Is it possible to photograph the Milky Way with the iPhone SE?

slapple

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I'm going to a national park soon and hopefully it'll be dark enough to see the Milky Way. I'll bring my tripod too. Is the iPhone SE camera good enough to capture the Milky Way in a photo? If there is any astrophotography app that would make this possible, I'd be willing to buy it.
 

ApfelKuchen

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I don't want to discourage the attempt - I'd be likely to try if I was in your shoes. Still, it's a tough subject with a camera of that sort. I've never tried this subject with an iPhone camera, so I'm not speaking from direct experience. The closest I come is trying to photograph a meteorite shower with a "better" camera (larger sensor, better noise performance, long shutter speeds) - my results were fairly discouraging.

Pro: You need a wide field of view, so the iPhone's wide angle lens is well suited.

You'll need an app that allows you to use long shutter speeds. Though I haven't used it, Slow Shutter Cam seems very well regarded, and NightCap Camera has a Stars mode that looks very promising (though the photo they use to illustrate Stars mode is an aurora display, which can be considerably brighter than the Milky Way). Considering the low price of both, you may want to get both.

To minimize camera shake, use a self timer or a shutter remote (which is possible with an Apple Watch).

Auto-focus doesn't work well when photographing the night sky. Your camera app should allow you to lock focus (tap-to-focus, then no change to focus once you're satisfied). Both of the above apps seem to have this issue covered.

But bottom line, the Milky Way is a very dim subject, which can be easily overwhelmed by sensor noise. The only times it seems bright is when there's no competing light (whether terrestrial or astronomical). Noise reduction algorithms may have a hard time discriminating the "cloud" from noise - brighter stars may be detected accurately, but the really dim ones may not.

Finally, do your homework - I'm sure you'll find some good how-to articles and message board discussions on the topic -and do at least several test shoots in preparation for the main event; there's no teacher like experience.
 

Anonymous Freak

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Yup! But you'll need a third party app that can give you full manual controls over exposure time.

https://www.lonelyspeck.com/photographing-the-milky-way-with-a-smartphone/

That article was written by an Android user, but it should be possible on iPhone just fine. I know Camera+ can do manual exposure settings, and I know there are many other iOS apps that can as well.

Note that using Camera+, I just took a long-exposure picture - it was *VERY* noisy. And mine wasn't nearly a long enough exposure to see the Milky Way.
 
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mtbdudex

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I've tried it on a iPhone, the manual control app can't get slower than 1/4 sec.... .not slow enough for a milky way shot.
Borrow a DSLR from a friend, heck my 2009 Canon T1i with crop 18-55mm lens can take them easily on a tripod.
 

kenoh

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I think you could probably put in a lot of effort getting manual control app, trying to get it to work but I think there is an easier solution as stated above.
 

slapple

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Thanks for the replies everyone! I'll look at those apps.

I also have an 11-year old point-and-shoot camera (Canon A650) that I'll bring, but that might not be any better since it's so old.
 

kenoh

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Thanks for the replies everyone! I'll look at those apps.

I also have an 11-year old point-and-shoot camera (Canon A650) that I'll bring, but that might not be any better since it's so old.
Might be OK. It is a 35 f2.8 equiv lens. You need to be shooting something like f2.8, iso 1600, 20-30seconds exposure on a tripod.

but I think noise performance may be better on the iphone. I would try it if possible before you go... even in a light polluted place you can see if you can get decent images form either of them before you go... best not find out you didnt choose wisely when you are there and cant change anything... :)
 
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Laird Knox

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Might be OK. It is a 35 f2.8 equiv lens. You need to be shooting something like f2.8, iso 1600, 20-30seconds exposure on a tripod.
35 mm you are looking at more like 15 seconds max. Still it will be more about how well that camera handles noise at ISO 1600.
 
