How to Actually Take a Good iPhone Photo of the Moon

Andrew Symes takes stunning pictures of the planets with just his smartphone—and a telescope.

Andrew Symes

Perhaps you have seen it on Instagram, or Twitter, or in a well-meaning Snapchat.

Perhaps you have even made one yourself.

It is a photograph of the Moon, taken with an iPhone. You need only witness one of these to know that the Moon, in an iPhone photo, does not look like the Moon. It looks like a yellow, ovular blur.

Unless it looks like the photo above.

That’s the work of Andrew Symes, a Canadian astronomer who has mastered astronomical iPhone photography. I recently exchanged emails with him about his technique. And if you’re looking for more of a how-to—including the specific tools that Symes uses—he recently detailed his process on his website.

Robinson Meyer: What inspired you to try to take astronomy images with your iPhone? Had you experimented with astrophotography before?

Andrew Symes: Since acquiring my first telescope in 1997, I had tried (and largely failed) to take images through the telescope by holding various point-and-shoot cameras and video cameras up to the eyepiece. It was very difficult to hold the camera steady enough and very time consuming to try to get even one decent image in the span of a half hour, so I largely stopped trying.

Around 2011, I discovered that an astronomer I followed on Twitter, Mike Weasner, was taking some excellent images through his telescope with an iPhone and posting them to his Cassiopeia Observatory website. I'd just bought my first iPhone, so I decided to give it a shot. I soon learned that I needed an adapter to keep the iPhone steady as it was also difficult to keep the phone stable and focused when handheld. Luckily, a custom adapter had recently appeared on the market and I purchased one online.

Mars (Andrew Symes)

Meyer: Have you played around with any other unusual iPhone camera uses?

Symes: All of my experimenting has been astronomy related, but I have taken a few night images without the telescope to capture constellations using a special low-light app called NightCap. Here is an example of one of my non-telescopic night images:

Meyer: Do you have a favorite photo of the ones you’ve taken?

Symes: It's hard to pick a favorite, but I think my iPhone photo of the Orion Nebula would have to be it:

Andrew Symes

Since I focus mainly on the Moon, planets, and Sun, I wasn't expecting to obtain this much detail and color in a "deep space" object more than 1300 light years away. The stars in the shot also make it visually interesting, I think.

Meyer: And more pragmatically: How do you clean the lens?

Symes: The truth is that I don't! I've learned from some bad mistakes cleaning eyepiece lenses that cleaning can often leave scratches or blotches that are much worse than dust or tiny dirt particles on the lens so I've left the lens alone on both my iPhone 4s (bought in 2011) and my new iPhone 6 purchased last year. I still use both phones for photography and haven't noticed any problems yet.