'Night Mode' On Google Pixel 4 Provides Classy Astrophotography

A photo of the night sky taken by the Google Pixel 4.
A photo of the night sky taken by the Google Pixel 4. (Image credit: Google)

Smartphone-wielding astronomy buffs can photograph the night sky in more detail than ever using the new Google Pixel 4, the tech company claims. 

The phone's upgraded Night Mode "allows you to take bright, clearer pictures of the night's sky for enhanced visuals of stars, the moon and galaxies," Google said in a statement.

As any astrophotographer knows, using a cell phone to capture pictures of stars and other faint objects is an immense challenge. Good exposures require lots of light and lots of exposure time, and traditionally, cell-phone photographers have suffered from small lenses and shaky images.

Related: How to Snap Awesome Night-Sky Photos with Your Smartphone

Professor Marc Levoy from Google Research shows off a photo of the moon taken by a Google Pixel 4 camera at the Made By Google '19 event. (Image credit: Google)

During a presentation last month at the company's Made By Google '19 event, however, professor Marc Levoy from Google Research showed off pictures of the Milky Way, stars and other faint objects taken with a carefully placed Pixel 4. 

"That has always been sort of a Holy Grail, for me," he said of the shots, which sparked applause from the audience. "Night Sight has been called everything from fake to sorcery. Well, it's neither."

The process to take the exposures is fairly simple, according to Google. First, make sure you are well away from any light-polluted areas. Use a tripod (or a well-placed rock) and tell the phone to do a shutter press for four minutes. The phone will take 15 exposures automatically, accounting for  movement such as star rotations and wind moving the trees. However, any people who are in a photo will need to sit still for the exposures (just like in old daguerreotype photography).

The phone also includes machine learning for automatic white balancing (which keeps dark areas from being too dark and white areas from being too white) and something called "semantic segmentation" that can darken skies in Night Sight. The phone, however, is unable to handle the dynamic contrast difference between a full moon and a moonlit landscape in the same shot. 

The full moon is roughly half a million times brighter than the landscape and no consumer camera can photograph such an extreme contrast in brightness in one shot yet. Levoy added, "Pixel is committed to making its cameras better with software updates, so stay tuned on this one."

The Google Pixel 4 has dual cameras and "Night Sight" mode, which can be used for astrophotography. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Night Sight mode, however, is not unique to Google, as Apple and Huawei display similar strength in their own handsets, Space.com's sister site TechRadar notes in a review. While the camera on the Pixel 4 is much improved from previous versions, the battery life is "mediocre at best," TechRadar warns. So, it might be prudent to bring some extra battery packs for your phone, especially during cold evenings that tend to drain battery life.

Thankfully, the Google Pixel 4 feels a little grippier than the last version (the Pixel 3), which should make it easier to hold the phone for shorter astrophotography shots. The phone is also smaller than many devices similar to the Google Pixel, with a 5.7-inch (14 centimeters) display, which will make it easier to hold for smaller hands.

Without a phone plan, the outright price for the Pixel 4 in the United States starts at $799 for the 64GB of storage model and $899 for the 128GB Pixel 4. Model availability varies by market, however (for example, United Kingdom residents cannot access the 128 GB orange variant.)

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace