Experience with Pixel 6 Astrophotography
They say there is nothing quite like getting lots of experience with a tool to really feel comfortable using it. Having created night images with the Pixel 6 as my main photo workhorse since November 2021, I feel I have gotten to know it quite well. Sitting outside just about every other weekend has allowed me to learn the ins-and-outs and strengths plus weaknesses of it.
Anyone familiar with our family adventures knows Alison and my shared passion is to relax late at night under some of the darkest skies in the country taking photos. She uses her DSLR, and I use my Pixel 6.
Some would say I’m taking the easy way out by not using a proper camera, but I disagree. This phone requires some technique and understanding to use it properly.
In this article, I’ll share some of what I have learned from a large number of nights using it. I’ve tested it while RVing in dark sky parks and in my well-lit neighborhood, in varying weather conditions, and all over suburbia. I want to help you get the best images possible on your Pixel 6, Pixel 6 Pro, Pixel 6a, Pixel 7, Pixel 7 Pro, and any future Pixel too.
So, before we get to the Google Pixel astrophotography tips, let me just answer this question:
What is the Best Phone for Astrophotography?
The Google Pixel is the best phone for astrophotography. It uses some of the most advanced artificial intelligence and processes images for a longer period of time resulting in the cleanest overall image. It easily beats out the competition for shooting the night sky and stars straight out of the camera. From what I have seen in forums, it is the cell phone serious astrophotography cell phone photographers use if they don’t want to edit in Lightroom or Photoshop just like me. It is still the most convenient tool out of all of the phones. The other phone brands are catching up, but they haven’t quite figured out computational photography at the level Google has.
Let’s start with the basics to see how we can get the best image possible out of this smartphone.
Astrophotography Tips Using the Pixel 6
Use a Tripod
Definitely get a tripod! Seriously, don’t read any further if you don’t have a way to keep this phone steady. It simply won’t work, and you’ll get frustrated quickly.
In the Pixel 6, astrophotography mode won’t register if it is shaking even in the slightest. Trust me, I tried numerous times, and the image will end up looking dark and the phone usually won’t even switch over from night sight mode.
If you look at this image I took in 40 MPH winds with no tripod, but it’s pretty blurry. The phone went into astrophotography mode for a few seconds and then fell off of a picnic table I was shooting on . It somehow grabbed this shot.
This is the first practice session with the Pixel I learned the importance of bringing proper equipment. I know that sounds ridiculous.
Let’s say you just bought the phone, but you haven’t ordered a tripod yet. Simply look for some large rocks, the side of a building, or something else solid to lean it against so it will trigger astrophotography mode and activate. I’ve done this a couple of times by setting the Pixel 6 on the ground, and it worked. They weren’t the best compositions, but it still got the job done. Honestly though, you need to get some equipment.
As for tripods, I am personally using one of the cheapest of the bunch I could find. It’s one of the inexpensive Neewer tripods, but you can use an inexpensive Amazon Basics tripod or any number of other brands for under $30. Just make sure to get a cell phone attachment too. I seriously don’t see the need to spend a fortune since you’re just shooting on your phone. Get a better tripod I’d you have a more advanced or heavier camera. Alison will probably cover that in an article here if I can drag her away from making Instagram reels. She’s my DSLR pro, and I’m just a lazy phone photographer.
It’s time to take a picture.
Once you figure out your composition, set the phone up on your tripod (or rock) to stabilize it. Then, open the camera app and slide to the left until you get to night sight mode. Just wait a couple of seconds until the crescent moon trigger icon turns into some stars. If it won’t change, that means either the camera is not steady enough, or the area is way too bright. So, find a less windy area or look for a darker spot.
When I first got the phone, I wasn’t able to get it to switch modes. Eventually I figured out it had to do with stability…and later light. Lesson learned.
When the stars are on the trigger button, the phone is ready for astrophotography mode. Push the button and wait about 4 minutes.
How long does the Pixel 6 need to take astrophotography pictures?!
Don’t freak out. You don’t always have to go the full time. Having shot in astrophotography mode well over a thousand times, I have discovered the full length of 4 minutes is not always necessary. Sometimes, you can actually stop the process after about 30 seconds and get pretty spectacular shots. I prefer to go the full 4 minutes and 2 seconds, with most of my pictures, but on occasion, I’ve been very satisfied with many of my shorter processed pictures.
Sometimes you just need to stop the picture a little early because you see a potential problem with excessive light about to enter the frame. Think of a car with bright headlights driving through the shot or someone walking by with a flashlight. The Pixel will pick up these extra light sources and merge them into the image. With a DSLR, you will typically shoot the stars for 20 to 30 seconds (at least that what Alison usually does), and you don’t have to worry about extra light since it’s a super short shooting period…providing you aren’t stacking images. With the Pixel 6, the artificial intelligence is trying to figure out how much light belongs in the image.
If you are in an area with a higher Bortle rating or the night sky is not super dark because of surrounding light sources, astrophotography mode might only say you need as low as 1 ½ to 2 minutes. This awful shot of this structure took 1 minute and 40 seconds because the Pixel determined that was all the time it needed to process it.
Level that Shot
It’s interesting to read what other people have written about this phone with horizon leveling lines. Yes, it does have lines to guide you and it does give you a readout as to how many degrees off of zero you are, but it won’t always show up.
