Do you need an expensive DSLR or mirrorless camera to capture the night sky? No, you do not; your smartphone is capable of much more than you think, and we’ve picked some of the best gadgets that will help you get the most from the emerging hobby of astro-phoneography.
The items below will help you capture phenomena from the wider genre of night sky photographs: from sunrises and sunsets to the Moon, planetary conjunctions, constellations, star trails, the International Space Station crossing the sky, the northern lights and, if you have the latest phones, even the Milky Way (but, it’s important to emphasise, not a close-up of the Orion Nebula or other deep-sky objects).
3 tripods suitable for smartphone photography
To take any kind of image of the night sky means a long exposure, which means stability. So you first need a tripod, and then a bracket that holds a smartphone.
We’ve gone for relatively small and portable tripods here (if you don’t care about portability, get a DSLR!), but it’s the bracket that’s arguably the most important bit.
Joby GripTight ONE GP Stand (£37.95)
This malleable tripod has an adjustable grip that fits most phones, and its rubber feet grip on to any surface. Though you’ll likely need a flat surface for it, as a bonus its legs can wrap around a handrail or tree to help you gain a little height without having to travel with a large tripod.
More info: https://joby.com/uk-en/griptight-one-gp-stand-jb01491-0ww
Manfrotto PIXI with Universal Smartphone Clamp (£39.95)
You’ll need a hard surface to put it on, but if you want a small and portable all-in-one tripod look no further than the PIXI Mini. Very solid and compact, it has a well-made ball head for attaching compact or DSLR cameras that can be locked in place using a simple push-button locking mechanism. This version comes with a smartphone clamp that grips any phone in any phone case.
More info: https://www.manfrotto.com/uk-en/mini-tripod-black-with-universal-smartphone-clamp-mkpixiclamp-bk
Benro 3XS Lite smartphone gimbal (£90)
If you want something really posh to support a phone, consider this: a three-axis gimbal for smartphones that’s really designed for amateur filmmakers. However, as well as enabling you to zoom using a button on its column, and take manual photos via its app, the entire thing has a 1/4 inch tripod thread on it so can be mounted on a full-size tripod.
More info: https://xseries.benrogear.com/en/x-series-3xs-lite
3 amazing astrophotography apps
Whether or not your smartphone has a sensitive enough sensor to take good quality long-exposure images of the night sky will depend on what model you have.
Below are just a few of the long exposure apps available that will give you full manual control. Some even have special astro modes.
Camera+2 for iOS (£3.99)
The latest version of one of the most famous and well-loved manual phone camera apps, Camera+ 2 allows you to set shutter speed, ISO and white balance, and there’s a slow shutter mode for exposures of up to 30 seconds. It also lets you capture in raw formats for post-processing.
More info: https://camera.plus
Camera FV-5 for Android (£2.49)
If you’ve got an older Android phone, consider Camera FV-5, which also gives you full manual control over your phone’s camera in a DSLR-like viewfinder. That includes exposure bracketing and a built-in intervalometer as well as manual exposure times up to 30 seconds, ISO and white balance. It records photos in a raw format called DNG.
More info: https://www.camerafv5.com
NightCap Camera for iPhone and iPad (£2)
A well thought of app for low light and night photos, NightCap Camera is one of the few focused on astrophotography. There are presets for Stars, Meteors, the International Space Station and even a Star-trails mode. As well as manual control of a phone (and an ISO booster) it provides built-in noise reduction and an intervalometer for night-sky time-lapses, recording everything as a TIFF file for post-processing.
More info: https://www.nightcapcamera.com/nightcap-camera
3 smartphones ideal for astrophotography
Phone-makers are currently obsessed with creating smartphones that can take great photos in low light. That means long exposures and high ISO, which along with manual modes make these pricey flagship phones capable of taking images that begin to show the Milky Way.
The manufacturers will say you don’t need to use a tripod but ignore them; for any kind of astro shot you definitely do!
Since these phones do still have relatively tiny sensors compared to big cameras, be careful not to push the ISO above 800 (otherwise you’ll likely see a noisy mess), and note that you will have to edit them later in Photoshop or similar to really get the best out of them.
Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus (£899)
Its huge 6.8-inch ‘cinematic infinity’ display aside, the camera on Samsung’s latest flagship phone has 2x optical zoom and a ‘pro’ mode that lets you shoot in the raw DNG format, set ISO as high as 800, shoot with an aperture of f/1.5 and open the shutter for up to 10 seconds. However, you can’t use its wide-angle lens in pro mode. Doh! Still, you can capture star fields and the Milky Way.
