iPhone Astrophotography: How to Take Amazing Images of the Sky with Your Smartphone Tonight!

All photos credit and copyright: Andrew Symes.

Got a smartphone and a telescope?

It’s a sight now common at many star parties. Frequently, you see folks roaming through the darkness, illuminated smartphone aimed skyward. Certainly, the wealth of free planetarium apps has done lots to kindle a renewed interest in the night sky.

Inevitably, after peering through the eyepiece of a telescope, the question then arises:

“Can I get a picture of that with my phone?”

The short answer is yes, with a little skill and patience.

Now simply aiming a camera at the eyepiece of a telescope — known as afocal astrophotography — and shooting without removing the camera lens and physically coupling it to the telescope is a tricky balancing act. Back in the olden days, the Moon and perhaps the brighter planets were the only bright target within bounds of afocal film photographers, and only then after a lengthy set of estimations to hit the correct focal length. The advent of digital cameras and ‘live preview’ means that you can now simply aim, shoot, and throw away or delete anything off center or out of focus. Digital ‘film’ is cheap, and most folks simply use trial and error to get the ‘keepers’. The Moon is an especially bright and easy target for beginners to practice on.

A gibbous Moon, an easy first pic!

Of course, your typical smartphone, like a webcam, has an imaging chip much smaller than a DSLR. This is why astrophotographers are often tempted to take out a second mortgage (“we don’t really need that second car, do we?” is a common spousal refrain) in pursuit of excellence. Another drawback is that through a smartphone, a planet may look like an overexposed blob. A simple but effective way to get around this is to affix a light reducing filter to the eyepiece. In fact, I’ve used a variable polarizer during live broadcasts of the Virtual Star Party to great effect.  And as with webcam imaging, smartphone astrophotographers now often use automated stacking programs to clean up images and tease out detail. Being an old timer, my faves are still K3CCD Tools and Registax, though many young guns out there now use DeepSkyStacker as well.

Andrew Symes’ imaging setup.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m an ‘Android guy,’ and I have put most of my efforts over the years into planetary imaging with a homemade webcam. We therefore sought out in-the-field expertise from someone on the forefront of iPhone astrophotography. Andrew Symes has been taking images of the solar system and beyond with his iPhone coupled to his Celestron NexStar 8” SE telescope for years. He also has one of the few handles on Twitter that we’re envious of, @FailedProtostar. He also ventures out into the chilly nights frequent to his native of Ottawa, Canada to practice his craft, as he observes in temperatures that would drop a Tauntaun.

We caught up with Andrew recently to ask him about some tips of the trade.

An ‘iPhone Sun’ shot in hydrogen alpha through a Coronado PST.

Universe Today: I know from doing webcam photography that acquiring, centering and focusing are often more than half the battle. Any tips for accomplishing these?

Andrew: Acquiring, centering, and focusing the objects I’m photographing is definitely the big challenge! To speed and simplify the process, I have a dedicated eyepiece that I use in association with my phone and adapter. Before even heading outside, I attach the adapter to this eyepiece, insert my phone, and hold the unit up to a light source to see if the camera lens is properly aligned with the eyepiece. It usually takes a bit of fiddling to get things set properly because if the adapter and eyepiece are not perfectly aligned, nothing will show up on the camera screen. It’s better to get that process out of the way in a lit environment than outside in the dark. I then set that unit aside, and use a separate “adapter-less” zoom eyepiece to locate and center the object in the telescope. Once I’ve acquired the object and am successfully tracking it, I remove my zoom eyepiece and drop in the eyepiece/adapter/phone combo. At that point, the object is usually visible on screen but out of focus since the focus required for the iPhone is different from what works for my eyes! To ensure proper focus, I display the object on my phone’s screen using a live video app called FiLMiC Pro and adjust the focus until it is sharp. I use that app because it has a digital zoom function that lets me get a closer look at the object than the standard iPhone video camera view. Only once I’m confident that I’ve achieved good focus and am tracking the object properly, will I start to record video or shoot individual frames.

A comparison
A comparison of the first image of the Orion Nebula (M42) shot in 1880 (left) with a modern iPhone image.

Universe Today: A question I always like to ask everyone… what was your biggest mistake? Are there any pitfalls to avoid?