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slapple

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35 mm you are looking at more like 15 seconds max. Still it will be more about how well that camera handles noise at ISO 1600.
Any reason for 15 seconds instead of 20-30? I'm just trying to learn. Also, wondering why you guys suggested ISO 1600 instead of 3200.
 
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kenoh

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Any reason for 15 seconds instead of 20-30? I'm just trying to learn. Also, wondering why you guys suggested ISO 1600 instead of 3200.
Star trails.... there is a trade off between shutter being open long enough to get enough light in vs being open so long that it starts to show the stars moving and they stop being points and become curved lines in the sky.

Hmm. @Laird Knox you were closer to me.... Poppills calculates the max exposure time for the Canon A650 at something like 3-5 seconds. Hmm, that wont be enough to get light in in that amount of time. @Laird Knox thoughts? you are better at this than me...
 
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Anonymous Freak

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Any reason for 15 seconds instead of 20-30? I'm just trying to learn. Also, wondering why you guys suggested ISO 1600 instead of 3200.
Higher ISO will be noisier, especially as you hit the maximum ISO of the device.

As for shorter exposure times, to lessen blur from movement. It will be less noticeable with a wider angle lens, so with a wider lens, you can try longer.

Of course, since you're using digital, you can go ahead and try multiple settings and compare right away. (I remember my first attempt at astrophotography with a film SLR back in the '90s. Used a whole roll of film only to discover my settings were wrong, and I could only see the very brightest stars.) I'd try both ISOs, at 15, 20, and 30 seconds each. See what looks best right then. Make sure to zoom in to compare star trails and noise, though.

Note that your old camera has a much larger sensor than the iPhone - for the same pixel count - which means each pixel is much larger, and can pull in a lot more light. So higher ISOs would be better looking on it than on the iPhone. Having Having a larger sensor also means that a given zoom setting, the aperture will be "effectively" more open, so even though the iPhone theoretically has a wider aperture, the older camera will still let in more light per pixel.
 
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Laird Knox

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Any reason for 15 seconds instead of 20-30? I'm just trying to learn. Also, wondering why you guys suggested ISO 1600 instead of 3200.
As others said it is a matter of star movement. I expect with the other noise you will see, 30 seconds wouldn't be that noticeable but it is still something to keep in mind.

A good starting point is to divide 500 by the equivalent focal length. So in this case 500 / 35 = 14.3, so 15 seconds is a reasonable starting point. This is just a general guideline because the direction you are facing will also make a difference.

Pointing to the north will result in longer times. As you move away from the north the times will get shorter.

It is really a matter of getting out there and trying different settings.

Take this image as an example:



The North Star between the cactus barrels is effectively just a dot. As you move farther away from the North Star the trails get longer and longer. So if you are trying to capture points the effective motion of the stars get faster the further you are away from north.

Also note that when facing due north the motion will be circular but as you face east or west they will be diagonal lines that appear mostly straight. And to the south the lines will start to arc back the other way.

Here's another example facing about due west:



This is with an ultra-wide 12 mm lens (full frame sensor). In the upper right you can see the circles starting around the north. In the center of the image the lines start to straighten out and to the left they arch back the other way.

The best thing you can do is get out there and give it a try. Do some shots locally and see if you can get a good star point on the phone's camera. If it works then the pictures will only get better as you head to darker skies.
[doublepost=1506031266][/doublepost]
Hmm. @Laird Knox you were closer to me.... Poppills calculates the max exposure time for the Canon A650 at something like 3-5 seconds. Hmm, that wont be enough to get light in in that amount of time. @Laird Knox thoughts? you are better at this than me...
It all depends on your tolerance and which way you are facing.

I love this shot but in a 20 x 30 inch print you can see the elongation of the stars. In this case I don't think it detracts from the image in the least.



As I mentioned in the post above 500 / focal length gives a good starting point. Then it becomes an issue of how demanding you want to be. Keep in mind that this is effective focal length, so...

