How to capture stars with iPhone [Tutorial]

How to capture stars with iPhone [Tutorial]

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Milky Way. Night sky with stars and silhouette of a standing happy man with yellow light. Space background - capture stars with iPhone
Reach for the stars with your iPhone.

The first person that was able to capture stars with iPhone was Mike Weasner. Using the first-ever original iPhone, he took a picture of the moon using the native camera app. That was in 2007. 

Currently, his latest photo is the M31 Andromeda Galaxy, shot on the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

As you can see, with the advanced iPhone models, clip-on lenses, a budget telescope, and good iOS camera apps, it’s not impossible for you to capture a good photo of the stars.

Nevertheless, you should expect several restrictions along the way. 

In this post, we’ll answer your questions regarding how to capture stars with iPhone. We will also provide a tutorial on how to photograph stars on your iPhone using the NightCap app.

Can you capture stars with iPhone?

person putting his hands up in the air in front of a night sky full of stars - capture stars with iPhone
You can capture stars with iPhone even though its native camera is limited.

Definitely, you can capture stars with iPhone using the right equipment and apps. However, you have to use third-party apps and extra gadgets, such as telescopes, lenses, or refractors. This is because you have to use the long exposure technique to capture the beauty of the star lights.

Now, you can’t adjust the ISO or the shutter speed on the iPhone camera, which is crucial to executing the long exposure technique. That’s why you need apps that allow manual control on an iPhone camera, so you can adjust those elements we mentioned.

RELATED: iPhone photos in low light: practical tips and brilliant hacks 

Some of the good apps are Slow Shutter Cam and NightCap. Both of these apps have manual camera features and special shooting modes, which allow you to capture stars with iPhone. 

For your information, and in case you want to pursue Astrophotography, we asked Mike Weasner on Twitter about the extra gadgets he used to take a pic of the moon back in 2007. Here is his answer: 

Mike Weasner's answer on Twitter about his gadgets for Astrophotography.  - capture stars with iPhone
Mike Weasner gave us an insightful answer.

Apparently, besides the first-ever iPhone in 2007, he also used the ETX-125AT telescope to take the picture. As for his latest photo of the M31 Andromeda Galaxy, he also used the following devices, besides the iPhone 11 Pro Max: 

  • ETX-70AT refractor
  • Levenhuk Smartphone Adapter
  • 40mm eyepiece
  • Phone Skope Remote Shutter Release (Bluetooth)  

Mike also used the iOS app NightCap Camera, which we’ll discuss later. 

Now, you don’t have to invest in those devices, especially if you’re a beginner in the long exposure technique. 

You only have to find out more about Smartphone Astrophotography, the manual mode on cameras, and how to use NightCap.

What is Smartphone Astrophotography, anyway? 

Young woman sitting on a chair, taking picture of the night sky full of stars and Milky Way. - capture stars with iPhone
Smartphone Astrophotography is not really a shoot at the stars anymore. Pun intended.

Smartphone Astrophotography is the art of using phones in taking photos of celestial bodies. 

With a good smartphone, you can take pictures of the moon, stars, star trails, bright Auroras, and even the International Space Station.

Now, in Smartphone Astrophotography, it’s not unheard of to post-process your photos. Given that the phone camera has a couple of limitations, it’s perfectly okay to fine-tune your shots. 

Moreover, the purpose of post-processing your photos is not just to beautify them. 

For instance, you can crop a photo to get rid of a distracting foreground or emphasize the size of a celestial body.

RELATED: 15 iPhone apps to help you with blurry photos

Now, it is important that you manage expectations if you’re doing Smartphone Astrophotography. That’s because you won’t always get good results. 

From time to time, you’ll probably have heaps of dark photos with white dots on your gallery. However, that’s just a part of the art.

With practice, constant studying techniques, and especially if you invest in gadgets, you can get better in being able to capture stars with iPhone. 

What is the Manual Mode?

The manual mode on a camera. - capture stars with iPhone
The manual mode gives you flexibility in taking photos.

In a DSLR camera, the automatic mode gives control to the camera. It figures out the amount of exposure for you. 

On the other hand, the manual mode lets you control everything—from the ISO to the shutter speed. 

On your iPhone’s native camera app, you can tinker with its built-in features, such as the AE/AF lock, exposure slider, and photo modes. However, these won’t suffice when you need to capture stars with iPhone using the long exposure technique.