Andrew: There are a few pitfalls to avoid when doing iPhone astrophotography. In the past, I would attach the adapter outside while the eyepiece was in the telescope but this caused a number of problems. Often, I would accidentally bump the object out of view while attaching and adjusting the adapter and have to align everything all over again. The weather is also often cold here, and it’s VERY difficult to attach the adapter properly with gloves on, so I would either get really cold hands or spend a lot of unnecessary time fumbling with the adapter with gloved hands. For those reasons, I now prepare the eyepiece/adapter/phone unit indoors in advance as described above. I also now make sure that my iPhone is fully charged before heading outdoors as I’ve found that the iPhone battery drains very quickly when the camera is running constantly — especially in cold weather. Even with an almost-full battery, there are times here in winter when the phone will simply shut down due to the low temperature so I make sure to only start capturing photos/videos once I’m completely confident in my setup.

Yes, that’s Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy shot with an iPhone!

Universe Today: You’re really pushing the envelope by doing deep sky astro-pics with an iPhone … anything else that you’re experimenting with or working on?

Andrew: My main focus is definitely still on iPhone astrophotography because I like the quick and “light” setup. I don’t need to bring a laptop outside and don’t need equipment that I wouldn’t normally have on me anyway (other than the adapter itself.) So, I want to keep pushing the envelope with what I can capture using the phone and my goal is now is to see how far I can go with deep-sky objects. I’d really like to add the Ring and Dumbbell Nebulae to my portfolio, for example, and see if it’s possible to grab even fainter ones. There are also some non-deep sky targets I’d like to try. I haven’t been successful at capturing a telescopic photo of the ISS, and would love to see if I can catch it transiting the Sun or Moon with my phone. I also still need to capture Uranus and Neptune to round out a solar system collage I put together in 2014!

Lastly, I’m continually experimenting with photo apps to see which are best at capturing and/or processing telescopic images, and have just started using both an iPhone 4S and iPhone 6 to take photos and video. Surprisingly, I still prefer the 4S for planetary imaging as I haven’t been able to properly capture the true colors of planets with the iPhone 6 yet. The 6 has better camera resolution but seems to be adjusting the exposure of small, faint objects like planets differently than the 4S, so I need to change my routine and techniques to compensate. The methods I’ve become accustomed to using with the 4S don’t seem to translate directly to the 6 so I have some learning yet to do!

An iPhone capture of Messier 13.

Amazing stuff, for sure. And to think, we were all gas-hypering film and using absurdly long focal lengths to get blurry planetary images just a few decades ago!

-Check out more of Andrew’s images, as well as read more about how he does it.

-Got a pic, shot with a smartphone or otherwise? Send ‘em in to Universe Today!

Giveaway – Sky Guide App for your iOS device.

“What is that constellation up there – it is right on the tip of my tongue,” is not something you will be saying if you win one of 10 free copies of this app for your iOS device. We are so excited to be working with Fifth Star Labs to bring this promotion to Universe Today.

Simply aim your iPhone or iPad at the sky to identify stars, planets, galaxies and more. Sky Guide lets you experience the wonders of the night in ways you’ve only dreamed of. Now available as a universal app for iPhone and iPad.

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Tuesday, May 14, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.

Price – In case you don’t want to wait to see if you win!!

$0.99 for a limited time through the iTunes Store

– Elegant and simple: Unobtrusive controls and gestures free up the screen for the best sky view yet.
– Realistic: Composed of over 37,000 real photographs, Sky Guide shows millions of stars, not just a few thousand simulated points.
– Rich content: Loads of stunning Retina-quality graphics and original artwork.
– Soudscape: Designed by Mat Jarvis, an electronic composer featured in the award-winning soundtrack for the game Osmos. Stars have sounds based on their temperature and size.
– Useful anywhere: Works even without a GPS or data signal. Built in access to hundreds of cross linked articles no matter where you are.
– HDR brightness gestures: Dynamically control how bright the sky is to match your surroundings.Sky Guide by Fifth Star Labs 2

About Nick Risinger
Nick Risinger is a photographer and designer living in Seattle, Washington. His work has received honors from the Advanced Imaging Conference, the Cartography and Geographic Information Society, and will be featured at the top of the Royal Hotel Clock Tower in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He has made appearances on Wired, BBC Horizon, and Public Radio International’s The World.

