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Google Pixel 4 astrophotography: Tips and tricks for shooting starry night skies
The Google Pixel 4 was undoubtedly one of the most polarizing smartphones in 2019, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t boast some impressive features. The astrophotography mode was one of those features, with Google’s images showing an impressive ability to capture the night sky.
Recently I was able to really put the mode to the test by taking the device to Sutherland, South Africa, one of the darkest places in Southern Africa, and home to SALT, the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
Even if you’re stuck a little closer to home, there are plenty of tricks I picked up during my shooting sessions. With that in mind, here are some Pixel camera astrophotography mode tips, as well as my impressions of how well the Pixel 4 handled some of the darkest nights you can find!
What is the Pixel 4 Astrophotography mode and what can it do?
As the name suggests, the Pixel camera astrophotography mode (or just astro mode) allows you to take astrophotography shots. In other words, it lets you take shots of the night sky, including stars and other celestial objects.
The Pixel 4 combines 16 15-second exposures into a single four-minute mega-exposure (for lack of a better term), while the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3 combine four of these frames into a one-minute exposure.
To actually capture astro shots, you’ll need a tripod (or some other makeshift way of holding your phone completely still) and you’ll then have to enter Night Sight mode for the phone to automatically enter astrophotography mode.
So what’s the phone actually capable of? Well, the featured image at the top of the page is just one example, making for a big difference compared to a Night Sight shot at a similar time. It’s clear Google has pulled off something truly impressive in ideal stargazing conditions (not that it doesn’t take great shots in other conditions).
One of the most impressive things about the astrophotography mode is just how many stars and celestial objects the picture is able to capture. Whether it’s because my eyes needed some time to adjust to the night sky or the phone simply sucking up as much light as possible, I often found myself surprised that the mode caught more stars than I could see at the time. Even the faintest star is visible in the image.
Resolvable detail isn’t great upon closer inspection or cropping, but that’s to be expected when shooting in the dark in the first place (let alone the stars). The mode is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser on social media.
Pixel 4 astrophotography tips and tricks
Google previously issued a few tips for best practices, and they definitely came in handy. These tips include firing a test shot in astrophotography mode (the viewfinder updates after 15 seconds) to ensure your picture is framed properly, and setting the focus to “far” if you have autofocus issues. You can check out Google’s blog here.
Instead of regurgitating Google’s official tips, here are a few additional tricks I discovered:
Find somewhere with as little light pollution as possible
This almost goes without saying, but to capture great astro photos you need to find skies with little in the way of light pollution.
Sure, you can capture stars in some cities and in the urban/rural divide, but try using a website like Light Pollution Map to find those areas with little light pollution.
The very first step in shooting astro shots on the Pixel 4 is to find a location with little in the way of light pollution.
This way, you’ll be able to capture the Milky Way, way more stars, and nebulae. And you never know, you might find a pocket of star-filled skies nearby rather than a few hours away.
Enhance your shots further with your own lighting
Want to get a shot with people’s faces visible as well? Why not try small lamps or indirect lighting to illuminate people in a scene. Shooting the subjects in complete darkness means you might not see them unless they’re silhouetted by the sky (as per the featured image), and pointing a flashlight directly at them can result in the subjects looking over-exposed at the expense of the stars.
Protect your phone!
This won’t help you take amazing astro shots, but out of safety for your expensive phone, you’ll want to keep your hand near the tripod or use a blanket/clothing as padding in case the setup falls.
I learned this the hard way after a gust of wind blew the phone and mini-tripod down, resulting in two small scratches on the Pixel 4 display (sorry, AA team!). A jacket on the floor near/under the tripod or a nearby hand ready to grab the setup could’ve avoided this.
Edit your photos for maximum impact
Another seemingly obvious tip is that you can always edit these shots in your favorite editing app. Sure, the snaps look fantastic already (I haven’t edited the ones in this post), but tweaking light levels and colors can go a long way towards making a good shot look fantastic.
Don’t worry too much about other objects, use them to add personality
I found that the astrophotography mode handled fast-moving clouds pretty well too (see above), resulting in an interesting, streaky effect. So don’t despair if the wind is a little gusty and it’s a bit overcast. Furthermore, you can always stop the exposure yourself if you don’t want clouds to cover up the stars too much.
It’s also worth including subjects like the windmill in your picture, as I got some pretty cool blur effects as a result — check out the first image in the gallery above.
The Pixel 4 astrophotography mode deals relatively well with unwanted light sources in a shot, as I got a decent picture when someone with a headlamp ran into my scene (check out the shot above on the right). Subsequent exposures did a great job of covering it up, although people entering and leaving the house for extended periods left a ghostly shadow nevertheless. So you don’t necessarily have to end your current exposure if someone turns on a flashlight, though you should take a follow-up shot just in case.
Always take multiple shots
Speaking of follow-up shots, one of the basic rules of photography is that you can’t go wrong with another snap. This applies here too, although I’ve found myself pretty happy with pictures after one shot. Nevertheless, the dark nature of astrophotography means you might not have the framing you want, and only realize that after the first snap.
Where to next for astro mode?
The Pixel 4 astrophotography mode is very slick, but there are still a few places for Google could improve — maybe in a future Feature Drop!
For one, the picture metadata only notes that the exposure lasted for 15 seconds or so, even if you shot a full four-minute shot. I understand that Google essentially stacks and processes 16 15-second exposures, but some sort of tag in the picture name or EXIF data would help differentiate between a prematurely halted astrophotography snap and a four-minute picture.
Another future area of improvement is in how it handles the moon, as Google confirms that it’s unable to capture the moon’s details and a moonlit landscape in the same image. This is completely understandable, but Google has already hinted at improvements coming down the line, potentially allowing you to shoot both the bright moon and environments.
Our own Kris Carlon has previously lamented the narrower field of view compared to astrophotography on dedicated cameras, but I was pretty happy with how much the Pixel 4 camera captured. In any event, it would be great if Google could deliver an ultra wide-angle camera that doesn’t suck in low light (if it ever adds an ultra-wide rear camera).
Have you tried the astrophotography mode? Give us your thoughts below!