FX
500 / 24 = 20.8

DX
500 / (24 * 1.5) (crop factor) = 13.9

So that same lens on a full frame sensor would be good for 20 seconds but only 10 or 15 seconds on a crop body. (Rounding to typical camera steps.)

That 3 to 4 seconds you mentioned might be because it truly isn't a 35 mm view equiv. I'm not sure how crop factors impact things on such small sensors.
[doublepost=1506031451][/doublepost]According to this page

https://www.digicamdb.com/specs/canon_powershot-a650-is/

the crop factor is 4.6 so:

500 / (35 * 4.6) = 3.1

In that case I would say the 2-3 second suggestion is spot on.
 

Laird Knox

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Is the 35mm not the equiv. 'full frame' focal length. Typically the small digicams have lenses like 7mm-24mm. So the 35mm here has already factored in the crop?
That was my understanding but the crop factor works out for the timing you mentioned. I really don't know on that particular camera but my guess was 15 seconds. ;)

Now if you want to talk the Nikon D800 or D7000 I can give you first hand information. :)

In general I find the rule of 500 is a good place to start. From there it is a matter of practice and experimentation. Note: You most often hear it referred to as the rule of 600 but I found that 500 works better for me. I suspect that the tiny photo sites on the D800 have something to do with that.
[doublepost=1506101490][/doublepost]


I don't see why not.
 

Saturn007

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Jul 18, 2010
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Thanks for the replies everyone! I'll look at those apps.

I also have an 11-year old point-and-shoot camera (Canon A650) that I'll bring, but that might not be any better since it's so old.

I realize this is a year-old thread, but wanted to chime in with two points.

1. The Canon A650 is superb for taking night sky constellation, Milky Way photographs, even from semi-light polluted skies! That's because it has a a relatively large CCD sensor, wider aperture lens, with full manual controls.

The CCD is much more sensitive than many of he modern CMOS sensors, as with less noise. That makes it great for photographing the night sky.

Settings for the night sky: Use 15-second exposure, ISO 800, Cloudy or Tungsten setting (I prefer Cloudy as it brings out slightly fainter stars at the expense of noisier background), 2-second self timer (to give it time to settle down from shakes from pressing the shutter), and mounted on a mini-tripod or light-weight camera tripod with IS OFF.

One uses a tripod because one cannot take long exposure handheld photos. One turns off Image Stabilization as it's not needed.

Results: Even under magnitude 4 skies (stars only as faint as mag 4) (semi-light polluted suburbs), the Milky Way will be apparent in the photos, some brighter deep space objects will be visible, many invisible stars will appear (down to magnitude 8), and many stars will even show their color.

2. On the iPhone SE (or any recent iPhone or iPod Touch), the best app I've found is Night Cap. Worth spending a few bucks on. The developer's website has great tutorials on using it to take different types of night sky photographs. There are settings for capturing the International Space Station, the stars, meteors, etc. While normally iPhones are limited to 1/4 second, Night Cap can do 1-second exposures that it stacks. The result is that the brightest constellations can be photographed. No Milky Way from under magnitude 4 skies, but I’ll wager some of it could be captured under dark skies.

But your best bet, by far, is what you already have — the Canon A650. It even has a mode under Self-Timer to take a series of 10 photographs in succession. If you enough of those, you can later combine them to produce mini-videos or stack them to produce star trails.

One of the best things about the Canon A650 is that it has a C setting on its mode dial. It remembers the settings you've saved to it, so that it is a simple matter of turning the camera on, and in Custom mode, you already have all your night sky options set exactly how you'd like.
 

Laird Knox

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Jun 18, 2010
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I realize this is a year-old thread, but wanted to chime in with two points.

1. The Canon A650 is superb for taking night sky constellation, Milky Way photographs, even from semi-light polluted skies! That's because it has a a relatively large CCD sensor, wider aperture lens, with full manual controls.

