How to Take Great Night Sky Photos With the iPhone

Have you ever tried taking iPhone photos of stars or the moon, only to be disappointed by the results? With no optical zoom, it seems impossible to use the iPhone for true night sky photography. However, with a few simple solutions you’d be surprised how much fun you can have shooting the night sky with your phone! In this tutorial you’ll discover some handy exposure tips for improving your iPhone photos of the night sky, as well as how to create wonderful star trail photos.

iPhone Night Sky Photography 3

Shoot The Moon

The biggest problem with shooting the moon on an iPhone is with image exposure. Because the moon is so small in the field of view, the camera won’t adjust the exposure settings to appropriately expose for the moon.

Most of the frame will be taken up by the dark sky surrounding the moon, and the result of this is that your camera will expose the scene for the dark sky. Because the moon is so bright relative to the night sky, what this means in practical terms is that the moon will be over-exposed.

Even if you tap on the moon to try to re-adjust the exposure point, it’s likely that the camera still won’t expose properly for the moon as it’s too small in the frame and there’s still too much black space around it.

To work around this, you need to set the exposure manually. Luckily for us, this is very easy to do in the iPhone’s native camera app. Once you’ve tapped on the screen to set focus, simply swipe down to reduce the exposure. You’ll see the sun icon on the exposure slider and the image will begin to appear darker as you swipe.

If you’re familiar with ISO and shutter speed settings, you may prefer to use a third-party camera app which will allow you to lock the focus and exposure points separately, as well as selecting an appropriate ISO and shutter speed.

The aim is to use a low ISO to avoid getting a grainy picture, and to use a relatively fast shutter speed to avoid camera shake. The native camera app won’t show you the ISO and shutter speed numbers, so it’s all guesswork.

So you might find certain third-party apps that show ISO and shutter speed settings more useful when taking photos of the moon. Here’s a basic walkthrough:

1. Install any number of camera apps that let you lock exposure and focus independently. I personally like Night Modes and NightCap the best.

2. Hold your iPhone up to a bright light and read the on-screen exposure settings. Lock the exposure when the settings are around ISO 50 and shutter speed between 1/250 and 1/750 depending on the phase of the moon (faster speed for brighter moon).

3. With your exposure still locked, go outside and focus on the moon. A tripod helps, but might not be necessary especially at faster shutter speeds and if you have a steady hand.

iPhone Night Sky Photography 1

4. Lower your expectations. The full moon will only be about 50 pixels across in your photo. But, if it’s properly exposed, you should see differences in dark and light patches on the face of the moon.

iPhone Night Sky Photography 2

Photograph Star Trails

As the Earth turns, the stars appear to move across the sky. If you take a long exposure photo of the sky, the stars will appear to make light trails or circles. The North Star is the only star that appears to stay in the same place because it’s very close to the north celestial pole above the Earth.

Long-exposure photography facing the North Star reveals circular pathways as the stars (relative to us) move around the pole. Did you know that you can use your iPhone to make star trail photos?

For star trails, I use the NightCap app because of its ability to take continuous back to back shots at timer-regulated intervals.

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The app also lets you choose between JPEG, HQ JPEG and TIFF outputs, however the TIFF isn’t available for the continuous burst mode.

Manual exposure lets you select from 1/20 to 1 second shutter speed, or just do what I did and lock the exposure when you find the right combination of shutter and ISO. To give the stars enough time to travel a tiny bit between shots, set the interval to around 15-20 seconds.

You’ll definitely want to use a tripod or prop your phone up on a railing to keep it steady. I usually keep mine plugged in so it doesn’t drain the battery too quickly (which can happen in about 10 minutes in the winter). Take back to back photos for at least 20 minutes to see some decent trails – the longer the better!

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Now that you have a ton of grainy green and black photos filling up your iPhone, dump them all onto your computer and stack them using the free software StarStaX.

