Milkyway Photography with Smart Phone & MSM
Photographing the night sky was always a challenge even with the best DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras in the market before. Since sensor technology is developing rapidly fast in the last couple of years, recent smartphones have also been involved in the game. Today, it is easily possible to achieve pleasing results with most of the recent smartphones when it comes to landscape astrophotography. This gives everyone a great opportunity to shoot the night sky, even the first-timers or beginners. Maybe in the near future, we will be able to pack less with the development of technology, who knows :). In this article, we will have a deeper look inside how to photograph the Milkyway with a smartphone and Move Shoot Move 2in1 Rotator.
The gear list is quite easy to acquire, all you need is;
- Smartphone with Manual Camera Controls
- Sturdy Tripod
- Move Shoot Move 2in1 Rotator
Most of the recent smartphones come with Pro Mode or Manual Mode which allows us to control camera settings manually in the camera apps. While some phones have presets in their camera apps called Night Mode, Night Sky Mode, Starry Skies Mode, etc. we do not usually recommend people to use these modes as they do some post-processing work inside the camera app and give you the final result. The algorithms in those apps are not quite perfect yet nowadays and way better results could easily be achieved manually (there may be some exceptions).
As for the smartphone selection, you could go with any phone that has a Pro or Manual Mode and also shoots RAW. Though, some smartphones have bigger and better sensors like Xiaomi Mi10T Pro which is the example we will be focusing on today.
As the tripod selection, any sturdy one which could handle the weight of your star tracker and the smartphone would work. On the examples of this article, we used Benro TMA47 AXL (which is quite big, heavy, and sturdy :)).
When it comes to astrophotography, a star tracker unarguably improves the results, though the Move Shoot Move is a game-changer. Traditional trackers are usually heavy and hard to set up but MSM is pocket-sized and easy to set up. As we are packing less and not using big, heavy DSLRs with big lenses, MSM would be very handy and easy to carry for smartphone astrophotography purposes.
Multiple different techniques are used in landscape photography, none of them is wrong,
most of them are used to improve the quality (to achieve a better signal-to-noise ratio, more detailed data) you can choose any of those to achieve pleasing results. It only depends on your way and the composition you want to acquire. These techniques are called;
- Single Exposure
- Using a Star Tracker
- Compositing etc.
You can use any of the above, but tracking the stars and stacking would improve the results. When using a star tracker, blending the sky with a foreground is kind of a must because of the earth’s rotation. As the tracker goes for the pinpoint sharp stars, the foreground will be blurry and vice versa when you are taking frames for the foreground.
Another thing to mention, while I was testing the Xiaomi 10T Pro for astrophotography, the camera can go up to 30 seconds of exposure. If your camera goes for a longer exposure time, just go for it with the MSM, the results will be way cleaner and sharper. Even the camera goes up to 30seconds, I realized that the stars are trailing if you expose more than 8 seconds without a tracker. In this case, using MSM was a lifesaver to collect even more photons to the sensor and achieve greater results.
In my first tests for the smartphone astrophotography, I tried single exposures and stacking to see how much are those tiny cameras are capable. When I first shoot it, the result just impressed me, to be honest. It was just like an old APS-C camera quality. In the photo below, you can see how much detail was captured even without a star tracker.
Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro 6x25s f/1.7 ISO 1600 (Stacked)
Once you have pre-planned your location and arrive there in the daytime, you will have plenty of time on site for you to decide your compositions and techniques on site. As in this example, we arrived at the Incegiz Canyon, Turkey before sunset, we had some location scouting to find our compositions and waited till night. As for the foreground, I really liked the look of scenery on this part of the canyon with the dam lake and village on the foothill, but there was a problem. When the milkyway core comes behind the hill on this side, the core would be behind the hill and the sky was starting to illuminate, so I decided to go for a composite. This time, I was extremely excited to see how could Move Shoot Move improve the quality. When the milkyway core was high enough, I started taking tracked frames for the sky. I took 15 x 30s exposures to stack them for the sky.
Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro on Move Shoot Move 2in1 Rotator 15 x 30s f/1.7 ISO 1600 (Stacked)
After taking the frames for the sky, I waited till astronomical twilight to take the foreground frames to capture a less noisy and cleaner foreground. As twilight begins, I turned off my Move Shoot Move tracker to prevent motion in the foreground and started taking frames for the foreground.
Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro 29 x 30s f/1.7 ISO 1600
Once I got the results both for the foreground and the sky, the only thing left is editing them. On the editing part, I stacked each sky frames first, stacked foreground frames within themselves to achieve less noisy and more detailed results. Once stacked, I simply blended them in Adobe Photoshop. While blending, all you need is to mask out the sky from your foreground images and place the sky layer underneath. After doing some post-processing for both, I achieved the result below.
Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro & Move Shoot Move 2in1 Rotator
Sky 15 x 30s f/1.7 ISO 1600 (Stacked)
FG 29 x 30s f/1.7 ISO 1600 (Stacked)
Camera technology is definitely moving and improving extremely fast and it is unbelievable to capture the night sky in much detail with those tiny little sensors. While using those tiny little sensors in our pockets, Move Shoot Move is the game-changer here with its compact profile and its ease of use. As we are intending to do smartphone astrophotography, carrying less and light would be crucial. If I had a bigger sky tracker or a huge mount I would not even bother to carry it with me for smartphone astrophotography. Moreover, as the smartphone I was using was not capable of doing exposures more than 30 seconds, a really quick polar alignment with MSM’s laser pointer was enough to achieve trailless images. The polar alignment process takes only 15-30 seconds to accomplish and you are ready to shoot!
As for the drawbacks of smartphone astrophotography, I wish my phone was able to expose more than 30 seconds RAWs (I am not sure if there are smartphones capable of taking more than 30s RAWs on the market). I believe the results would be even more detailed and cleaner. Another annoying thing is the star shapes. While reviewing raw files on PC, I realized that the stars have some weird shapes because of the aberrations. All the lenses show some aberrations (ex. chromatic, coma, astigmatism, etc.) when used on wide open. In the built-in camera app, there were not any settings to stop down the aperture to prevent all those weird-shaped stars.
To sum up, with the time I believe most of those cons would not be a problem any time soon with the fast-developing technology. If you are a beginner and you have a smartphone that is capable of manual settings and shooting RAW, you can easily try out smartphone astrophotography as a start and combine it with a portable star tracker like the MSM. If you are an experienced astrophotographer, you can always have fun with these small toys and try to push their limits...
Thank you all for reading this far. If you like my work, you can follow me on;
Also, if you are interested in learning astrophotography, check out our courses and workshops on; https://en.stellarxperiences.com/
About the author
Okan Bozat is a landscape astrophotographer who was born and raised in a city called Muğla, in Turkey. He has studied Architecture at the Izmir University of Economics, pursues architecture as his career. After he graduates from university, his passion for photography, mostly in astrophotography, put him into another path as well. His deep interest in nature, night skies, and traveling makes him find himself into some of the darkest places with unique landscapes around the world.
Gears Used in this project