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iPhone Astrophotography: My First Attempts

This evening I decided to try some iPhone astrophotography. This blog post will let you see how I got on, and give you the info you need to get started yourself.

While the iPhone 4 camera is far from ideal for astrophotography (the sensor is small compared with a DSLR; in fact it’s not even as good as most point and shoot cameras) it does have one distinct advantage – it’s usually very much to hand, just in my pocket in fact.

There are two kinds of astrophotography you can do with an iPhone: with and without a telescope. The former is called afocal astrophotography, but it is the latter that I tried out tonight: just using the iPhone camera, some extra hardware, a 59p app, and a clear sky.

Afocal Astrophotography. Simply hold the camera to the eyepiece of a telescope (or binoculars) and snap a picture of whatever is in the field of view. For this you can just use the standard camera app on the phone to snap a picture, and it’ll use software to ensure that the image is exposed correctly (although this might not always work). I’ve tried this once before, using the Moon as my target, with decent enough results:

Pic of the moon taken on my iPhone 3GS held to the eyepiece of my 110mm TAL-1 telescope

You can also buy several apps that claim to allow you to take longer exposures, even letting you use a bulb setting (this isn’t actually possible with the iPhone shutter hardware – each of these apps is actually using a clever software work around, but you’re not getting a true 60 second exposure when you set your “shutter speed’ for 60 seconds).

The apps that I use are:

Slow Shutter Cam: has shutter speeds of 0.5, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15? and a B (bulb) setting, plus a crucial self timer delay to prevent wobble when pushing the “button” to take the shot (£0.59 on iTunes App Store)

Magic Shutter: has shutter speeds of 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30 and 60? and a B (bulb) setting, but no self timer (£1.79 on iTunes App Store)

Both of these apps have a variety of software setting to allow you to get the best picture; tonight I used Magic Shutter with a 60s shutter speed.

(These apps might allow you to take better images while the camera is mounted to a telescope, but I haven’t tried this yet. Watch this space for test of this later in the year.)

Afocal Astrophotography Hardware

The main obstacle to taking long exposure shots with the iPhone (apart from the fact that the hardware won’t actually let you!) is that you need to make sure that the iPhone doesn’t move at all during the duration of the exposure, so holding it in place with your hand isn’t an option. Luckily there’s a great gadget available from a company call Magnilux. The device is called the Magnilux MX-1 Telescope Adaptor, which allows you to attach your iPhone to any telescope eyepiece. It also doubles as a tripod adaptor.

 

Magnilux MX-1 Telescope Adaptor

 

Magnilux MX-1 Telescope Adaptor with iPhone 4 attached (works with any iPhone model)

 

Magnilux MX-1 Telescope Adaptor configured as a tripod mount

Astrophotography Without a Telescope

Tonight I didn’t connect my iPhone to my telescope since my target, the International Space Station (ISS), moves so quickly and travels across such a large part of the sky that you need as wide a field as possible to catch it.

To capture the ISS you need a long exposure (use Magic Shutter app – see above). The pass tonight lasted 4’19?, and traveled 90° through the sky (from 254° WSW to 164° SSE). The iPhone 4 camera field of view is only 60.8° so I couldn’t capture the whole pass. Instead I decided to try to capture a 60s exposure as the ISS rose to its highest and brightest, at 206° (SSW).

With a 60? exposure, of course, I had to have my iPhone mounted to a tripod. I could have used the Magnilux MX-1 Adaptor set up for tripod mode (see above) but instead I opted to use my new Kungl iPhone case with built in tripod thread, which I attached directly to my tripod.

 

Kungl iPhone Case

This held the iPhone still, and using the Magic Shutter app set to 60? exposure I managed to get this image:

 

The ISS passing over, iPhone 4 Camera, Magic Shutter App set for 60″ exposure, 2344, 23 June 2011

Far from ideal, but not bad given (a) it was my first attempt, (b) I had one chance to take the image before the ISS faded from view, (c) the sky was very bright (this was taken at 2344 on 23 June 2011, just after midsummer, with the sky just out of civil twilight), (d)  cars kept driving past (note the light art in the foreground!).

Once the sky darkens again later in the year I hope to test this set up under a truly dark sky to see whether it can pick up sharp star images. I suspect that might be tricky!

If anyone else has tried iPhone Astrophotography please let me know in the comments.

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