Use Your Smartphone for Astrophotography

Since getting my old PowerSeeker 127EQ and snapping some quick shots of Jupiter through it, many people have asked me how to do the same. They most often assume it to be a relatively complex thing to do, but it’s not. It’s actually pretty simple and not actually that expensive to get started.

First, you need a telescope. I started with the 127EQ, but I now almost exclusively use my Orion SkyQuest XT8. Both are reflector-type scopes in that they use a mirror to focus the light they receive. Bang for your buck, it’s hard to beat the 127EQ. It’s cheap, has a 6-inch mirror, comes with a sturdy-enough mount, and provides a nice, entry-level viewing experience. Collimating it, however, is a bit of a nightmare. But you can benefit from my experience with doing so.

Saturn, taken on 6-30-19 at 240x magnification with Samsung Galaxy S9. 100 ISO. 1/30s exposure. F1.5 Aperture.

If you can spend three to four hundred dollars, the Orion XT8 is a great scope. It’s a bit bulky, but it’s powerful, offers some surprising optics, and is easy to use and maintain. It benefits from mounting a right-angle view finder and having a strong back to lift it. It’s about 40 lbs.

Be warned. Neither scope will allow you to perform complex astrophotography with a DSLR camera that requires auto-tracking mounts for long exposures. The 127EQ theoretically supports a motor to turn its equatorial mount, but I was never able to get mine to work.

But that’s fine, because this is about doing astrophotgraphy without a headache or spending too much money. You can purchase a much less expensive scope, but those scopes tend to be smaller and less stable. You can’t take pictures if your camera/phone keeps tipping your telescope over or the weight of it bends the eyepiece focuser, which I’ve had happen to a $50 scope I bought for fun that I won’t name.

Once you have a scope you’re going to want your smartphone to have a decent camera. Almost all the modern flagship models from recent years have pretty solid cameras. Most importantly, the cameras have modes that let you manually adjust their capture settings. I started with a Samsung Galaxy S7 and migrated to an S9, which is what I use now. But the new iPhones and Pixel phones are supposed to have even better cameras now.

With your phone in hand, make sure the back camera lenses are clean. Next, open your camera app and look for your image capturing settings. On my Samsung phone, I access these through the “Pro” mode.

Jupiter, taken on 6-9-19 at 240x magnification with Samsung Galaxy S9. 100 ISO. 1/45s exposure. F2.4 Aperture.

The important settings you’re looking to adjust are the ISO, the shutter speed, the focus (manual/auto), and the aperture (if your phone supports more than one aperture). You will also want to set your phone to take as high a resolution picture as it can. The more pixels the better!

The ISO affects your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it becomes but also the more “noise” you get. The shutter speed controls how long your camera’s sensor is exposed to incoming light. The longer you leave it open, the brighter your image will be. Leave it open too long and your image will blur if it’s moving. When trying to take pictures of planets and other bright objects, you’re going to want to use less ISO and a shorter shutter speed. That generally gets you more color and detail in your image.

The focus is important, too. You can almost always set your camera to manual focus and set the focus distance out to “infinite,” as if you’re focusing on mountains in the far distance. But, sometimes if you have a bright enough and big enough planet or moon, you can play with your camera’s autofocus to see if it’ll work. When it does, the results can be much better than the manual “infinite” focus.

If you can change your phone’s aperture, you should know that the larger the aperture, the more light the sensors receives. The focusing issues with the smaller depth of field from the larger aperture aren’t usually a problem with astrophotography, but sometimes too much light can be a bad thing, especially with brighter objects like the moon and some planets. Trying take pictures with each aperture setting to see what’s returning the best image.

Lastly, learn how to set your camera’s delay timer. Unless you want to invest in a remote for your phone’s camera, the next best thing is setting a 2-5 second delay on taking pictures after you click the button. Even sturdy mounts can momentarily vibrate and wobble after you manipulate your phone and these movements are dramatically amplified at higher viewing magnifications. The timer delay lets these things settle down and stop before the camera goes off, protecting your shot.

Once you have a grasp of these settings. It’s time to purchase a Cell Phone Adapter Mount. This little device connects your cellphone to whichever eyepiece you’re using in your telescope. They range in price from around $10 to $40. The things to consider are the quality of the material, the weight of the mount, how well your phone will fit, and the depth/height of your eyepieces after they’ve been completely slotted into the focuser. If your favorite eyepiece is shallow, pay careful attention to how the adapter you want to use will attach to it. And you want to get the best combination of sturdy material and low weight. I linked the one I use above.