The CCD is much more sensitive than many of he modern CMOS sensors, as with less noise. That makes it great for photographing the night sky.
Wut?

There is a reason modern cameras moved from CCD to CMOS and it wasn't for less image quality.

I'm sure the A650 can take some outstanding night shots within reason.
 

kallisti

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Apr 22, 2003
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I realize this is a year-old thread, but wanted to chime in with two points.

1. The Canon A650 is superb for taking night sky constellation, Milky Way photographs, even from semi-light polluted skies! That's because it has a a relatively large CCD sensor, wider aperture lens, with full manual controls.

The CCD is much more sensitive than many of he modern CMOS sensors, as with less noise. That makes it great for photographing the night sky.

Settings for the night sky: Use 15-second exposure, ISO 800, Cloudy or Tungsten setting (I prefer Cloudy as it brings out slightly fainter stars at the expense of noisier background), 2-second self timer (to give it time to settle down from shakes from pressing the shutter), and mounted on a mini-tripod or light-weight camera tripod with IS OFF.

One uses a tripod because one cannot take long exposure handheld photos. One turns off Image Stabilization as it's not needed.

Results: Even under magnitude 4 skies (stars only as faint as mag 4) (semi-light polluted suburbs), the Milky Way will be apparent in the photos, some brighter deep space objects will be visible, many invisible stars will appear (down to magnitude 8), and many stars will even show their color.

2. On the iPhone SE (or any recent iPhone or iPod Touch), the best app I've found is Night Cap. Worth spending a few bucks on. The developer's website has great tutorials on using it to take different types of night sky photographs. There are settings for capturing the International Space Station, the stars, meteors, etc. While normally iPhones are limited to 1/4 second, Night Cap can do 1-second exposures that it stacks. The result is that the brightest constellations can be photographed. No Milky Way from under magnitude 4 skies, but I’ll wager some of it could be captured under dark skies.

But your best bet, by far, is what you already have — the Canon A650. It even has a mode under Self-Timer to take a series of 10 photographs in succession. If you enough of those, you can later combine them to produce mini-videos or stack them to produce star trails.

One of the best things about the Canon A650 is that it has a C setting on its mode dial. It remembers the settings you've saved to it, so that it is a simple matter of turning the camera on, and in Custom mode, you already have all your night sky options set exactly how you'd like.
Kind of a strange thread to necro, but whatever (how did you even find this thread? what were you searching for that yielded it as a result?).

From a strictly IQ perspective, the Canon A650 doesn't seem like a great choice for night sky photography. I don't own one, so can't give actual examples.

For this type of photo you should be shooting in RAW to get everything possible out of the sensor--so your suggestions on white balance seem a bit misplaced.

Would be awesome to see some example pics you've taken with this camera of this type of subject. As they say, the proof is in the pudding :)
 

Saturn007

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Jul 18, 2010
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In fact, amateur astronomers use CCD cameras because of their low light sensitivity.

From what I've read, the move to CMOS by digital camera makers was due to the lower manufacturing costs and faster shooting speed — something favored by the typical consumer wanting to catch their kids or pets at play — or birds at their feeders.

The Canon A650 has a 1/1.7” CCD sensor and it is more light sensitive than many, or most, of the modern 1/2.3” CMOS sensors. Indeed, most such cameras have severe limits on ISO when shooting exposures longer than a second. Typically, with an exposure longer than 1 second with a 1/2.3” camera, the ISO will be limited to 80 or 100 with those small CMOS sensors, insufficient to capture the Milky Way let alone more than a couple of bright stars (@15 second exposure).

In contrast, the A650 captures magnitude 8 stars, quite faint, as well as the Milky Way, even from semi-light polluted skies! Its f/2.8 lens helps, too.

I mentioned the White Balance settings because many of these older cameras do NOT have RAW and the Cloudy setting for WB brings out fainter stars. Many advocate using Tungsten as that darkens the sky background. I was not making a claim as to those settings vs. RAW, but advising anyone with an older digicam how they could pick WB settings that could help them capture the night sky!

