Testing Google Pixel Astrophotography Mode Long Exposure Times

Ryan Park Campground Astrophotography
This is not our backyard, but I wish it was! | © Jason Takacs

One weekend night when we weren’t on the road RVing, I decided to do a little experiment with my Google Pixel 6. Even though I had been using my Pixel for over a year to shoot tons of astrophotography on it, I figured I should really get to know it even better.

So, I set up a simple test in our backyard using some bocce balls for some light painting fun. Unfortunately the Moon was out and I also live under a pretty light polluted city sky, so that isn’t really ideal. But, I think you’ll get the gist from it.

You can see how light polluted your location is on our stargazing map. So, check it out.

If you’ve read other articles on our blog, you already know the Google Pixel is my main astrophotography camera (try this article on phone astrophotography, this one on light painting, or this fog filter article). I’m just not motivated enough to spend my time editing photos, but Alison on the other hand loves to edit pictures from her camera. So, I need to know what the best settings are to get the best results on my smartphone so I don’t have to play around in Photoshop or Lightroom for hours on end. 

And that’s where this test comes in.

Without droning on anymore, let’s answer the question: Does processing length on a Google Pixel matter in astrophotography mode?

The Basics

cell phone holder for a Google Pixel on a tripod
Here’s the simple setup I use for my phone | © Jason Takacs

So, my goal was to see if under our roughly Bortle 8 sky shooting in astrophotography mode would make my images clearer with a longer exposure. I decided I would start by shooting for 16 seconds and then increasing by 16 second increments.

Why did I pick 16 seconds? Well, if you know anything about the Google Pixel, it basically takes a series of 16 photos every 16 seconds for a total of a little over 4 minutes. Then through computational magic or AI voodoo, it combines all of the photos to make one sharp picture.

I needed to see if it really matters if I simply cut the process off after a few cycles instead of going the full time. Would my final image be grainy, or does it really matter how long it goes? Also, what is the best length exposure for light drawing?

Keep in mind, this isn’t a controlled experiment but me just messing around in my backyard. I’m a math and science teacher and my wife is a research scientist, so I get it. I’m kind of just playing around, so don’t take this test too seriously and just try to see the basics from what I was trying to do.

I began the experiment shooting how I normally would while camping under much darker skies.

Panther Vision Flateye Flashlight
1 second bursts with this flashlight | © Jason Takacs

The maximum exposure time available in astrophotography mode was not the usual full 4 minutes and 2 seconds I usually seeing when camping. It was actually 3 minutes and 12 seconds, which is 16 seconds for a set of 12 pictures. This is because our family doesn’t exactly live under the darkest skies, and a full moon was out at the time.

From what I’ve learned from over a year shooting on it, that’s pretty normal for the Google Pixel on nights like this especially in more light polluted areas.

For the pictures, I did a little light painting with a quick burst of light around one second in length from just to the right of the camera. This simulated what I would actually do when out camping under much darker skies.

In case you are wondering, all the pictures you see in this article have no post processing done to them. They are straight out of the camera.

The Google Pixel Exposure Test

It was 10:26 PM when I started the test. I clicked the camera button and then rolled out 8 bocce balls (2 blue, 2 green, 2 yellow, and 2 red) before the first 16 seconds expired. So, it was about a 15 second picture.

I also shined my flashlight on the kids’ playset for about one second.

Here’s my first image.

Glowing bocce ball light painting 1 testing Does Processing Length on a Google Pixel Matter in Astrophotography Mode?
Bocce ball test #1 | © Jason Takacs

Notice the light streaks that were created, and also keep in mind the brightness on the playset. You’ll see I am very inconsistent with my light painting during this test, so try not to focus on that. Just focus more on potential graininess or lack of sharpness in the pictures.

It looks pretty clean for a 15 second image.

I ran the test again by throwing out the bocce balls, and then letting the camera take a picture for 10 processing cycles or 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

Here’s the second image.

Glowing bocce ball light painting 2
Bocce ball test #2 | © Jason Takacs

Besides the brightness of the playset, do you see a difference?

I don’t. The image looks just as clear to me.

This is the image I got after running the experiment the full 3 minutes and 12 seconds.

It’s image number three.

Glowing bocce ball light painting 3
Bocce ball test #3 | © Jason Takacs

You can see that the bocce balls didn’t create any light streaks this time. What I got from running the test the longest available processing length was an image without any lines from the bocce balls.

I have done plenty of light painting/ light drawing tests, and I usually cut off the camera after a period of time when drawing.