Whichever one you purchase, it will take a little practice and/or some careful marking to be able to slot your phone into the mount in such a way that its camera (note: some phones have multiple cameras on the rear) is center positioned over the lens you mount it on.

In my experience, the easiest way to do this (and redo this because the adapter will probably need periodic readjustment) is to slot your phone and slot a wide angle eyepiece. Meaning, connect an eyepiece with a wide diameter lens. Then open your phones camera and point the combo at a lamp across the room. You should be able to see the lamp on your phone through the eyepiece. If you don’t make some adjustments and try again.

Once you have the wide angle lens good to go, it’s time to refine your adjustments with a narrow angle lens. These lenses tend to be tiny in diameter but offer the most magnification when viewing. Replacing the wide angle eyepiece with the narrow angle eyepiece and check for the same lamp. If the camera is centered properly, you should just get a circle of light in the middle of your screen. If not, make some careful adjustments.

As always, take care not to drop or dirty your eyepieces. Take reasonable precautions before you start.

So now, you have a telescope, you have experience adjusting your phone’s camera settings, and you have an aligned mount. Go find yourself something to take a picture of. It’s easiest to start with a big bright planet like Jupiter, but it’s also pretty easy to shoot the moon. Whatever you choose, direct your scope toward it and focus it for the eyepiece you intend to use for the photo. If you have the ability to tighten up or lock your focuser in place after doing this, then do so. You don’t want it to move for the next step.

Uranus, taken on 10-19-19 at 240x magnification with Samsung Galaxy S9. 200 ISO. 1/10s exposure. F1.5 Aperture.

Now, slot your phone into the mount if it isn’t already slotted. Make sure it’s snug and not going to slip out. Then carefully attach it to the eyepiece with the object in view and in focus. You need to make sure the eyepiece is secure in the focuser and that the mount is secured to the eyepiece, all while not moving your scope. This can get tricky, especially at high magnifications.

For bright objects, you should easily see them appear on your phone’s screen, even with an automatic camera setting. If not, switch to your advanced settings and increase the ISO and/or reduce the shutter speed. The latter usually works better in my experience. Once you can see the object through your phone’s camera, you can begin to make the adjustments to bring out the objects color and detail.

For high magnifications and even lower ones, you’re going to have to readjust your scope to keep the object centered. Whether it’s a star, a planet, or the moon, it’s going to be moving. And the higher the magnification you use the faster it will travel through your field of view. This, too, takes some practice. If you over adjust, you’re probably going to have to detach the mount and find the object all over again unless your view finder is perfectly aligned with your scope.

Note: If you decide to shoot the moon, especially when it’s near full; it’s going to be really bright. Don’t be afraid to increase the shutter speed to hundredths of a second.

Once you have a mix of settings that look good, take a picture using the timer. But keep in mind, what you’re shooting will be moving, so you may want to slightly offset the objects position in your camera before taking the picture to correct for this movement. This can also get a little tricky, but you’re not trying to be perfect. You can always crop the image later. It’s more crucial for “large” celestial objects like the moon or nebula. As parts of them can move out of frame.

Keep readjusting and trying a mix of settings. While I suggested the “Pro” mode, there are new and specialized modes you can also try like the “Night” mode. I don’t suggest taking pictures with the digital zoom. Feel free to use the zoom to adjust settings to bring out color and detail, but zoom back out when you’re done. You can always enlarge the photo later without losing the initial data.

You can be methodical about all of this or correct it on the fly. The photo metadata usually captures most of the settings you’re using. You can even experiment with video, which can be used to get many frames of images for image stacking. Image stacking is a more advanced concept I’m currently learning about it, but it really produces some fine images.

Neptune, taken on 9-7-19 at 240x magnification with Samsung Galaxy S9. 400 ISO. 1/3s exposure. F2.4 Aperture.

When you feel like you’ve taken enough pictures (the more the better), go through them. Zoom in, examine them closely. Try some basic cleanup with a photo auto-adjuster or import them into a more complex application like Adobe Photoshop or some photo editing app.

