Smartphone Astrophotography: How I photograph the Moon & planets with my phone

4 Mar
iphone Moon

Moon photographed with an iPhone 4s through an 8” telescope.

I’m often asked how I am able to take high-quality images of the solar system using my iPhone. In short, the quality of today’s smartphone cameras makes it possible to take very respectable images of the Moon and planets through a telescope with your phone – but it takes some work.

While the end results may not match those taken with webcam or DSLR equipment, smartphone astrophotography can be a good starting point for budding astrophotographers. It can also be a useful alternative for experienced astronomers who wish to capture an image quickly with little equipment.

What You Need

1)      A Smartphone Adapter

Orion iPhone Adapter

A smartphone adapter will hold your phone in place above the eyepiece.

The simplest way to take a photo at the telescope is to simply hold your phone’s camera up to the eyepiece, but this approach rarely produces good results. Not only is it very difficult to centre the object properly, it can be tricky to ensure that the object is well exposed.

A simple adapter will improve your smartphone astrophotography immensely. An adapter will help you centre an object in the phone’s viewscreen, steady the camera, and ensure proper focus and exposure. A handful of companies are now producing adapters, including Orion whose adapter for iPhone 4s (no longer available) is pictured here. Orion also produces a Universal Smartphone Adapter that is said to fit most phone brands.

Here’s a video of the Orion Steadypix in action to give you a sense of how an adapter is used: http://youtu.be/ej9uj5fsbDo?t=5m

2)      Eyepiece Filters

While smartphone cameras have excellent resolution, most don’t yet have the manual exposure control settings needed to evenly expose the entire lunar disc or to capture subtle planetary features. iOS 8 has incorporated some promising exposure controls for the iPhone camera, but they don’t seem to be quite enough to bring out the right amount of detail. To do that, you’ll need to use eyepiece filters such as an a variable polarizing Moon filter and/or a coloured filter to reduce the object’s brightness in the eyepiece.

The magnification you’re using – and the magnitude of the object itself – will
determine how bright or dim the object will appear to the camera.  A nearly-full Variable Polarizing Moon FilterMoon through a low-powered eyepiece will require a dark filter, while a crescent Moon at dusk may not require a filter at all. If you don’t have an adjustable Moon filter, a coloured filter can sometimes work to reduce brightness just the right amount for a planet like Saturn.

When photographing a planet like Jupiter, an eyepiece filter will help you to image features on the disc. Without a filter, a smartphone will capture Jupiter as a bright, over-exposed blob. With a Moon filter, you can reduce the brightness of Jupiter’s disc and bring out important detail. In the example below, the addition of a 13% Transmission Moon filter to the eyepiece eliminated the light from the Galilean moons, but allowed Jupiter’s cloud belts to pop into view.

Jupiter iPhone telescope

At high magnification, it’s sometimes possible to use a filter that allows more light transmission (such as a coloured filter) to image a planet. Below is an image of Saturn taken with a #80A Blue filter. While this filter gives Saturn an unnaturally blue hue, it brings out ring and cloud detail that would not be visible through an unfiltered shot. It also delivers a brighter view than would be obtained using a Moon filter.Saturn iPhone Telescope Symes

3)      Stacking & Editing Software

While it’s possible to take high-quality snapshots of the Moon with a smartphone, it’s difficult to take an individual planetary image that matches the view through the JupiterSingleFrameiPhoneTexteyepiece. To tease the most detail out of a planet, it’s best to record a short video clip of the object using the camera’s video function. You can then use freely available image stacking software to select and combine (stack) the best individual frames from the video.

The Stargazers Lounge tutorial on Stacking Planetary Images offers an excellent introduction to image stacking and editing. JupiterStackedText AutoStakkertRegistax and AviStack are popular, free stacking software tools, and Apple users can also import iPhone video directly into a shareware program called Keith’s Image Stacker to accomplish similar results.

4)      Practice

Tycho Clavius Moon iPhone

Lunar closeup captured with an iPhone 4s through an 8” telescope.

As with most astronomical pursuits, your skills will improve with practice. Don’t be disappointed if your first images don’t match those you see online. Experiment with different eyepieces, filters, and software and understand that the image quality is only partially in your hands. Your success will also depend on the degree of atmospheric turbulence or “seeing” at the time you’re taking your images. The same techniques might produce dramatically better (or worse!) results from one night to the next.

Once you’ve obtained some images you’re happy with, be sure to Tweet them to me www.twitter.com/failedprotostar  so that I can see your hard work! 

UPDATE 03/05/2014

It’s also possible to take photos of the brightest deep sky objects with a smartphone. Using the NightCap app, which mimics the long exposures of DSLR cameras, I was able to obtain a high-quality image of the Orion Nebula that was recently featured on the website io9!

Orion Nebula iPhone Andrew Symes

Single frame of the Orion Nebula taken with the NightCap app and brightened using the Camera+ app.

No stacking was required to record the colour and detail found in this nebula. I simply brightened the original image with the Camera+ app.

Lastly, I’ve created a Flickr gallery that contains my most recent iPhone astrophotos.

UPDATE 10/12/2014

Earlier in 2014 I took some of my best iPhone photos of Saturn and Mars using the techniques described above:

 

Saturn2014Web

 

Mars opposition iphone 2014

 

 

 

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27 Responses to “Smartphone Astrophotography: How I photograph the Moon & planets with my phone”

  1. suzzeq April 23, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    Reblogged this on suzzeq's Blog.

  2. Frederic Abel May 3, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Reblogged this on My Astronomy Blog.

  3. Norman Van Treeck April 16, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    Reblogged this on Astronomy and Law and commented:
    Sorry, still getting over my bout of food poisoning (Thaks Taco Bell, had I known that you loaded grillers came with extra e-colli I would have passed, serves me right for wanting fast food anyway). So here is another reblog for you on how to take images with your smart phones. Enjoy.

