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View of Prickly Bay, Grenada

Smartphone Astrophotography [Google Pixel 3]

Smartphone astrophotography is a fast growing part of astronomy. Smartphones are common, portable, and have great cameras. I’ve owned a Google Pixel 3 for almost a year now and get this, I’ve not used it for astrophotography. That is until now. Yes I was forced into it.

Why Use the Google Pixel 3 Now

If you follow my blog, you know that I’ve begun photographing more wide field targets. This includes targets like large nebula or Andromeda Galaxy. I purchased the Orion ST-80 telescope as my travel telescope. It was supposed to make the trip to Grenada. And I had it all planned out. In addition, I was going to buy the MoveShootMove Star Tracker. It’s small and portable and works with any camera tripod.

With good plans, you must have multiple versions. The best plan, depended upon sales of my photobook. So of course, I didn’t sell the 100 books needed in time to purchase the star tracker before the trip. Being late on the book release didn’t help either.

Add it all up, and the smartphone wins. Furthermore, I’m still carrying a Google Pixel in my pocket. That and my family was taking night time photos with their smartphones. Therefore, I had to participate.

VIew of Prickly Bay, Grenada
Taken with Google Pixel 3 (Night Sight Mode)

Smartphone Astrophotography Refresher

Just a quick refresher for you. Taking a photo of the night sky is not new. I’m sure the first phone with a camera gave way to it’s owner taking a picture of the night sky. The results then, pale in comparison to what you can do with smartphones now.

The quickest way is to piont your smartphone to the sky and snap away. You can also purchase a smartphone holder that attaches it to your telescope. This gives you the opportunity to long exposure photography.

As always, Apple is behind Google. The 2019 version of Apple iPhones finally have a night sight mode. Google, as of 2019, has taken the night sight a step further with the addition of the Astrophotograph Mode. You’ll see it on Apple phones next year.

Looking strictly at the stock phone capability, Google is far ahead of all others with respect to astrophotography. The only way others can catch up is to use 3rd party software. 3rd party stoftware aside, let’s look at what the Google PIxel 3 can do.

Google phones aren’t perfect either. They limit the camera’s capabilities with 3rd party software. They would rather their software determine exposure length, then stack the lights with flats, darks and bias files for you. This is what gives the great night time photos. Next, how does this work with my location in Grenada?

Bortle Class 4 Skies

In my home town, I photograph under Bortle Class 5 skies. This means suburbs with a fair amount of light pollution or grey in the sky. There’s a lot less here in Grenada and to the naked eye, the number of stars you can see increases significantly.

Light Pollution Graphic visualization of the Bortle Scale.

Smartphone Astrophotography Target: M45, Pleiades

I took the opportunity to do some sky watching with my family. I showed them the different constellations and objects I could recognize. The Pleiades was the most recongnized object they could see. It amazed them. And so began the photo taking. All of these photos were taken free hand with no additional support or tech beyond the smartphone itself. Let’s start with the LG G6 smartphone result.

Attempt at Pleiades
LG G6 Smartphone

Not much to see here. A few stars but nothing else. It was pointed directly at M45. Click on the picture for a larger view and additional details. Let’s look at the PIxel 2 XL result.

Pixel 2 Night Mode
Smartphone Astrophotography
Pixel 2 Night Mode

This older model Google Pixel has night mode. You can see the stars in the sky. Still not able to identify M45 from the photo. Now for the Pixel 3.

Pixel 3
M45 Pleiades
Google Pixel 3 (Night Mode)

Check out dead center. Yep that’s M45. Click on the image and zoom in, then say WOW! The night mode was able to pick out Pleiades and maintain detail. I got a little brave and took a zoomed in photo. See below.

M45 Zoomed In Pixel 3
Close Up of M45
Google Pixel 3 (Night Mode)

Can I have my close up please! The performance is outstanding! I can’t wait to try the astrophotography mode in the future release. Sadly it will still be with my Pixel 3, but who cares. Let’s see what Google can do for your smartphone astrophotography. Good Luck and clear skies!

Kevin Francis

Kevin Francis is a Mechanical Engineer by day, amateur Astrophotographer by night who is taking his Google Pixel smartphone camera to new limits.