To summarize, all you need to get into astrophotography is a telescope, which can run as little as $100 or as much as you like; a $10 phone mount; a smart phone, which you probably already have; and some patience and practice.

And to be fair, you don’t technically need a telescope. Venture out to a dark enough place with clear skies and you can manipulate all the same camera settings on your phone or DSLR/non-DSLR camera to take some incredible pictures of the Milky Way or other deep sky objects (DSO).

Spoilers: Game of Throne Origins – Wolverine

If I’m being completely honest, I gave up on the Song of Ice and Fire back in 2007 after I finished, “A Feast for Crows” and read George R R. Martin’s end note. I knew the series would never be finished at that point. It takes an author to smell another author’s b—shit. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote and why I checked out. It comes from the 2006 paperback printing of “A Feast for Crows.”

“I did not forget about the other characters. Far from it. I wrote lots about them. Pages and pages and pages. Chapters and more chapters. I was still writing when it dawned on me that the book had become too big to publish in a single volume … and I wasn’t close to finished yet. To tell all of the story that I wanted to tell, I was going to have to cut the book in two.”

But the TV series cane along. In fact, it was the notion that the book series was going to be adapted by HBO that got me interested in reading the series in the first place. You must understand this was in the age of HBO adapting other book series like True Blood. In a way, the premium network was at the forefront of this phenomena long before such series became the flagship for various streaming services.

Even though I checked out on the book series, I watched season 1 of Game of Thrones and tried to get others interested in it. By the end of the season, I lost interest. It was just okay but it was slow like the books and full of the superfluous sex scenes HBO used to market all of its series at the time (see Rome). I let it go and just kept up with news tidbits and YouTube critics’ takes on the various plot developments in the years to come.

I picked up season 8, though, to be part of the conversation and to see how the the showrunners would complete the story without source material. What I didn’t know at the time and didn’t find out until S8:E3 was one of showrunners was responsible for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was awful and stupid. It’s the kind of movie that takes what should be a guaranteed payday in the form of Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine and thinks it’s a good idea to first, make a prequel, then sew Ryan Reynold’s Deadpool’s mouth shut, and then tear multiple plot holes in the X-Men cinematic universe. And I know my criticism of this movie panned out at the very least in the case of the actual Deadpool movies starring Ryan Reynolds, which had R rated success.

So, I subscribed to season 8 of GoT on Hulu and watched it. Once things got bad, I was just amused. I heard about the leaks and checked them out. So far, they’ve proven to be accurate. And in any case, this season is a disaster. Character motivations don’t make sense. The hard cuts the script writers keep using so they don’t have to have the characters react to actual huge revelations come off as cheap and forced. The battle tactics are asinine. The physical logic of various climatic scenes is obviously flawed.

Let’s be more specific. Here are some of my favorite gripes.

Arya, while wounded, can move past an army of undead creatures to assassinate a supernatural being, but can’t sneak into and out of a city that’s letting people into and out of it better than Jaime.

The scoprions are able to fire at a deadly, semi-automatic pace and put a cloud of arrows in the air, but when Dany assaults the full Iron Fleet and the city, the bolts come one at a time. Furthermore, you don’t need to kill her dragon to stop her. Several dozen men firing crossbows or longbows at Dany (not the dragon) while she’s torching defenses would eventually land a hit and end the battle.

Armor became worthless.

The war against Cersei should have ended in episode 4 when Dany stood within arrow and scorpion range of the city’s defenses and Cersei didn’t just kill her.

Jon has done nothing in season 8. Yes, there are leaks for the final episode, but let’s be real. Arya killed Jon’s arc in episode 3.

Ghost’s treatment.

Bran’s uselessness.

Jaime’s heel to face to heel turn.

The Dothraki were initially going to charge into the dark at the army of the undead with normal weapons. Normal weapons. Yes, they got fire weapons later and it didn’t matter in the end, but they were prepared to charge without them!

I could keep going. Plenty of people have done some great analysis of these episodes and care more about them than I do. Check out Nerdrotic, Doomcock, or Mauler’s videos on YouTube.

The followup, a.k.a., the other half of a “Feast for Crows”, didn’t come out for another 5 years. Despite my disillusionment, I got “A Dance with Dragons” on my Nook Color. I only read the first few chapters and quit. I don’t care where whores go, Tyrion.

