One of my goals this year is to take some astro pics of various things – moon, planets, stars, DSOs. And since I have seen people do some amazing things with the same scope as me (NexStar 8SE) and a smartphone, I wanted to try it too. In a previous post, I described it as beginner / entry-level astrophotography (Smartphone astrophotography part 1 – Meade smartphone adapter). I have a Meade adapter to hold the smartphone and some okay eyepieces to use, but getting set up is probably the least of the challenge…while I have managed to get a couple of good shots, I haven’t been very consistent.
I outlined seven steps in my previous post and after fiddling with setups, I managed to mount the phone, adjust the phone to the eyepiece ring, mount the eyepiece, find an object, and adjust the scope’s focus. Five steps down, somewhat mechanical and there’s always likely room for improvement, but it’s good enough for amateur work. Which leaves adjusting the camera settings and snapping the photo or video. If I’m really specific about it, these two actually break into three pieces:
- Set the general camera settings
- Set the individual image settings
- Record the image or video
For iOS phones, you use Night Cap(ture); there are other apps but anyone having any really serious luck with their iPhones and a scope is generally using this app. For Android, the popular choice is Camera FV-5; as with iOS, there are other choices, but most people are defaulting to this app. Both are popular because you can change camera and image settings out the wazoo, which you need in order to get beyond basic settings and into astro-photography configs for low-light.
However, when I looked at the camera settings, I hit a wall. In Camera FV-5, there are *23* settings that could directly impact my type of astrophotos. TWENTY-THREE of them. While the general advice is a bit of trial and error, and making a checklist to run through all the different types of options, 23 is way too many. With all the sub-options, etc., it would be hundreds of permutations. So I needed to triage the list to a more manageable size. I reached out to Lokifish and FlyingSnow on Cloudy Nights, Loren on Cloudy Nights and on FaceBook, and Andrew through Twitter. Most of them are using iPhones, not Android, and different software, but my initial camera questions were a bit more generic than that, not specifically limited to iPhones or Android i.e. not really limited to smartphones. To be honest, I think they are more about astrophotography in general, and in addition to consulting the four people mentioned above, I did a LOT of online searching to find people talking about the same issues. I tried the even tried the RASCAG group too but no nibbles. But with the various avenues, I managed to weed the initial list of 23 down to just 3 to keep for a checklist experiment. If you’re thinking of trying the software, click on the settings icon, and here’s what you will find:
A. Under Basic Settings tab:
- Irrelevant: Storage location, custom storage folder, and geotagging are more about your own personal interests, not the outputs, and you might as well turn the composition grid off too.
- Mostly irrelevant: I initially set maximize screen brightness to OFF, mainly as a question around preserving my night vision (there’s a lot of white on the screen and no app-based night mode to turn everything red). However, for some darker sky options, I wanted the screen as bright as possible to show any stray photons. It doesn’t affect the photos, just your viewer, so it’s more personal preference.
- Relevant: But you SHOULD set Image Resolution to the maximum size you have available as you want as much light and information in the photos as possible. You should also note the maximum size shown as it will be relevant in another section in a minute.
B. Under the General Camera Settings tab:
- Irrelevant: Set review last photo, review time, sound (3 sub-options), hardware controls (2 sub-options), use double back key press, and prefer external applications to whatever you want to for personal style, as none of them affect the photos. Anti-banding sounds impressive until you actually see the sub-settings — it is basically about Hz ranges, which might sound relevant until you see that there is a setting for Europe and USA. What is it? It’s so you don’t take a pic of a TV screen and see bands on it. I hit disable.
- Mostly irrelevant: Under “compatibility”, you will see six sub-options that are highly technical and their “grouping” doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. “Keep AE-L/AWB-L after focus and shoots” doesn’t affect photos but it DOES allow you to set them once and keep it set, rather than any resets after each shot. The next three work together — if you use a bracketing procedure (we’ll come to this later but basically it takes three to seven photos at a time, sequentially like a burst, with slightly different exposure compensation), then these three options will affect how well that tool works (i.e. pausing between exposures or not, how long the pause should be, and whether you want it to refocus between shots — generally not for the last one because you’re going to be setting it to infinity later anyway for every shot). You can also set the metadata mode (1,2,3) and while metadata is important when you’re comparing photos, I couldn’t find ANY explanation of what the difference was. “2” seemed to have more info in the file than “1”, but that might have just been coincidence. I set mine to 2. The last sub-option is called “Force usage of legacy camera driver”. I can’t imagine a practical normal reason you would ever want to do that — in almost all cases, older camera drivers are going to have less features and produce worse photos than the current driver. I would make sure it is turned off unless you know a specific reason for your phone’s model in particular that makes you want to switch it. Meanwhile, back under the main settings, there is one called “focus before capturing” but since you’re going to set it later to infinity, it can be switched off. The next option also asks if you can take a photo without focus, which is kind of stupid as it just asked the same question. If I can turn it off, why do I want to ask it again? I switched it on (first one says yes you can take photo, second one says actually take the photo?).