  4. Eric Teske October 1, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    Cool! I linked you in the sidebar of my blog. I follow you on Instagram but I guess I never saw your actual blog until now! You’re one of my fav IGers and now this is weird being on your site – it’s like seeing a friend from school in the mall and not knowing what to say. Cheers!

    • canadianastronomy October 14, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

      Eric!!! This is so funny because I saw that you had a blog when I first followed you but completely lost track of it and this has reminded me to follow! Thanks so much for adding me to your sidebar – you’ve got a great list there and some I don’t recognize so I will definitely need to check those out! Also, are you on Flickr? Thanks so much for commenting. It also gives me a chance to tell you how much I loved your recent eclipse pics :)

  5. Albert van Duin November 30, 2014 at 8:15 am #

    Hi Andrew, amazing images! I wonder if I can show them in a presentation about astrophotography I will give in a few weeks time. You will be credited of course!

    Thanks,
    Albert

  6. Jim in IA January 13, 2015 at 10:42 am #

    Thanks for this post. I’m thinking of getting a phone adapter.

    • SUBRAMANIANR January 28, 2015 at 9:44 pm #

      I am from Coimbatore, India. Since I purchased a Celestron 76AQ, I have been taking pictures of moon, Jupiter, and Saturn using my normal Nokia 5230 mobile camera and off late I do that with my new Android phone camera. Hundreds of photos are in my microchip. In the initial stage I was just holding the mobile just nearer to the eyepiece lens. Holding the mobile with utmost rigidity I use to click. The results were amazing. I posted them in Facebook. After viewing some of my videos on moon my friends suggested the video would be great if shaking of camera is avoided. Now I have made a small fixture using a waste light weight plastic box (black color will be better), fixed the eye piece in it. That’s it..Insert the fixture in the eye piece slot. No need to strain the eyes. My spirits make me jump high. In any case my old Nokia 5230 gives a better quality picture than the more costly android. May be the android may fare better along with a Moon/Jupiter filter.
      Would be thankful if I am told of how to post some of my photos!!

      • Jim in IA January 30, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

        I like to try to solve problems. I should see if I can make my own camera holder like you did. I looked up the telescope you purchased. It is made by a good company and will serve your needs well.

        I am curious about your last comment. Are you unable to post photos other than on Facebook? You can get a free WordPress blog and post them. They give you 3 gig of storage.

  7. iAstrophotography February 1, 2015 at 12:56 am #

    Hey Andrew, great stuff!! Just came across your blog through the UniverseToday story, but I’ve been following you on twitter and instagram for a while. Your planetary shots with an iPhone are absolutely amazing and a real inspiration! Keep it up!

    Matt

    • canadianastronomy February 4, 2015 at 11:31 pm #

      Same here! I follow you on Twitter & IG but hadn’t noticed your blog either! Thanks so much for the feedback and it’s great to get in touch with another fellow iPhone astrophotographer!

  8. Una February 18, 2015 at 6:03 am #

    This may sound a stupid question (as I love taking ordinary sky & moon photos just with my Canon 550D camera) and would love to get more into moon and planet photography. My question is, what is the best entry level telescope as I have never thought about using a telescope? I was going to buy a long telephoto lens but they cost thousands.
    thank you for your time.

  9. Yanni Tsetsekos (@YTsetsekos) February 20, 2015 at 11:22 pm #

    thank you very much for the information! what eyepiece/moon filters could you suggest for my 12″ reflector?

  10. Vincent February 21, 2015 at 11:54 am #

    Sorry. An information from neophyte. With this telescope II can see the planets so clearly (as in your picture)?

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/TELESCOPIO-RIFLETTORE-1000-114-CON-INSEGUITORE-A-MOTORE-/201103350568?pt=Strumenti_ottici&hash=item2ed2b19b28

    • canadianastronomy February 22, 2015 at 1:23 am #

      That telescope will show you the planets, but you will not see the level of detail I obtain here because my telescope aperture is almost twice as large. So you will be able to see Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons, but the planets will be small, and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot would be a very tough challenge, for example. This page gives you an example of what to expect through the eyepiece at best: http://www.deepskywatch.com/Articles/what-can-i-see-through-telescope.html Your best bet is to find an astronomy event (star party) and look through some actual telescopes to see the view through different types!

  11. Petry February 23, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

    Have you tried iPhone IOS 8 manual exposure/exposure compensation?

    • canadianastronomy February 24, 2015 at 11:36 am #

      Yes, but only once on Jupiter and it didn’t seem to dim the image enough on its own so I popped on a polarizing Moon filter. I do want to play around with that feature more, though, as it seems promising!

  12. Syed Jahanzaib / Pinochio~:) March 19, 2015 at 2:20 am #

    I have 10″ dobsonian manual telescope with 6/10/25 mm eyepiece. I can live view the Jupiter bright and crisp with the eyepice, but when I try to take it with my samsung galaxy s3, all i get is white sphere, I cant buy any filter or camera holder stand at a moment dueto no finance, What are the alternates I can try to take jupiter pictures as clear as I can ? Thanks :)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A primeira astrofotografia da Nebulosa de Órion comparada com uma tirada por um iPhone - Ciência e Astronomia - March 4, 2014

    […] pode ver o set-up e técnica dele aqui, mas em suma ele usa um telescópio 8″, o aplicativo NightCap para iPhone, um adaptador de […]

  2. How to take incredible photos of the night sky with your iPhone - ShinyShiny - April 2, 2015

    […] astronomy blog offers more details on telescopic iPhone astrophotography, and lists free software programs you can […]

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