Made by Nicholas Wilson on Pixel 6a
To get a clear shot of the constellation Leo on an early March night, Googler Nicholas Wilson hiked deep into Arches National Park in Utah.
There, he would be far enough away from any foot traffic and light pollution.
He timed his trek so that Jupiter would be rising and Leo would be low, near the horizon. Then, the photographer and image quality expert for Google set his Pixel 6 on a tripod 250 feet away from a red sandstone arch meant to frame the stars against the sky. He lit up the ground and the arch with small headlamps and camping lights.
With the press of the shutter button, his Google Pixel captured a dark sky with a clear trace of the Leo constellation above the moonlit arch. “The moon rose up from behind me and lit everything up and just made this beautiful landscape,” says Wilson, an astrophotographer who has worked with the Google Pixel team to develop some of its pro-level features.
Capturing the night sky requires long exposures, whether it’s with a DSLR camera or a Google Pixel. Astrophotographer Tristan Greszko says he would use his DSLR camera with a telephoto lens and take more than 120 long exposures over a period of hours to get great star shots. Then, using photo editing software, he would merge multiple photos and layer them to eliminate “noise,” whether that’s magenta or green tints, or passing airplanes or satellites. “It gets pretty complicated to get a really great shot,” says Greszko.
Camera phones have historically struggled with these long-exposure photos because your hand would shake the camera or there would be movement in the scene or sky – think passing satellites or airplanes, or the stars themselves moving as the Earth rotates.
The Google Tensor chip in Google Pixel phones solves that problem, improving the experience of Night Sight,1 which first became available on Pixel 3. The custom-built Tensor processor detects motion before the photo is taken and optimizes the capture process to reduce blur and give you a sharp picture.
Now instead of a number of hours spent taking hundreds of long-exposure shots, Google Pixel does all that in one single four-minute exposure – no editing necessary – using Night Sight. Astrophotography in Night Sight on Google Pixel will automatically engage if the sensors in the phone detect a dark setting away from light pollution and a steady camera.
“They’re shockingly beautiful photos,” says Greszko, who has used his Google Pixel phone at night in the Nevada backcountry.
When in astrophotography mode, Pixel phones will take 16 16-second photos when the shutter is pressed, then merge all of them together – essentially automating the work that Greszko used to do by hand. The result is a single crisp and detailed photograph of the night sky and your chosen framing landscape. Night Sight also has a special feature called astro-lapse which takes the string of photos and creates a cool one-second time lapse movie of the moving stars – just for fun.
Getting the phone perfectly still is important, and easy enough with a number of inexpensive tripods, including the lightweight and flexible
As a professional, Wilson typically spends up to two weeks scouting out the perfect location for his Night Sight photos. He pays attention to weather and cloud cover, and uses a stargazing app to learn about the exact phase of the moon and where the constellations will be in the sky. He picks landscapes far away from cities or urban areas. “You’ve really got to monitor the sky and the weather and everything else that goes into a photo,” he says. When he wants the stars to really pop, he waits for the moon to disappear to ensure he has the darkest sky possible.
Wilson says finding interesting landscape features – rather than simply pointing the camera at the sky – is key to composing a great photograph.
His last bit of advice: bring warm clothes and a snack, because sometimes the best shots don’t come right away.
“Anybody can take these photos,” says Wilson. “If you have a desire to go take astrophotos and you have patience, you can get a great shot.”
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Based on internal benchmark testing on pre-production devices.