- Relevant: The first sub-option under main heading is the only real one that is relevant, and not for the reason that first appears. It is called “Long Exposure Resolution”. Like with Basic Settings / Image Resolution, this is asking you what resolution you should use. Again, for astro photos, you generally want the biggest one you can get with the most detail. So while that seems like a no-brainer, I’m flagging it for another reason. On my phone, my Max Image Resolution is 12MP (chosen in the section above), but my max Long Exposure Resolution is…wait for it…2MP. Why? Because my phone’s camera sucks. I’m using a Galaxy Note 3 that works great for just about everything else but the sensor is so old, it’s going to drastically limit me for certain types of astro photos. It also means that although the software may SAY it’s doing a long 20s exposure, it looks like that is more of a “simulated” long exposure (taking smaller shorter exposures and stacking them together). I’ll cover this in more detail with my actual image reviews, but you should know right up front, if this says you’re limited to a much smaller size, it means your expectations for pics of anything outside our solar system should be limited.
C. Under the Photo Encoding Settings tab:
- Irrelevant: Photo storage and numbering (four options) are irrelevant to the image, just personal preference.
- Mostly irrelevant: Choosing to embed the thumbnail in the JPG doesn’t affect your image quality, but you may want it when reviewing and sorting photos later. I switched it off, but my consultative advisors recommended leaving it on. And you might as well have best quality (100) for the thumbnail. Similarly, picture orientation (2 options, both of which I leave off) and MetaData (I include EXIF +XMP) are just personal preference.
- Relevant: There are four relevant ones left, but two of them are intertwined and obvious. The first one is the file format — on almost all Android phones, this is going to be JPG or PNG. I prefer JPG, doesn’t really matter. What matters is if you have a third option to do RAW. If you do, I am highly jealous. The RAW format is your gold standard and what most hard-core astro-photographers use for imaging. Just like most any other serious photographer for other subjects. But you likely won’t have the option, so choices after that are pretty obvious. If you choose JPG, you will want the highest quality level (again, why not?). The setting, “SET IMAGE PARAMETERS” (for contrast, saturation and sharpness), is actually highly-relevant, and while you only set it once generally, I’m going to cover it in the next post with the image checklist options. Finally, the setting for “COLOR CHANNELS” isn’t as exciting as some astrophotographers might hope. Often, APers, will take shots with Reds, Greens, and Blues separately (no, I don’t know hardly anything about it) to capture different light spectrums and then merge them later. It gives them more granularity of control in the final combined photos. However, this one only has two options — RGB i.e. in colour or Luminance i.e. B/W. While B/W might be tempting, people tend to get more realistic photos in colour.
D. Under the Viewfinder Settings tab:
- Irrelevant: This whole section is relatively irrelevant for the images, just your own preferences in working the screen. Widescreen is preferred by some, I tend to leave it off; I check the “DO NOT TURN SCREEN OFF” because it’s annoying in the middle of setting up and checking some info in a book or something to have the phone turn off, reenter the pass code, get it back to where you were. Of course, leaving it on sucks battery life. Since I don’t do image rotation either, I leave the viewfinder in landscape mode on mine.
- Mostly irrelevant: Under Viewfinder Overlaps, there are two options that are useful — SHOW STOPS DISPLAY (i.e. exposure compensation) and SHOW CAMERA PARAMETERS (i.e. show your settings on the screen before you snap). Focus Assist sounds like it could be relevant, except you’re not manually focusing with the camera, you’re doing it with the scope. Your phone is set to Infinity.
- Relevant: The Histogram settings could be useful, I have no idea how to use them though, so I don’t bother. If you can get a good image of something on your screen, reviewing the histogram would let you tweak it even more, but that is beyond my ken.
And that’s it. All the main options eliminated or set, twenty relevant ones addressed, and only three that carry forward to my next post of testing different things with a checklist approach.