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March 20, 2015

Jenifer Hanen on how to be an astrophotographer: Part 2

Astrophotographer Jenifer Hanen gave us some great tips last month on how to get started on taking amazing shots of the sky with your Lumia. Now that you’ve got the basics of preparation down, are you ready to go one step further?

By now you all know Jenifer Hanen, astrophotographer and MVC judge extraordinaire. Last month, she gave us not only an insightful interview, but a ton of top tips and app suggestions to help us get started with our newfound astrophotography hobbies as well. As promised, she’s back with an in-depth astrophotography tutorial that will take your skills to the next level and teach you how to take spectacular shots of the skies using nothing but your Lumia. Over to you, Jenifer!

nokia lumia 1020The Cheap and Easy Approach to Astrophotography, or, Twilight is your Friend

The Moon and the planets travel roughly on the same path in the sky called the Ecliptic, and once you recognize where that is in your locale’s sky, you can readily identify the solar system’s best and easiest photo targets in a glance as the planets are (mostly) brighter than the stars. I like evening twilight best, as my good sky view is of the West, but if your best view is of the East, then get up for the dawn. Not only is the twilight sky a range of colors from apricot to deep violet from the remains of the sunset or just before sunrise, but there is additional interest of potential planets to take photos of without any extra equipment or a tripod.

When I am shooting the moon and planets at twilight or dusk, I usually don’t have to adjust the settings in the Pro menu of the Lumia Camera app, it is usually sufficient to tap to focus on the lightest part of the sky, press the camera’s shutter button to take the photo. Simple.

Why tap to focus on the lightest part of the sky? It will make the darker parts darker and any planet appear to shine more brightly. But test it yourself, point at the moon or a planet at twilight, tap to focus on the darkest part of the sky and the moon or planet will have too much shine and the lightest part of the sky will loose its dynamic range of tone and color. Tap to focus on the lightest part of the sky, the moon and planets will be crisper and you will retain the color and tone of the late sunset/dusk or early dawn.

If you would like to experiment with the Pro menu settings, then start with lowering the ISO – I find at twilight I can go as low as 200 ISO and get a crisp photo, even hand held. Many times my Lumia camera software will make the photo appear lighter than the scene actually is, so I will decrease the EV to -0.03 or -0.07. When I decrease EV, I will look for a fence or ledge to brace my shoulder or the camera on to make sure the planets stay as a dot and not a streak.

When I am taking a photo of the moon and I don’t want a luminous blob, but the actual shape of the moon, I will decrease ISO, shutter speed, and EV settings until I get a balance between the moon’s shape and the rest of the scene lit enough to create an interesting photo.

As you are taking photos and experimenting with settings, do click on the circle in the upper corner to view your most recent photo. Zoom up to check if the planet or sky subject is round and crisp. If streaked, then brace the camera or your shoulder and/or increase the ISO or EV if you have adjusted them.

Another trick to low light photography without a tripod, other than tapping to focus on the lightest object on the screen, if you don’t have anything to lean against is to firmly put both of you elbows on your side, exhale all of your breath, and take the photo. This can help reduces shake.

The last of the dusk, the new of the moon

Jenifer Hanen Tutorial 1

Moon and Venus, handheld, shoulder braced on fence, 1/2/14
f/2.2, ISO 4000, 1/3 second shutter speed, 0.0 EV, WB Auto

Jupiter and the Moon, 5:44am


Hand held, elbows clenched to my side, breath out, 8/31/13
f/2.2, ISO 4000, 1/3 second shutter speed, 0.0 EV, WB Auto

Handheld out of the car window


The Constellation Scorpius in the Milky Way! Hand held, car window as brace/support, praying it would work, very dark sky, 6/27/14
f/2.2, ISO 4000, 4 seconds shutter speed, 0.0 EV, WB Auto

Please note that this photo was taken near midnight in a dark sky location and I should have gotten out of the car and put the Lumia 1020 on a tripod for an even more awesome photo, but I had been driving 6 hours by that point and just wanted to get to the place I was staying.

Jen’s Basic Astrophoto Tips for Lumia

Main rule of thumb

To take a good photo of the Moon and/or planets with your Lumia, you will find that the start of dawn or the end dusk will yield lovely photos without a tripod. If your Lumia lightens the scene too much, don’t be afraid to decrease ISO, shutter speed, and EV settings in the Pro menu.

To take a decent photo of the stars with your Lumia, you will need dark skies, a tripod, and to use increased shutter speed and ISO.

Set the focus to infinity

If you can’t get the camera to focus on the astro subject, then set the ‘focus’ to infinity. Although, your mileage may vary here. I find that if I tap to focus on the moon on my screen, I get a clearer photo of the moon at the pixel level than if I use the infinity setting on the menu bar. Test with your Lumia, see if tapping on the screen to focus or setting the focus to infinity works better for you and your astrophoto goals.

Increase the ISO

If the photos you are taking are too dark, then start by increasing the ISO. Start incrementally at 400 or 800 ISO, take a test photo, and increase ISO as needed. While it is tempting to start at 3200 or 4000 ISO, it will greatly increase the noise. I try to use the lowest ISO possible for the available light and the subject so that I have a crisp photo with little pixelated noise. At twilight, I will frequently decrease ISO, as my Lumia 1020 makes scenes lighter than I want them.

Increase the shutter speed

If after testing higher ISO the photo is still too dark, then start to increase the shutter speed. You can handhold 1/30th of a second, 1/15th with your shoulders braced or elbows clenched to your sides, but to get good crisp, pinpoint planets or stars at any higher shutter speed (1/8th of a second to 4 seconds) you will need a tripod. I regularly shoot my Lumia 1020 at the current largest shutter speed of 4 seconds, but I have it on a tripod.

Adjusting ISO with a larger shutter speed first may be your preferred method. Try, test, experiment.

Try star stacking

If none of the above is working, then take some photos on a tripod with max ISO and max shutter speed settings and then have fun in post-production with a star stacking program. I stay away from star stacking, but you may have fun with it.

Be wary of the sun

Don’t look into the Sun and don’t point your camera directly at the Sun as it will ruin your sight and can damage your camera phone’s sensor. Most of the Sun filters that come with cheap telescopes are worthless and will not protect your eyes nor your camera phone’s sensor. If you wish to take photos of our nearest and dearest star, then please do so with some cloud cover or only when you have invested in a proper solar telescope viewing set up with filters, et al.

Ready to give Jenifer’s tutorial a shot? According to EarthSky, March is a fantastic month for planet-viewing, with March 21st being an especially fantastic time to see a young moon and Mars beneath Venus in the early evening. It’s a perfect opportunity to try Jenifer’s tips, so be sure not to miss it! Let us know how it goes in the comments below, or drop some of your own tips for shooting the skies with just your Lumia.