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How to shoot astrophotography on the Pixel 4: Best practices & tips

Andrew Martonik shooting with Night Sight on the Pixel 4
Andrew Martonik shooting with Night Sight on the Pixel 4 (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Google's Pixel 4 takes incredible photos with its wide and telephoto lenses, whether you're in auto mode, portrait mode, or of course, the legendary Night Sight setting. But one of the most significant advances to the Pixel 4's camera software comes in the form of its new astrophotography mode, letting you capture the stars with the help of computational data.

For a refresher on how astrophotography mode works, the Pixel 4 captures up to four minutes' worth of 15-second exposures, then stitches them all together to create something far beyond what a sensor of this size would typically be able to capture.

That's all great, but how exactly do you capture astrophotography shots? It's actually pretty simple and intuitive. From within the camera app, all you have to do is switch to Night Sight, which you're probably used to doing anyway if you're coming from a previous Pixel, since it's able to pull in dramatically more light than auto mode.

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Astrophotography from the Pixel 4

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Astrophotography from the Pixel 4

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Astrophotography from the Pixel 4

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Astrophotography from the Pixel 4

In dark enough conditions — and I mean dark, you'll want to find somewhere with as little noise pollution as possible for the best results — the Pixel 4 will toggle astrophotography capture automatically, denoted by a small bit of text near the top of the viewfinder. As with any other Night Sight shot, just tap the shutter button to start capturing, and prepare to leave your phone alone for a little while.

If you've ever shot long exposures before, you already know that even the smallest of camera movements can lead to blurry shots, so you'll definitely want to mount your Pixel 4 to a tripod (opens in new tab) for astrophotography, or at the very least prop the phone up against something rather than holding it for four minutes. Of course, you're not actually shooting a four-minute exposure, which would take in far too much light and cause star trails as a result of the Earth's rotation.

Pixel 4 on a tripod for astrophotography

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

In short: grab a tripod, open Night Sight, and hope for the best.

The viewfinder gives you a visual progress circle to keep track of each 15-second exposure, and it processes them in real time; with each completed capture, the preview image gets progressively brighter and sharper. But that actually raises one of the difficulties of shooting astrophotography: when you're shooting in such dark conditions, you can't actually see anything in the viewfinder beforehand to be able to frame your shot. Instead, you'll need to trust your eye and hope for the best, though I actually think this is sort of fun and I've gotten some interesting off-axis shots as a result.

You should also experiment with placing foreground elements in front of your starscape! I've seen everything from cars to guitars, buildings, and even group photos, but before you rush out to take an astrophotography shot with all of your friends, remember once again that the slightest motion during long exposures causes blurry images, so … be sure to take a photo before anyone starts drinking and suddenly can't stand still for long enough.

Group astrophotography sample from Pixel 4

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

There's a lot to keep in mind if you want to take the absolute best astrophotography samples, but in reality it's shockingly simple to pull off incredible photos that often capture more stars than even the naked eye can see. Just open Night Sight, prop your phone up, hit the shutter button, and wait!

One last bit of good news: if you don't have a Pixel 4 just yet, don't worry. Google has already confirmed its plans to bring astrophotography mode to the Pixel 3 and even the 3a! All you have to do is wait. Go out, shoot, and have fun — and if you take any star photos you're particularly proud of, tweet them to me at @hayatohuseman!

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.

4 Comments
  • You title an article "How to shoot astrophotography" and the tell us to set it on Night Mode and hope for the best? Great instructional article! 🙄
  • Did you ... read the article?
  • Fourth paragraph, I think you meant to say that you want to get away from light pollution, not noise pollution. I don't know that anyone else would either, but I certainly wouldn't buy a phone just because it has an astrophotography mode. It wouldn't even be a factor in my decision and wasn't. As someone who does astrophotography as a hobby and was looking to upgrade from another Pixel phone, you'd think I'd be all about it, but I actually passed on the Pixel 4 and went with the Samsung Note 10+ for a few different reasons. Camera sensors in phones are just so small and ill suited for this type of use. The pixels are super tiny and not sensitive enough to really bring out much detail other than the brightest of stars. In the one image of just the star field I can pick out what I believe to be Pleiades cluster, Andromeda Galaxy, Triangulum galaxy and the clusters in Perseus and Casseiopeiae. You get some place dark enough and you can see all that with your naked eye and then some. I'd be interested to know exactly where this location ranked on the Bortle scale to give an idea of just how sensitive it really is. While it is obviously capable of pulling in those dimmer stars that you might not be able to see in light polluted suburbs, I think this is more of a novelty. I think what you're going to find more often than not in those cases is your skies are going to have an ugly reddish-orange or yellow washed out glow with a few stars in them and either a really dim foreground or an over exposed foreground depending on where you are and what you're shooting. If you're going with the intent of shooting nightscapes, you're way better off using a DSLR camera on a tripod and an intervalometer. A basic DSLR is very inexpensive, especially a used one. Now, what I'd like to see is for you find a way to mount the Pixel 4 on a telescope and take pictures through the eyepiece. We get requests from our astronomy club visitors all the time wanting to take a picture through the eyepiece. If the Pixel 4 is stacking 15 second exposures for up to four minutes, you're going to see some detail you've never seen before. You've suddenly gotten a much larger aperture to focus the light down to a smaller area and taking significantly longer exposures that you've been able to do. Again, you'll be better off with a DSLR or a dedicated astronomy camera, but I'd still be curious to see how much detail you can pull out with a small phone sensor.
  • I'm planning on doing this tonight, not much I can do about light pollution, but I'm hoping for some decent shots with my telescope