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4 Steps to a great photo of the Milky Way on your iPhone

Taking a trip into the backcountry means your phone’s camera will be put through its paces with shots of landscapes, wildlife, selfies, and the stars (if you’re lucky). On a recent trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, I was desperate to finally get some good photos, including a shot of the Milky Way. 

After hours of research, and a little bit of luck, I got a photo of the stars that I was, for once, genuinely happy with:

Photo of the milky way on a clear night

Still amateurish, but so much better than I thought was possible with an iPhone. If you’re looking to up your iphone astrophotography game, start with these steps toward a great photo of the Milky Way:

1. Take advantage of your phone’s settings

Iphones are, by all accounts, pretty great at taking photos with default settings. They’ve been designed and honed over the years to make sure even the worst photo takers get mildly decent results. 

But, just because you can shoot your iphone photos without ever changing the settings, doesn’t mean that you’ll get the absolute best results. To get a photo of the Milky Way on your iPhone, use the settings that worked for me: 

  • ProRAW: Any iphone 12 or later is equipped to shoot in different photo formats, one of them being Apple’s ProRAW. This image format takes up a lot more space on your phone, but it’s also capable of capturing a lot more detail and is much more flexible in the editing phase. Using ProRAW made a huge difference in the quality of my photos; here’s a quick step-by-step to setting it up:
    • Open your phone’s settings, then scroll to “Famera”
    • Inside the camera settings, you’ll see an option for “Format” – use that to select Apple ProRaw
  • Grid: Many of us are familiar with the rule of thirds – the “grid” option lets you easily line things up in thirds, instantly upping your composition game.
  • Focus/Exposure Lock: I’ve been an iphone owner for over a decade, but i just learned about this trick. We all know that you can tap on an object to tell your camera to set the exposure and focus for that object, but did you know that if you hold down your finger on an object, you can “lock” the focus? This means you can take shots with the proper things in focus – be they faces, mountains, or stars – without the camera auto-focusing on things you don’t want it to.

2. Get away from light pollution, and mind the moon

This one’s a no-brainer, but worth mentioning. The further you are from sources of light pollution, the better your iphone astrophotography is going to be. You can use light pollution maps like DarkSkyMap or LightPollutionMap to gameplan and strategize to make sure you’re in the best possible conditions. 

Screenshot of LightPollutionMap website

If you happen to be visiting a national park, particularly one out west, you probably won’t have to worry about light pollution at all. But even large national forests and parks east of the Mississippi have a surprising amount of light pollution. 

Here’s what the light pollution looks like in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 

Light pollution in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It looks pretty decent – and it is – but this is what it looks like in Grand Teton National Park. 

Light Pollution in Grand Teton National Park

Big difference – so just make sure you strategize to get to the absolute darkest place possible!

The other thing you’ll need to account for is the moon – a huge source of light pollution, from a certain point of view. If you want the moon in your photos, that’s one thing, but if you don’t, you will need to make sure you are scheduling your activity near or on a blue moon. 

I was fortunate enough that my trip lined up perfectly with a blue moon – in the future, I’ll be scheduling my trips very intentionally in that same way. 

To wrap this section up, the lighting conditions for getting a photo of the Milky Way on your iPhone are crucial – more than anything else, lighting will make or break your photos. You’ll need:

  • To be far away from light pollution
  • On a clear night
  • With a blue (or nearly blue) moon

3. Be very, very still

Apple rolled out Night Mode shooting with the iPhone 11 back in 2019. Night mode is, essentially, great marketing for an existing concept: long exposure photography. While it’s true that Night Mode is a lot more than just long exposure, like the use of complicated sensors to automatically adjust a bunch of different camera settings for optimal quality, the end result is the same: photos taken in the dark that capture all of the available light. 

For Night Mode to work best, you need to keep your iPhone stable. The more movement, the harder it is for the phone to draw in all the light and keep the image looking sharp and clear. 

Stability matters so much, in fact, that your Iphone can tell when it’s handheld or stationary. If it’s handheld, your Night Mode shooting will be limited to a 3-5 second window, because a longer window like 10 seconds would come out blurry and awful. 

But, if you keep your phone 100% still, you can “unlock” the ability to shoot for a full 30 seconds. That’s 10 times longer than you can get with a handheld Night Mode shot, A.K.A 10 times more light is coming into the shot. When you’re pointing up at the night sky, that makes an absolutely massive difference. 

The easiest way to make sure your iPhone is completely still is with a tripod or stand. I bought one, but it didn’t deliver in time for my trip. So, instead, I found myself balancing my iPhone on the edge of a picnic table at our campsite. It took a few tries, but I eventually got the “go-ahead” to shoot for 30 seconds, and the results were (for an amateur) pretty spectacular.

4. Embrace the edit – even if you don’t know what you’re doing

I studied filmmaking in college, and while I didn’t learn very much, one of the things that I did learn was that what you see in the camera during a shoot is usually nothing like what winds up going out to movie theaters or to people’s TV screens. 

The best images – still or moving – are worked on heavily after the fact, with color correction, color grading, and a whole lot more taking powerful, raw images and turning them into something stunning. 

If you want your iPhone photo of the Milky Way to look really, really good, it’s time to embrace editing. It really is the super power of an amateur photographer – the more you know about editing and color correction, the better your final products will be. 

While Apple’s native editing options have gotten more powerful over the years, it still makes sense to use a third party tool to get the best results. This means you should be looking at Lightroom Mobile – a wickedly powerful tool that is free (for the most part) and can get the best out of your images. 

I don’t know a ton about photo editing, so all I did was download the app and use the auto-enhance option to see what difference it made. From there, I played around with things like white balance a tiny bit, but I mostly trusted what Lightroom suggested. 

Here’s a side-by-side of the original photo from my phone (left), with the Lightroom enhanced version (right):

There’s a little more color in the final version, and you can see some of the details in the trees, glowing red from the little bit of leftover campfire at the time I took the photo. I liked that a lot better, and that’s why it’s the final version of the photo. 

Wrapping Up

Taking photos of the Milky Way is pretty difficult – I’m still deeply jealous of people who get immaculate levels of detail. But, with an iphone and a little bit of luck, you can get amateur astrophotography results that are surprisingly good!

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