I sold my Nook Color at a garage sale a couple years ago. “The Winds of Winter” still has not come out. It’s effectively been 14 years since the last Song of Ice and Fire book. With that understanding, strap in for the final episode of season 8, because it’s going to get adamantium bullet levels of stupid.

Spoiler Warning: The Endgame Awakens

Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead.

Avengers: Endgame. An epic film 10 years in the making. It delivered on the great conclusion and audiences love it. But in 10 more years, it may not be remembered so fondly.

The Marvel masterpiece raises the specter of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in many significant ways. That film, too, had a massive build and smashed box office records. Critics and audiences praised it and the director. It was the rebirth of Star Wars, but there was always a sense that something wasn’t quite right with it for a small segment of audiences.

So years later (and after the cinematic catastrophe that was its sequel, The Last Jedi), fans have revisited TFA and found its many, many problems. Conveniences abound, world building is non-existent. Mysteries exist for mystery sake and characters fail to have any real characterization. And a beloved character dies in a climatic scene.

It’s not a perfect parallel in its elements to Endgame, but it’s similar in a broader sense. Fan service, intrigue, and a few good moments plaster over the many plot holes and logical inconsistencies.

Years from now or maybe sooner, today’s fans are not going to look back so fondly on this film. They’ll return to Chubby Thor playing Fortnite; bizarre time hopping and alternate realities and that raise so many questions of how, when, and why; the Avengers plan in general; the off screen creation of Professor Hulk; Bucky not being made the next Captain America, and Captain Marvel’s tacked on parts. There are more issues, but I’m not trying to be comprehensive here.

The biggest problem for me comes from the Avengers plan. They use the gauntlet to bring everyone back that was snapped away 5 years ago. This is what Tony Stark wanted/demanded to keep his family. It’s hard to blame the guy for this plan without sounding ungrateful, but it’s still a hard thing to accept.

That decision made, the Avengers return the survivors to the present, creating a horrible dystopia. In five years, people have moved on from the loved ones they lost, killed themselves from grief, and died from other causes. The result is this world where half the population returns to a world where most of them no longer belong, some are missing family members, and society no longer has the capacity to sustain them after letting infrastructure decay. Confusion, new grief, rage, starvation, and global riots await them after being gone for subjective seconds.

And that’s just on Earth.

It’s an issue the screenwriters could have completely avoided had they not chosen the story option of Thanos destroying the Infinity Gems. Had they not given Thanos the capacity to do that, there would not have been a need for a 5-year time skip or time travel in general. That story decision is the root of almost all of the major problems with the script. The only reason I think they did that was to have the time travel plots to revisit the previous films. In a sense, they wanted to close out the story with a quasi-clip show.

The workaround would have been to have the Avengers steal most of the gems from a wounded but healing Thanos, who is preparing to return to his duties ruling his empire to curb the chaos his snap created, and then watching the Avengers race around the cosmos trying to build a new gauntlet while protecting the gems from Thanos. If the writers are still married to the time traveling, then the Avengers could have inexpertly used the Time stone to try to escape to the past with the various stones for brief periods of time. In the climax, they finish the gauntlet, get the rest of the gems from Thanos, and Tony snaps to bring everyone back and all his returned allies to the new battlefield. That’s just one thought.

Where the MCU goes from here is anyone’s guess. There are movies scheduled to be produced and we have some idea of which heroes will comprise the next wave of Avengers, but Endgame undercut a lot of interest in any story that follows. Multiple timelines/realities reduce the stakes, as nothing really matters in such a multi-verse. Lesser-known and less-liked heroes won’t have the time they need to endear themselves to audiences while grappling with threats far below the threat Thanos represented. And the prime timeline is pretty messed up thanks to the reasons mentioned above with bringing back half the population of everything after 5 years.

Endgame did future stories and heroes no favors in this regard. This lack of establishing a solid launch platform for the next phase will further tarnish the legacy of this film as the new films premiere to decaying fan interest.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe tonight’s episode of Game of Throne made me salty. We’ll see.

Rise of Skywalker Teaser: More Poor Writing and Stupidity

After I saw The Force Awakens, I eagerly wrote a blog about it. My reaction was ambivalent at best. I was irked a bit by the logical inconsistencies in the script and the ill-defined world. But my expectations and excitement for the Last Jedi grew over the following two years. It was going to be the movie that would make up for The Force Awakens shortcomings, deliver on its setups, expand the mysteries, and build some characterization for the new main characters, Rey, Poe, and Finn.