More info: https://www.samsung.com/uk/smartphones/galaxy-s10plus-sm-g975-hybrid-sim/SM-G975FZWDBTU/buy
iPhone 11 Pro (£1,049)
Apple’s latest flagship phone comes with a triple-camera array. It boasts 2x optical zoom and digital zoom up to 10x, has an aperture of f/1.8 and a ‘night’ mode. Sadly, you don’t have much manual control, you cannot save in raw, and like the Samsung you can’t use the super-wide angle lens at night. But you can capture stars and the Milky Way.
More info: https://www.apple.com/uk/shop/buy-iphone/iphone-11-pro
Huawei P30 Pro (£550)
For night-sky astrophotography, this is the phone to get. The 6.5-inch P30 Pro has the biggest zoom around. The maker says, “it can bring the Moon right before your eyes.” It really can. The P30 Pro has a 5x optical zoom and a 50x digital zoom. Equipped with f/1.6 aperture, it also has a ‘star trail’ mode that allows the wide-angle lens to be used. At last! This is the phone to get if you want to see the Milky Way in your phone photos, though you’ll always need a tripod, and be prepared to post-process.
More info: https://consumer.huawei.com/uk/phones/p30-pro/
3 zoom lenses for smartphones
Once widely available, zoom lenses are on the wane now that flagship smartphones now have decent digital zooms.
However, there are a few that can help you get an excellent image of the Moon if used with a tripod and smartphone bracket.
CamKix Lens Kit (£20)
This entry-level kit comprises an 8x zoom telephoto lens with manual focus ring (among others) that’s great for photographing the Moon. It also comes with a tiny tripod, a phone bracket and a case for attaching the zoom lens. However, it’s only available for specific models of phones. It’s great for beginners.
More info: https://www.amazon.co.uk/CamKix%C2%AE-Lens-compatible-Samsung-Galaxy/dp/B071FZT834
Olivon 8-24×40 Zoom Monocular (£55)
If you want to get a little more serious with your Moon shots but don’t want to increase the size of your astro rig, consider digiscoping. This monocular, which has a magnification range of 8x to 24x, can be used with one of the telescope eyepiece adaptors below.
More info: https://www.opticalhardware.co.uk/product/olivon-8-24×40-mono-zoom
Sony DSC-QX10 Smart Lens (£150)
An unusual option is this standalone 10x 28-100mm zoom lens. Packed with Zeiss optics, it fixes to a phone via a cable, or can be used separately and connected via WiFi. It’s got an 18.2 megapixel sensor.
More info: www.sony.co.uk
3 telescope eyepiece adaptors
Welcome to digiscoping! If you’ve got any kind of telescope it’s so tempting to try and get an image using a smartphone. What’s more, it works really well if you can keep it very still. Cue a smartphone adaptor that fits around the eyepiece. Some work on binoculars too, though you’ll have to put them on a tripod.
Visionary Universal Smartphone Camera Adapter (£19.99)
If you’ve got access to a telescope, a pair of binoculars, a digiscope and any other kind of optical device, go for something universal like this device, which fits over any eyepiece with a 26-51mm diameter.
More info: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Visionary-Universal-Smartphone-26-51mm-Eyepiece/dp/B07QL9LK6S
Tele Vue FoneMate Smart Phone Eyepiece Adapter (£79)
Here’s another convenient way to take images through a telescope or a digiscope: most likely of the Moon. A bracket that grips a phone and then lines up with the phone’s camera lens, it fixes to the eyepiece of either a telescope or a digiscope. Beware of vignetting around the edges.
More info: http://www.televue.com/engine/TV3b_page.asp?id=73&Tab=_phone
Celestron Inspire 80AZ Refractor (£209)
How about a telescope with an integrated eyepiece adaptor for smartphones? That’s what you get with this simple 3-inch/80mm refractor on an Alt-Az mount. It’s enough to start taking photos of the Moon. A further accessory is available to attach a DSLR camera.
More info: https://www.celestron.com/products/inspire-80az-refractor-telescope
And if you’re really serious …
A quick guide to the Vaonis Stellina Smart Telescope (£3,570)
Welcome to the first – and incredibly expensive –WiFi-enabled phone-scope that stacks multiple six megapixel images of deep-sky objects to produce photos on your phone. Designed by professional astronomers, the French-made Stellina gives you a clearer image the longer it tracks an object, and the results are incredible. Controlled and used via a smartphone, you don’t even have to stay outdoors. Is this the ultimate astrophotography toy?
More info: https://vaonis.com/stellina
If you do happen to capture amazing astrophotos with your phone, we’d love to see them. You can get in touch with us via Facebook, Twitter, or simply by dropping us an email. Happy snapping and clear skies.