You can also stack them by hand in Photoshop using layers and the Lighten blend mode. You basically want to take the brightest pixels from each frame and layer them into the final star trail photo.

Star trail purists might give you a hard time for stacking (rather than leaving the shutter open the entire time for seamless trails on a single frame), but there just isn’t a way to manually keep the shutter open for this long on an iPhone.

In the photo below you can see the final product of this process.

iPhone Night Sky Photography 6

How To Take Sharp iPhone Night Photos

In addition to this article, I created a free video revealing how you too can take perfectly sharp iPhone night photosiPhone-night-photos

  • Michael Biel

    Good article. This kind of information is what I was looking for in trying to shoot night photos. Thanks.

    • Hi Michael,

      I’m happy you like it, Eric has done a great job.

  • Louis Arrande

    Great right up lead to my purchasing – Havnt tried yet but I will when the darkness comes this evening. Can someone please enlighten me on a few things:
    How to set and lock ISO.
    What “max expose range” fuction is.
    What WB (i presume White Balance) adds to the final outcome
    ?

    Many thanks i hope to post my results!

    • Hi Louis! You can lock the ISO in Night Cap by tapping the ‘Exp’ button in the bottom left. It will lock both the shutter speed and ISO at the same time, and I don’t believe there is a way to lock only the ISO independently.

      The max exposure range changes the maximum ISO and shutter speed from ISO 800 to 3200 and from 1/3 sec to 1 sec. Allowing higher ISO means more noise but higher light sensitivity.

      WB locks the white balance, which sets the white point for the scene. So if you lock it under one kind of light and then change the lighting it will keep the previous white point. e.g. if you lock WB inside and then go outside it will still have the white point from indoors. Not a huge deal with star photography but still nice to have options!

  • Celina

    I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you design this website yourself or did
    you hire someone to do it for you? Plz answer back
    as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to find out where u got
    this from. thanks a lot

    • Thanks Celina!

      This is Karma WordPress theme, I’ve only made some very minor adjustments. You can purchase the theme here.

  • Eugene

    Whats app to use for this snap?

  • Josh

    Hi, would you recommend nightcap or nightmodes more? Nightcap is currently 99 cents and nightmodes is $1.99 in the app store. I really only want to purchase one of them, so I wonder which you think works better? Thanks!

    • Hey Josh,

      I guess you should just read the reviews carefully, unfortunately night photography is not my area of expertise.

  • Kyle Smith

    How do you get rid of the greenish grainy pics and make the sky black?

  • InternationalRelationsXPERT

    Downloaded night mode. Followed your instructions. Didn’t turn out. Waste of money

  • Frank

    That’s so little money and the developers have done such good jobs, it’s worth buying both! Can’t think of any reason not to!

  • Moho’d Bob

    I use an app called Longexpo and you can set the shutter speed to different speeds and even bulb. It’s pretty cool

  • Manideep Dhar

    You didnt mention about the flash ? Should it be used while taking the shots ?

    • Hi Manideep. The flash is only useful for close-up subjects. For distance subjects there would be no point in using flash as the light from the flash will only travel a few meters.

  • Chris

    Hi,
    You mentioned about stacking the photos. Would using an app like Slow Shutter Cam which has a bulb option work for this?

    Thank you!

    • You could try it but your picture might end up over-exposed due to the shutter being open for a long time. Give it a go and see what happens! 🙂

  • ML

    Hi, I was just wondering is there is an iOS app that can do the stacking for me too? I’d like to keep the shooting and editing just on my iOS devices as it gives a more seemless workflow. Also, some contests require no usage of an additional computer. Thanks in advance!

  • Donna

    How do you lock the exposure?

    • Just tap and hold on the screen (for 2 or 3 seconds )where you want to set focus – you’ll see AE/AF Lock at the top of the screen which means the exposure and focus is locked. Hope that helps 🙂

  • das

    lmao iphones cant have manual mode, this is why galaxy is best phone