Oh, and to answer the question about digging up this old thread... I was searching the net for info on taking Milky Way photos and stumbled across this. As someone who owns an iPhone SE, I was curious to see what people posted. When I saw the mention of the A650, I had to chime in.

Those old digital cameras were capable of taking some great photos doing amazing things, especially with the night sky!
 

kallisti

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Apr 22, 2003
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In fact, amateur astronomers use CCD cameras because of their low light sensitivity.

From what I've read, the move to CMOS by digital camera makers was due to the lower manufacturing costs and faster shooting speed — something favored by the typical consumer wanting to catch their kids or pets at play — or birds at their feeders.

The Canon A650 has a 1/1.7” CCD sensor and it is more light sensitive than many, or most, of the modern 1/2.3” CMOS sensors. Indeed, most such cameras have severe limits on ISO when shooting exposures longer than a second. Typically, with an exposure longer than 1 second with a 1/2.3” camera, the ISO will be limited to 80 or 100 with those small CMOS sensors, insufficient to capture the Milky Way let alone more than a couple of bright stars (@15 second exposure).

In contrast, the A650 captures magnitude 8 stars, quite faint, as well as the Milky Way, even from semi-light polluted skies! Its f/2.8 lens helps, too.

I mentioned the White Balance settings because many of these older cameras do NOT have RAW and the Cloudy setting for WB brings out fainter stars. Many advocate using Tungsten as that darkens the sky background. I was not making a claim as to those settings vs. RAW, but advising anyone with an older digicam how they could pick WB settings that could help them capture the night sky!

Oh, and to answer the question about digging up this old thread... I was searching the net for info on taking Milky Way photos and stumbled across this. As someone who owns an iPhone SE, I was curious to see what people posted. When I saw the mention of the A650, I had to chime in.

Those old digital cameras were capable of taking some great photos doing amazing things, especially with the night sky!

Ah, I think I understand the confusion now.

You are confusing CCD cameras (designed for astrophotography) with DSLR cameras (or phone cameras) that have a CCD sensor vs a CMOS sensor. Not the same thing at all.

CCD cameras do indeed use a CCD sensor, but they are specifically designed for astrophotography. With long exposures, the temperature of the sensor can become high which creates noise. CCD cameras employ a cooling element (in amateur CCD cameras called a Peltier module) to cool the sensor. Additionally, most CCD cameras are monochromatic. Usually multiple images are taken with the CCD camera and then combined in software to increase sensitivity and filter out noise.

Here is a web guide that I found on a quick google search:

https://www.wexphotovideo.com/blog/tips-and-technique/a-beginners-guide-to-astrophotography-using-ccd-systems/

In a DSLR camera, I am not sure that a CCD sensor has any significant advantages over a CMOS sensor (though I am not a dedicated astrophotographer, so I could be wrong).

A good reference book if you are interested in astrophotography is:

https://www.amazon.com/Astrophotography-Thierry-Legault/dp/1937538435/ref=mt_paperback?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=

Sorry for any perceived snark in my previous post. You had a valid reason to necro this thread. I'm still not sure I agree with your suggestions (I don't), but you made them in good faith. The tone of my response wasn't appropriate. Mea culpa.
 
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OreoCookie

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AFAIK most astrophotography cameras nowadays have been converted from regular dslrs, so they will come with CMOS sensors. But of course you don't need an astrophotography conversion to take photos of the Milky Way. You will most definitely need a good tripod, though, a fast lens and preferably a large sensor.

I have to say, being able to see the Milky Way with my bare eyes was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen in my life (Top 5). I was in the San Pedro de Atacama for a conference, and I fortunately took one of the astronomy tours. They had telescopes powerful enough to see Saturn with its rings and Jupiter with the Great Red Spot and four moons.