possible. Because of Earth’s atmosphere, the seeing conditions may prevent you from super sharp images at higher zoom.
The other thing that will happen for planets is they will initially appear very bright and overexposed. Tapping on the object and lowering the amount of light coming in should help. But when using larger telescopes that receive more light, you can be dealing with too much light for the smartphone to handle. To solve this problem a lunar filter, or polarizing filter can help reduce the glare.
Lastly, you will definitely want to edit the pictures with image processing software. Your smartphone should have built in tools to help with exposure and sharpness, and the shots of Mars and Saturn were used with Adobe Photoshop Express on my iPhone 6s Plus.
Deep Sky Photography? Not So Much…
While there are some apps that aid in long exposure, the cameras can only allow so much light. A smartphone camera just doesn’t have big enough light sensors to allow dim light.
Certain deep sky objects that are bright enough can still be photographed from a dark sky. Objects like the Orion Nebula, Praesepe, The Double Cluster, Ptolemy Cluster, and the Pleiades are doable. Double stars like Alberio are also doable. Galaxies? Not so much!
Don’t expect to see bright stars resemble “discs with spikes” like they do in your astronomy books. The brightest stars will still be small points of light.
If you’re confined to the solar system, with dedication, you can get great shots of the Moon and planets with a smartphone that can rival anyone else’s. You can even directly broadcast what’s in your telescope directly onto a live stream; something yours truly has done numerous times.
Once you feel you’ve graduated a smartphone and want to go for good deep sky photography, then start looking up DSLR’s and go from there! But make sure you have the right setup before you attempt it!
The two comparison shots show a clear difference taken through the same telescope. The first shot was a 60 second exposure with Night Cap Pro on a smartphone, and it barely showed any detail despite being in a dark location and having a longer exposure. Light has to pass through two pieces of glass before it enters the sensors, which severely reduces the speed at how much light enters. The second shot was done in my backyard from a light polluted suburban sky with a DSLR doing the prime focus method. Even though the exposure time was shorter and the sky was worse, the larger light sensors allow much more light to accumulate.
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