How can you have a DSLR-level manual control on your iPhone? 

Well, you have to install iOS apps, which allow you to shoot in manual mode for more flexibility. Search for an app that lets you control the white balance, color temperature, shutter speed, ISO, exposure, and even the depth of field. 

Moreover, get an app that will allow you to save photos in TIFF or RAW format. The latter will be useful because it will not compress your photo, retaining more data for editing later. 

Why Use NightCap to Capture Stars with iPhone?

a vibrant photo of Star Trails by Andy Stones - capture stars with iPhone
Star Trails by Andy Stones, Twitter: @andy_stones (Light Trails mode)

Astrophotographer Mike Weasner uses NightCap Camera app to capture stars with iPhone. But what’s so great about it?

It’s not uncommon to dread taking night pictures. You have to consider a million things. Should you use flash? What kind of lens should you use? The list goes on. 

Thankfully, apps like NightCap fill in the gaps for you. 

Before you proceed to shoot stars, get to know why this app is your best option for taking photos of stars.

1. You need something special to capture the weak light of the stars.

a photo of  Gamma Cygni by Ray Taylor, taken through the nightcap app and a telescope  - capture stars with iPhone
Gamma Cygni by Ray Taylor (Long Exposure mode, taken through a telescope with NVD)

And what you need is an app like NightCap. 

The stars have a weak light that a normal, smartphone-level camera sensor won’t easily capture. Now, compared to a DSLR camera, your iPhone isn’t equipped with a powerful sensor that catches higher amounts of light. 

Therefore, using a special app will help your iPhone camera compensate for its lackings. You can use this app to control your sensor. 

An app like NightCap will give you the freedom to slow down your iPhone camera and control its sensor. Consequently, it will collect more light, exposing even the weakest of lights and capturing more details from the night sky. 

2. NightCap is specifically designed for capturing low-light, long-exposure photos.

a photo of the bluish white Gamma Cygni by Ray Taylor - capture stars with iPhone
Jellyfish Nebula by Ray Taylor (Long Exposure mode, taken through a telescope with NVD)

“The ultimate night and low light camera”, says its tagline. This might easily pique the interest of night iPhone photographers.

However, what truly makes users stay and continue to use this app is its wide array of manual control features. Almost all of them seem to be dedicated to night and low-light photography. 

For example, with NightCap, you can boost your camera’s IOS, reduce noise, provide 8x zoom, low-light video mode, timelapse, and more. 

Your iPhone camera may have limited built-in manual features. However, apps like NightCap unlock your iPhone camera’s potential in low-light photography. 

3. It can let you take photos of many celestial bodies… 

…which you can’t do on your native camera app. And since the shooting modes are preset, you won’t go through the hassle of tweaking a lot of controls—even if you can do it on the app. 

1. Starry night sky

For a simple shot of the starry night or dawn sky, you can tap on the Stars Mode.

2. Orion Nebula

 Orion Nebula taken by Mike Weasner
Orion Nebula (through a telescope) by Mike Weasner, Twitter: @mweasner

The Orion Nebula is one of the nebulae that have higher visibility during the nighttime. To get a better view, though, you will need a telescope. The Orion Nebula is different from the Orion’s Belt, by the way.

3. Star trails 

Vibrant Star Trails by DroneandChill
Star trails by DroneandChill (Star Trails mode)

For this one, use the Star Trails mode. Remember that you have to tap the shutter button twice. The first one is for letting the camera capture the stars’ movement, while the second one is to end the capturing. This will take you more than 10-15 minutes. If you want more convenience, you can invest in a remote shutter button.

4. Milky way

To get a vibrant and clear shot of the Milky Way constellation, use the Long Exposure. This will help you capture all the gorgeous stars. You can also use the Light Boost to expose the entirety of the constellation properly. 

5. The moon 

Half face of the moon by Hugo Caerols
Moon by Hugo Caerols, OAUAI (taken through a telescope)

There’s no preset for taking a photo of the moon. However, the key is to reduce the ISO and exposure. Fortunately, you can control those on the NightCap app.

6. The International Space Station (ISS)

a photo of the ISS at night and a snowy house and car.
ISS by Grainge, Twitter: @grainge (ISS mode)

To capture satellite flares like the International Space Station, you can use the ISS mode. Like capturing the moon, there’s a tendency that these flares will appear too bright. So, the key is adjusting the brightness and the ISO. 

