How can I take a good long exposure photo of the night sky with just my phone?

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Answered by: Katelyn, An Expert in the Astronomy 101 Category
If you have ever watched the stars at night and wanted to take a photo that truly catches the moment, you’re not alone, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to do. Until recently astrophotography was something that could only be achieved with some high-tech gear and a camera that could cost thousands of dollars. Now it’s possible with just your phone. A phone’s camera isn’t going to be a replacement for professional gear, but with the right apps, some cheap adaptors, and maybe a bit of post-processing, you can still get impressive shots.

A DSLR camera has a few advantages over a smartphone, they have a wide range of settings and more adjustable lenses. Phones have made some impressive improvements over the last few years though, and a new phone can even perform comparably well against an older DLSR. The main problem is that some of the more important parts of night photography are unchangeable by design on a phone. Shutter speed is one of the most important settings in long exposure photography, but the design of the phone impedes our ability to really alter it in any way. There are apps that can mimic a slow shutter, but all they do is take multiple pictures and automatically composite them on top of each other. You’ll want to use an app that can do this, though it is important to remember that you aren’t letting in more light.

With everything set up to take long exposure photography, we do have another issue. Even the slightest amount of movement will cause your picture to turn out streaky. You’ll need some way to stabilize the phone while you’re taking the shot, ideally a tripod. When you don’t have a tripod, you can lean it against something like a wall, keep it propped up with some books, or even put it in a bowl of rice. You can also mount your phone onto your telescope, which will also allow you to get a detailed shot of celestial bodies. This is called afocal photography, which just means you’re taking a picture through something else that is forming a picture, in this case, a telescope. If you don’t have a telescope but still want an intricate picture of the moon or a shot of Saturn then you can use a telephoto lens. One of the biggest steps phones have recently taken in improving the quality of the photos they take is the ability to attach additional lenses, such as the telephoto lens, which can be easily snapped on and off your phone.

That is really all you need to get a good shot, but you may want to go further with it, to make it really stand out. With Photoshop, there are nearly endless ways you could improve your picture, and plenty of tutorials online. There is also a technique called stacking, which uses the frames from a .avi video instead of a single photo. Stacking software matches all the frames up so they overlap nicely, then it uses the information from each frame to figure out a sharper clearer image.

Like an artistic pursuit, astrophotography will take some practice and experimentation. Try using multiple different apps until you find one that works well for you. Your first pictures probably won’t turn out the exact way you want them but if you keep practicing then it won’t be long until you take some incredible shots yourself.

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