Instead, The Last Jedi killed the franchise for me. It was stunningly awful. It wasn’t merely B movie awful or boring. It transcends awfulness. Each and every scene is a eldritch winding of poor writing that will drive you mad if you trying to untangle it.

I attempted to write a review of it, just as I did The Force Awakens, but I quit when I realized I wrote 2,000 words and hadn’t gotten past the opening scene of the film. It just wasn’t worth the effort because I didn’t care enough about the film to finish the review. It wasn’t worth my words.

Fast forward another year and a half and here we are seeing the teaser for Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker.

No, I’m not going to link to it. It’s as bad as the Last Jedi. It exalts the character of Rey who hasn’t actually done anything in two films except fight Kylo Ren to an inconclusive battle and lift some rocks. I still don’t know why she’s even doing what she does or why anyone trusts her or relies on her. I don’t know how she became so proficient in the force or why she is more powerful than anyone else in the saga, save for the plot device/character of Snoke.

The Episode IX teaser opens with Rey flipping backwards over a speeding TIE Fighter, likely Kylo’s craft, and preparing to slice it with her light saber. It’s the centerpiece of this teaser, the first thing we see of this conclusion to the saga, and it’s so dumb for so many reasons:

  • Rey can lift several hundred tons of rocks with the force, but doesn’t smash the craft into the ground or rip its engines off.
  • Kylo or whoever pilots it decides to close into melee range of someone wielding a light saber instead of just shooting her.
  • The craft has no shields or armor.
  • Rey didn’t need to back flip to slice the craft; she could just duck beneath it or step to the side or throw her saber at it.

The scene belongs in a bad anime or video game, not in a Star Wars film. People have been referring to it as “jumping the TIE Fighter,” a snarky reference to the old term of “jumping the shark.” That’s very much on point.

Everything else that follows or fills in between this “scene” is just nostalgia marketing or more mystery boxes. Palpatine can be heard laughing at the end. Big deal. All that means is something will get made up out of nowhere, with no set up, to bring Palpatine back in some form. I guess no one ever caught onto his plotting in the 30 years between Episodes VI and VII.

I don’t care anymore. It doesn’t matter to me who Rey’s parents are or hearing Palpatine laugh. None of these mysteries or hooks have any meaningful payoffs. It’s all just a series of a–pulls at this point in a desperate attempt to salvage absolutely poor planning.

And that’s the worst thing in my mind. This continuation of the saga wasn’t planned out from the beginning. With a multi-billion dollar franchise on the line, they REFUSED to do the necessary work to meticulously plan and script out all three films before they even thought of casting and shooting them. It’s inexcusable.

Lastly, The Last Jedi destroyed the film version of the character of Luke Skywalker, reducing him to a coward and child-killer. It’s insulting to have the title of Episode IX further desecrate the memory of such a well-loved character.

Capturing Super Lunar Eclipse and Orion Nebula

I recently had some pretty good luck capturing both a shot of the total lunar eclipse super moon back on Jan. 21 and the Orion Nebula.

The pictures are below. I didn’t use any special tricks other than adjusting the exposure time, the ISO, and the aperture setting. Generally for dim objects like nebula, I rely on the F1.5 aperture setting on my Samsung Galaxy S9 with 800 ISO and anywhere from .25s to 1s exposure time. Really, anything more than 1 second at the 40x magnification or so I’m using can cause motion blur.

The moon is easier to shoot, being brighter, closer, and larger. But because of those things it can be a challenge to get a sharp focus between my phone’s automatic and/or manual focus settings and the telescope itself. For the eclipse picture, there did seem to be a little distortion in the cold night air. I’ve gotten sharper pictures of the moon on other nights.

Still trying to get back to writing, but sitting down to write this little blog has been a struggle by itself.

Orion Nebula captured with a Samsung Galaxy S9 and an Orion XT8 Telescope.
The Orion Nebula. Impressive amount of color for a short exposure time with a Samsung Galaxy S9.
Lunar Eclipse from Jan. 21, 2019.
Lunar Eclipse from Jan. 21, 2019. Check the stars peeking out from around edge of the moon.