4. It supports Tagged Image File Format (TIFF). 

JPEG limits your editing options because your iPhone compresses photos in JPEG or JPG. Your photos will have a reduced quality once it’s saved. 

Meanwhile, if you save your photos in TIFF, compression will be a myth. Moreover, since it’s a lossless format, it means you can retain data in your photos, whether you compress them or not.

One thing you should note, though, is that TIFF photos are three times the size of JPEG photos. Therefore, you might want to invest in additional storage devices such as an external hard drive. You can also opt to pay for extra storage space on iCloud. 

Now, how about saving in a RAW format? 

Shooting in RAW brings you the same lossless benefits of TIFF. You can also work on your photo’s delicious data—saturation, brightness, contrast, color temperature, etc.— without compromising the photo.  

The only difference is you have to process the former via Image Data Converter—that’s because a photo saved in RAW is like a film negative. To use it, you should develop it first. 

After processing it, you can convert it to TIFF or JPEG. 

How to Photograph the Stars Using NightCap [TUTORIAL]

Now that you know about the notable capabilities of NightCap, it’s time that you learn this simple tutorial of taking photos of the stars. 

What you’ll need

Don’t have a budget for a telescope? No problem. All you need are…

Optional

1. Study the shooting modes. 

Camera options on NightCap app
Shooting modes on NightCap app

Before you proceed to plan, it’s always helpful to study the app. 

In your photo-taking session, you might catch a few other objects besides the stars. You can capture airplane lights, star trails, satellites, clusters, nebulae, and even galaxies. Therefore, it’s essential that you study each of the shooting presets.

Moreover, we suggest experimenting with its presets first, so you can develop standards of what night sky photos should like. After that, you can learn to imitate them later by playing with the manual controls. 

For your information, here are the camera shooting modes you can find on NightCap: 

  • Long Exposure. For smooth motion blurs and detailed low-light photos.
  • Stars Mode. For active photos of a starry night sky or Auroras. 
  • International Space Station (ISS) Mode. This helps you spot satellites and the ISS in the night sky.
  • Light Trails. For fun light painting at night. 
  • Star Trails. This is the mode for taking extremely long exposure photos, such as the circular motions of the stars in the sky. You can start with a minimum of 15 minutes for this mode. 
  • Meteor Mode. Helps you capture a hundred photos, saving only those that contain a shooting star.  

2. Plan ahead. Figure out the best time and places to photograph stars. 

You can’t pursue something without being informed of the essentials. So, it’s crucial that you study the best time and place to take photos of stars. 

Several factors affect the visibility of stars and thus your photo’s quality. Therefore, you have to do your part by planning ahead. This way, you can have more chances of capturing bright stars with NightCap. 

1. Check the moon phases. 

High-Resolution Moon Calendar
The different moon phases.

To figure out the best time for shooting stars, you just have to check the moon phase. If the moon is bright, it will tend to overpower the brightness of the stars. 

Therefore, make sure to take notes about the lunar phases in your area. 

You can check this website for the moon phases in 2020.

2. Wait for clear skies. 

Shepherd hut at desert night near Pamplona, Spain.

The clouds in your locality can also block the visibility of stars. You can wait for a clearer sky, instead. 

Additionally, go where there’s less light pollution. One of its consequences is a phenomenon called Skyglow, where the contrast between the stars and the night sky can decrease.

Besides affecting the visibility of the stars, light pollution also has adverse impacts on the ecosystem and astronomical research.  

3. Time of the year. 

Milky Way. Beautiful summer night sky with stars
You’ll get more chances of taking a good photo if you wait for the right timing.

Each celestial body becomes more visible at a certain time of the year. Meanwhile, there are months where it’s impossible to get a glimpse of them. 

The Milky Way, for instance, is the most visible during April and May at dawn. You also have to face South to take a good look at it. 

Meanwhile, if you prefer taking pics at night, you have to do it in mid-August or September. 

4. Where to shoot stars or star trails?

The picturesque starry sky above the city. night time
There are only a few places in the US where you won’t worry about light pollution.

Light pollution is another crucial factor to consider when photographing stars. 

That’s why if you have an area in your city where there are fewer houses or buildings, you can set up your tripod there, and do some test shots. 

Meanwhile, there are certain cities in the USA where people visit just to stargaze. That means you won’t have to worry about light pollution diluting the stars’ shine. 