About Chris Laurel
Chris Laurel is a software developer from Seattle specializing in interactive 3D graphics. He is the creator of Celestia, a popular open source application for astronomical visualization. Chris has worked at Microsoft and NVIDIA, and has consulted for NASA and the the European Space Agency.

About Fifth Star Labs
Fifth Star Labs is a software development company that creates apps for science education and discovery. We blend design with technical expertise to fashion software that is beautiful, intuitive, and illuminating.

Hoping to See Asteroid 2005 YU55? There’s an App for That!

Starmap is an astronomy/planetarium app for the iPhone and iPad. A companion app, called Spacemap is an extended orrery that lets you view the phases, motions, and positions of items in the Universe all from your iPad. If you’re hoping to track down Asteroid 2005 YU55 as it comes close to Earth on Nov. 8, you might want to check out both Starmap and Starmap. You can see this asteroid in both apps, but Spacemap is the only application available in the iTunes store that displays 2005 YU55’s orbit in 3D animation.

UPDATE: The contest is now closed and the winners have been notified.

Want to win a copy of either Starmap or Spacemap? Universe Today has a two copies of each to give away to the first four readers to answer this question correctly: What year was the last time an asteroid as big as 2005 YU55 passed by Earth?

Answer in the comment section, and indicate which app you’d like. We have two of each to give away. First four commenters to answer correctly wins. Make sure your contact info on Disqus is correct, as that is you’ll be contacted.

Continue reading “Hoping to See Asteroid 2005 YU55? There’s an App for That!”

Win a New iPhone Astronomy App: AstroView

Screenshot of the AstroView app


There’s a brand new astronomy app for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad that provides information on what you should be able to see with different combinations of eyepieces on your telescope. AstroView displays key telescope-eyepiece performance characteristics, provides recommendations on equipment, and with the field of view display, for example, what you see on screen is what you should be able to see through your telescope. Developer George Douvos says this new app is all very intuitive, easy to read, and easy to understand.

Would you like to try a AstroView for free? Universe Today has 10 copies of this new app to give away. Just send an email to [email protected] with the word “AstroView App” in the subject line, and we’ll pick ten winners at random. The contest ends on Thursday, August 18, 2011.

Want more info?

AstroView on iTunes

Astro View supports the following gear:
* Telescopes with objective diameter from 50 mm to 610 mm, selectable in 5 mm increments (or diameters from 2 inches to 24 inches, in 1/2 inch increments), and focal ratios from f/3 to f/15.
* Eyepieces with focal lengths from 2 mm to 55 mm and apparent field of view from 30 to 110 degrees.

Thanks to George Duvous for providing us with the apps to giveaway!

Win iPhone App for Observing: TeleCalc

Screenshot from 'TeleCalc'


There’s a new observing app for the iPhone, iPod and iPad, called TeleCalc. Enter in two data points about your telescope (aperture and focal ratio) and two about the eyepiece (focal length and diameter) the program calculates angular field of view, best eyepiece magnification, resolution (Dawes, Rayleight), exit pupil, limiting stellar magnitude and light gathering power.

TeleCalc is available in eight languages: English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. Search “TeleCalc” in iTunes to download it or find it on the iTunes store.

Thanks to developer Fabio Rendelucci who has given Universe Today 3 free TeleCalc apps to give away.

The first 3 people to answer the following question will be sent a code for a free TeleCalc app:

To find the magnifying power of any telescope, divide the focal length of the telescope by the focal length of the what other telescope piece?

Submit your answers in the “Comments”

Also, if you’re looking for more, take a look at all the apps that NASA has available for both iPhone and Android.

Explore the Solar System on Foot with New iPhone App

Another new iPhone app for astronomy, and this one, called SpaceWalking combines a 3D scale model of the Solar System with location-based data from GPS satellites to place a virtual scale model of the Solar System in your neighborhood to explore. For more info, check out the Spacewalking website. If you’re quick, follow the @SpaceWalkingApp on Twitter
for a special deal.

Also, I have two of these apps to give away. First two commentors who can answer this question correctly win: How far is Jupiter from the Sun?

Here’s a link to a 3D Solar System.