Is Astrophotragphy Getting Too Easy?

Everybody should be able to take pictures of space without having an astronomy degree, IT background, or having to take out a second mortgage. A lot of us like to think our little club is exclusive, but I think it should be more inclusive. I talk a lot about how hard and frustrating this hobby is on someone starting out, so I’m all for technology making things easier on us. But are these new phone image sensors and software all they’re advertised to be? And is an upcoming all-in-one scope, mount and imager misunderstood? Is imaging space getting too easy?

Truth be told, I’ve never used any of the following devices. I’ve only done my own research and understand the capabilities and limitations of the technology involved in the devices. Let’s start with a couple phones, specifically the Google Pixel 4 and Samsung Galaxy S10.

The Tools and Their Claims
Google Pixel 4
New sensors on phones are becoming increasingly sensitive to dark conditions, producing advertised milky-way images, that I have to admit, look really good. As of this writing, the phone has been out for only a short while, and I can’t find any real-world samples of AP with it. The only samples out there are the official Google sample images.

Purported stats for Pixel 4 stock images:
Duration: 16 seconds
F-stop: 1.7
Megapixels: 12.2

Samsung Galaxy S10
Even though this phone has been out for quite some time, It’s harder to find definitive examples of the Galaxy S10 producing real-world astrophotograhy images, but the claims are similar to the Pixel 4.

So why aren’t there countless examples of some of the most popular phones taking images of the night-sky? A couple reasons that I can gather.

  1. The conditions needed to produce a defined image of the Milky Way on a tiny image sensor with itty-bitty pixels are very far from population centers.
  2. The images most likely still require editing in advanced and expensive software like Photoshop.

The advertising is a bit misleading, giving the idea that you can just walk to the closest open field or oceanfront and snap away, obtaining colorful and defined images into Sagittarius. With out filters and a high dynamic range, it’s really a difficult to almost impossible proposition. Photographers imaging the Milky Way go to great lengths to get to the darkest skies possible and use equipment specifically designed for this. Even in Bortle 3 skies, a DSLR and OK lens, this was all I could coax out of a stack of 25 second exposures @ F/3.5.

The sensors in a cell phone just can’t physically hold the properties needed such as pixel size, high dynamic range or deep pixel wells to really capture space.

This doesnt mean that I think the images used in advertising are faked in any way. I don’t. But I do believe producing a successful astro-image from a phone requires a very specific set of circumstances and skills that your average phone imager doesn’t possess.

So these two phone cameras and others of the latest generation are great for low-light, but to say they can be used for astrophotography might be a bit of a stretch.

Is an all-in-one solution right around the corner?

Vaonis Stellina, the Hobby Killer

Firstly, Vaonis doesn’t make those claims, and never advertised it to be a magic bullet to let everyone produce Hubble-like images of the sky by clicking a few buttons. What I do see in comments are imagers worried that our exclusive club is in danger of being over-run by casual hobbyists.

So what is Stellina, by Vaonis?

Stellina by Vaonis

Stellina is a very well designed all-in-one mount, tripod, 80mm F/5 doublet refractor and Sony IMX178 image sensor. One basically plops it down and it’ll go through it’s routine, automatically detecting where it is, align itself and start tracking the sky. It is controlled via a tablet and can be shared over multiple tablets, sharing images and control.

It’s a great idea, and there is so much great tech in the unit. The auto-alignment routine itself is something astrophotographers have always dreamed of! But it’s not a professional imaging rig, and it doesn’t claim to be. The aim of Stellina at this time is for EAA (electronic assisted astronomy) and it’s use in education.

Now, the potential for this to be the imaging rig of envy is there. Add a dead-on field derotator or an equatorial function, four element refractor, a bigger cooled image sensor, and the ability to change the filter. All those are necessary to make this a real player in the dedicated astrophotography field.

The starting price in the current configuration is $3999 (USD). I understand the price due to all the new tech involved. I’m one of the few that doesn’t think it’s overpriced, but at that price-point it’s a tough market to crack. I’d imagine the additional elements needed to really produce a professional image would double the price at minimum.

By comparison, a complete and superior imaging solution from Meade – an 80mm APO triplet refractor with field flattener, LX85 mount, and DSI-IV color camera – comes in at right about $3000 (as of this writting, $2600 on sale). This rig (which is on a UPS truck as I write), will produce some amazing images. Ok, I’m a bit biased toward Meade, but if we’re looking for a comparison to an all-in-one solution, it makes sense to compare Stellina to a manufacturer that offers a complete solution rather than mixing and matching.

Another cost to factor is the the versatility in a component based imaging rig that is missing in Stellina. If I want to get up-close and personal with small galaxies, I can do that by swapping out the 80mm refractor for an F/10 ACF refractor OTA on an existing mount. I don’t see that level of versatility being in play with Stellina. There are ways to do this in an all-in-one unit – think moving lenses – but you push up against other limitations by doing so.

For now, the Stellina has one purpose, and that’s to engage and include others in astronomy that might not be interested otherwise. I think it’s really a great product. It’s not here to take over the space imaging world. Maybe down the road, but not now.

As an additional note, I have watched the Galactic Hunter review on YouTube since writing this, which pretty much confirmed my suspicion… It’s a great tool, but still has a ways to go before being a serious player in capability and value.

Galactic Hunter Stellina Review

Our secret club is safe for now, and producing top quality astrophotos is still f&^%ing hard, though I try to make it a little easier everyday through outreach and education. Technology can help us image with less time and frustration, but it just can’t beat out the cost and versatility of a component based imaging solution…. yet.

Clear Skie, Bleary Eyes – KA

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