It does look slightly darker though. Is this because the tree is dipping below the horizon, or is it because my light painting was mostly eliminated in processing? I believe it’s actually because of the processing. I’ve played around with this under different sky conditions over many nights, and I usually see this happen on longer exposures. So, I compensate by doing multiple light paints over the course of the creation of an image with the Google Pixel. That’s my little tip to anyone that ever comes across this blog post. Paint multiple times.

For the third picture,

Here’s the fourth image. I let the camera run for 6 cycles which is 1 minute and 36 seconds.

Glowing bocce ball light painting 4
Bocce ball test #4 | © Jason Takacs

This is what I got. Do you see anything different?

Again, I really don’t see a difference.

For the fifth time, the camera ran for 4 cycles or 1 minute and 4 seconds.

Glowing bocce ball light painting 5
Bocce ball test #5 | © Jason Takacs

This is what it took.

The results look the same to me if you ignore my horrible light painting. I really was too inconsistent this night.

The sixth and final time at just 2 cycles or 32 seconds.

Glowing bocce ball light painting 6
Bocce ball test #6 | © Jason Takacs

Again, it’s the same result when I look closely.

From this little test in my backyard under a lousy, urban, high Bortle number sky, the length of exposure time didn’t really make a difference when shooting from what I could see. It didn’t appear as though the images were any less grainy or sharper from running the camera for 2 or more cycles.

The only thing it impacted was my ability to light draw in my image. You have to cut the camera off before the last processing cycle to draw with light or you’ll end up with an image where the drawing you made essentially doesn’t exist.

Some people will probably say, “Jason, of course you won’t notice a difference in astrophotography mode under those conditions. It’s too bright out. You can’t even see the stars! Also, your light painting was the worst I’ve ever seen. What in the world was going on with you?”

Well, I did run this test in a few other locations and I didn’t notice any difference. 

Here are two images from under a Bortle 4 sky. One picture was taken for 4 minutes and 2 seconds at 11:05 PM. The other one was cut off after 2 cycles at 11:09 PM. I didn’t do any light painting to remove that variable for the doubters. 

Can you tell the difference (besides the fact that I moved over very slightly before taking the next shot)?

tree at a campground under a Bortle 4 sky
Bortle 4 campground image #1 | © Jason Takacs
campsite and RV under a Bortle 4 sky
Bortle 4 campground image #2 | © Jason Takacs

The first image is the longer exposure.

I honestly don’t see much of a difference. The first one looks a little brighter with a little more magenta, but it doesn’t appear sharper or less grainy to me. What do you think? I’m honestly happy with both results and would be fine cutting off the camera’s processing early.

What happens with even darker skies?

For these next two pictures, I shot without any foreground and aimed at the Milky Way core. One picture was taken at 12:13 AM for the full 4 minutes and 2 seconds. The other one was taken at 12:17 AM for 3 cycles. 

Both were created at one of our favorite Bortle 2 sky locations in Texas we return to quite often, so light pollution is greatly minimized. Also, there was no moon out and I did not light paint. (That would be strange anyway with no foreground.)

Which picture is which?

Milky Way under a Bortle 2 sky taken with a Google Pixel and a long exposure
Milky Way image #1 | © Jason Takacs
Milky Way under a Bortle 2 sky taken with a Google Pixel and a short exposure
Milky Way image #2 | © Jason Takacs

Again, the first image is the longer exposure. Could you tell the difference this time? I couldn’t again. Maybe my eyes are getting bad.

So, the results from these two pictures should help you understand that the length of exposure on a Google Pixel really doesn’t seem to really make much of a difference. At least that’s what my results show.

I’m not sure what is going on inside this phone as far as processing goes, but how long you take a picture doesn’t really seem to make a huge difference to my eyes. So, I’m pretty comfortable telling you that for most of your images, you can cut off the processing time whenever you need to (beyond 16 seconds) when shooting in astrophotography mode.

I recommend you test this out for yourself though because I don’t want you to mess up your astrophotography pictures just because you relied on my bad eyes. 

headlamp light painting under a Bortle 2 sky
Fun light drawing with a headlamp | © Jason Takacs

Go have fun with your astro and see what you discover!

Takacs Family in front of Jayco RV
The Takacs Family

About the Authors

We are avid stargazers Jason and Alison Takacs also known as Roadtrippin’ with Takacs. With our two boys Preston and Grayson, we seek out some of the darkest skies in the country while also going on many incredible hiking and other outdoor adventures. As part-time RVers, we try to see as much of this amazing world as possible in our spare time and hope you will join us through this blog on RWT Adventures and other forms of social media as we explore the night sky and other natural wonders as hardcore astrotourists.