Sometimes when I am shooting in close to complete darkness, I’ve noticed the Pixel 6 can’t figure out where the horizon is, so the on screen guide won’t show up.
So, what I do is simple:
Start the photo in astrophotography mode and then cut it off after about 30 seconds. Then, manually make adjustments based on the partial image.
The picture should be good enough to see the horizon for your next shot. It won’t be your final image but just a little time saver so you can level your camera.
Just make micro adjustments on your tripod after. I do this quite frequently in areas with next to no light.
Then, you can light paint after you have your shot composed if you prefer.
JPEG vs RAW
Which mode works for you?
I’ll simplify this one for you. How much editing do you actually want to do? I had this grand notion when I first purchased the Pixel 6 that I would take my phone’s RAW files and work with them to produce world-class images. Yeah, this hasn’t happened. I am just too busy editing YouTube videos and making other types of content to do even more work when it comes to phone photography.
Now, I just want it to be simple. I shoot in JPEG and leave the advanced astrophotography RAW DSLR stuff for Alison.
Honestly, the JPEGs come out pretty nice on this smartphone, and really don’t need a lot of work to make them look good. So, if you are busy (lazy) like me, skip the extra post processing steps of RAW and just shoot in JPEG.
This picture is is what you can get straight out of camera as a JPEG. I did zero editing to it. See? It’s easy peasy.
As the Pixel 6 is working on creating an image by combining 16 images, one thing you’ll notice is how it processes particular color layers first and then other layers later. You’ll notice a green, blue, and red tint to your image at each stage of the process while the phone is capturing light. At least that’s what I see on mine when it is working about every 16 seconds working with the 16 images. The Pixel 6 takes these layers when the time is done, and magically combines them into one crisp picture (if magic is a type of science).
As I stated earlier, I have found that you can cut off the process early, and the pictures don’t always suffer. So, I honestly have no idea why the Pixel needs 4 minutes to create a picture and which layers it skips since I haven’t noticed a huge difference in sharpness between the shorter and longer images. If you have the time, I’d still let it run the entire time if you are concerned.
To see what I mean, check out this “experiment” I conducted based on processing times using my Google Pixel.
Pixel 6 Time Lapse
Can you do an astrophotography time lapse on a Google Pixel?
Yes, it can. Keep in mind, the Pixel 6 doesn’t have a designated time lapse button for astrophotography, but you can still make it work.
You might think that by going to the video mode in the camera and then sliding right to time lapse mode would be the obvious place to go, but it isn’t. Instead, simply go back into astrophotography mode like I mentioned at the beginning of this article. We’ll create our time lapse from there.
This isn’t your typical DSLR time lapse where you get to select the amount of time the shutter is open, and you can’t even decide how fast you want the time lapse to go. The Pixel 6 essentially creates 1.5 second video clips from photos made when using astrophotography mode, and you need to stitch together these video clips in an app.
So, how does this work then?
Basically, take a 4 minute photo of your night subject. Then immediately after, it takes another photo…and another…and another…and so on until you have the length astro time lapse you want. I usually will make my time lapses at least 10 seconds long which means I need no less than 7 images since 7 X 1.5 seconds is 10.5 total seconds.
Fast forward to 2:45 in the video to see an example of what a timelapse looks like on this phone if you aren’t interested in the full video.
The drawback to shooting these types of astro time lapses is that you’ll have to keep an eye on your phone and remember to press the camera trigger button every 4 minutes. That is unless you install an intervalometer to push the button for you. I honestly can’t recommend one of these apps because when I look in the Google Play store, there are far too many negative reviews. Plus, call me strange, but I don’t like other apps having that much control over my phone. They seem to need quite a bit of access, but honestly it’s up to you to give an intervalometer app a shot if you feel comfortable handing over control. I prefer to simply sit outside and actually enjoy the stars while pushing my camera trigger button every few minutes. It’s really no big deal to me.
Light Painting and Light Drawing
I thought maybe I should include a section on smartphone astrophotography light painting and light drawing here, but really it should be its own article since this one is getting a bit long.
If you look at other images on this article, you can see some light painting done to emphasize the subjects in the foreground. I included this image just so you can see it is possible to do both on a Pixel 6 when light writing is included too. This was shot in a Bortle 4 area with a full moon just out of frame to the left. You can also see the lights from Dallas/Fort Worth brightening up the horizon and drowning out the stars. This section is just a preview, so check out that article next if it looks interesting to you.
Really, it’s kind of an awesome combo: astrophotography plus light painting. The best part is being able to do it on your smartphone and getting a nice result in less than 30 seconds!
If you are interested in getting into astrophotography, and you live somewhere reasonably dark or enjoy visiting dark sky locations, think about getting this phone. It’s easy to use and produces great results if you have 4 minutes and 2 seconds to spare. It’s my favorite toy!
Also, check out some of our other articles that might motivate you to get into astrophotography:
Jason and Alison Takacs are avid outdoor enthusiasts always ready to explore the most beautiful places with their two adventurous boys. They love traveling with their Jayco Jay Flight in tow on their way to hike the top trails in their home state of Texas and other distant lands. For years, they have focused on capturing both amazing landscape photos and also astrophotography from the places they have visited and shared them on Instagram and YouTube. Now, they are ready to share their experiences on this blog to help others enjoy what they have learned about nature, the night sky, RVing, travel, and everything in-between!