If you have the budget or the time, you can go to any of these areas: 

  • Arches National Park – Moab, Utah
  • Maunakea – Big Island, Hawaii
  • Big Bend National Park – Chihuahuan Desert, Texas
  • Denali National Park – Denali, Alaska
  • Chaco Culture National Historical Park – Nageezi, New Mexico

3. Position your tripod, facing the sky. 

tripod with iPhone at sunset.
Invest in a tripod with sturdy built and flexible parts.

All set up in your shooting area? Now, it’s time to secure your iPhone into your tripod. 

We can’t stress this enough—in night photography, a sturdy tripod is essential. 

Since you’ll be using the long exposure technique, you need a durable mount for your iPhone. That technique requires the camera to be steady to avoid blurry photos. Therefore, make sure to invest in a tripod that has an iPhone adapter. 

If you don’t have a tripod, you can’t even expect decent results—unless you can let your iPhone lean on a hard object.

Here’s how to attach your iPhone to a tripod. 

  1. Place your iPhone inside the adapter. 
  2. Screw the adapter into your tripod to secure your phone.  
  3. Tilt your iPhone down, so it will face upward.
  4. Don’t forget to plug in your iPhone to an external battery charger or a power bank, so it won’t run out of power.

TIPS: When buying an iPhone mount/adapter for a regular tripod, choose one that can let your phone rotate 360 degrees. You should also buy an adapter that’s compatible with a selfie stick or a gimbal. Even better, add a Bluetooth remote shutter button for no hassles. 

4. Choose Stars Mode. 

  1. On the NightCap app, tap the star icon at the bottom right corner. 
  2. A panel called “Photo Camera Options” containing the presets will appear. Under the Long Exposure option, tap on “Stars Mode.”
  3. It will have a green color once it’s turned on. 
  4. NightCap will instantly update its settings for capturing stars in a night sky. 
  5. Ready to capture stars? Tap on the shutter button. 
  6. Wait for 10 seconds. 
  7. There you have it—a photo of the night sky with the stars. 

TIP: Want something longer? You can capture the movement of those stars by using the Star Trails mode. For the waiting time, you can wait from 15 minutes to 1 hour. The longer you wait for the shutter to close, the brighter your star trails will appear and the more you can capture. 

5. Post-process your photo.

Snapseed app on iPhone
Snapseed is one of the best editing software apps on iOS.

 Microsoft Snapseed app on Apple iPhone 5 SE screen

Got a problem with other editing apps accepting your TIFF photos? You can edit them on SnapSeed. 

However, even though it accepts TIFF photos for editing, it only saves them as JPEGs, compressing the pictures. 

Nevertheless, the good news is you’ll have plenty to process in the editing because you’re working with a TIFF photo. The quality of the resulting photo might diminish, but it’s not significantly noticeable. 

How to edit a photo of a starry night sky on Snapseed

  1. Launch your SnapSeed app. 
  2. Tap the pencil icon at the bottom right corner. 
  3. Tap the Tune Image button. 
  4. Decrease the brightness and exposure until the star lights pop out of the dark night sky. 
  5. Increase the saturation to bring out more warm colors. 

How to let the stars pop out more of the darkness

  1. Meanwhile, if the stars are close to each other, use the Selective tool if you want to intensify or let the cluster of stars pop out more.  
  2. Tap on the area of the cluster to adjust its brightness, contrast, and saturation. To choose any of those three elements, just slide your finger on the screen upwards or downwards. 
  3. A small drop-down menu will appear. If you choose to adjust the brightness, a small blue icon with a white B letter will appear, indicating the center of the area you’re about to edit. 
  4. Next, to decrease the brightness, just slide your finger to the left on any area of the photo. 
  5. Use your thumb and forefinger to increase the size of the area you’re about to improve. 
  6. Snapseed will show the area inside the circle by highlighting it with a red hue.
  7. Adjust the saturation and contrast until the stars and their colors pop out of the dark night sky.
  8. To save your photo, tap the check icon at the bottom right corner of the screen. 

Conclusion 

Taking photos of the night sky with your iPhone is not too hard anymore. 

With the recent iOS updates, budget telescopes available, and helpful iOS apps, you can capture the bright orbs and flaunt them on your IG. 

Do you know any other techniques for capturing the stars? 

Share them in the comments!

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