Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra makes pro-level star photography possible and I’m floored

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra nightography
(Image credit: Future / Lance Ulanoff)

Images that make people go, “wow”. That’s what I’m going for, whether I'm choosing to photograph a bird on a branch, or the moon in the night sky. Up until recently, the only way to elicit that kind of reaction was with images taken with my trusty Sony DSLR. However, over the last few years, I’ve been turning to Samsung’s impressive line of best Galaxy phones, especially in the astrophotography space, and with the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, I think we have another breakthrough smartphone photography moment.

I’m under no illusion that Samsung didn’t exactly reinvent its flagship smartphone line with the Samsung Galaxy S23, S23 Plus, and the formidable S23 Ultra. Camera specs on the S23 and S23 Plus are (almost) the same as what you’ll find on the Galaxy S22. At least the Galaxy S23 Ultra, which also features a refined chassis, has that new 200MP sensor. Plus, the entire S23 line is backed by the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 mobile CPU, which means that they all have better image processing.

It's that combination of more pixels and image processing performance that takes some aspects of S23 photography to the next level.

As a star and moon photography nut, I couldn’t help but focus on the new Nightography capabilities

As a star and moon photography nut, I couldn’t help but focus on the new Nightography capabilities, including one impressive trick that recreates images and videos you typically find on the Instagrams of talented professional astrophotographers. Perhaps you’ve seen these photos of the night sky where brilliant stars spin around a central point. I assumed that the only way I’d ever be able to recreate such an image was with much better camera equipment and many hours of free time. Turns out I was half-right. 

All Samsung Galaxy S23 phones are capable of this kind of photography, but the journey from some decent-yet-not-quite-there results to that perfect celestial spin around Polaris (the North Star) took a combination of the phone, patience, third-party software, some equipment, and more than a few attempts.

Whichever Samsung Galaxy S23 handset you own, the process for capturing stars streaking across the night sky is the same:

  • Open the Camera app.
  • Swipe over to “more” in the menu.
  • Select "hyperlapse".
  • In the controls at the top, swipe to the left and select 300x.
  • Select the “star streak” control on the lower right-hand corner.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Nightography steps

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Nightography steps (Image credit: Future)

It’s important to note that this does not grab a single time-lapse image. Instead, it’s a video but one from which you can grab stunning and shareable images.

The in-phone setup is just part one.  

Next, you do need a tripod because grabbing the best star trails takes not only an incredibly steady hand but literally hours. No one is standing perfectly still, let alone in one spot, for 2-to-3 hours.

If you don’t have a tripod-friendly smartphone clamp, you can find a decent one on Amazon for $15.

You also need a clear night sky or, as I often found, one that’s mostly clear. Passing clouds won’t completely ruin the effect.

The next step is setting up your shot. During my first few tries using the Samsung Galaxy S23, I clamped the phone onto the tripod (pro tip: position your phone so the clamp is not pressing any of the side buttons) and pointed the rear camera array so it pointed almost straight up at the night sky.

Samsung Galaxy S23 astrophotography

My first test with a Samsung Galaxy S23. (Image credit: Future / Lance Ulanoff)

In order to use the on-screen controls during setup, I had to extend my tripod high enough so I could step under my phone and touch the screen. You’ll probably be working in the dark, so I recommend you double-check that you’re using the camera pointed at the sky and not the ground. One of my early Nightography hyperlapses was 20 seconds of the ground. 

I tried different lenses but the best one for an expansive view of the night sky is the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 12MP ultrawide camera.

I could also see all the airplanes taking off from JFK airport; they appeared as much brighter streaks on top of the stars

One consistent bit of advice I can give you for these images is to leave yourself at least two hours to get something exciting and usable. For me, this meant setting up the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra on a night when I knew there wasn’t a chance of rain and when I assumed no one could wander into my backyard and steal the tripod and expensive phone.

My first couple of captures were mostly successful. The videos, which are under a minute long (most under 30 seconds), showed some cloud cover moving across the frame and then, as the sky darkened, pinpoint stars streaking diagonally across the sky. I could also see all the airplanes taking off from JFK airport; they appeared as much brighter streaks on top of the stars.

Naturally, I was hooked. Still, what I wasn't seeing was that iconic circular pattern I’ve noticed with so many other spectacular astrophotographs. I forgot that if you want a circle of stars, you must point your smartphone camera at the North Star (Polaris) because everything in the night sky revolves around it.

By now, I’d switched from the Galaxy S23 to the Galaxy S23 Ultra, mainly for its bigger battery (the 12MP ultrawide is the same across the S23 line). This time, however, I was determined to find the North Star and point the Galaxy S23 camera right at it. To do so I used one of my favorite apps, StarWalk 2 (available on both iOS and Android). The benefit of the app is that it lets you point your phone at the sky and it can geoposition and illustrate every celestial body in the night sky.

I searched for “Polaris” and the app guided me to its current position. 

Sasmung Galaxy S23 Ultra astrophotography video as a GIF

(Image credit: Future / Lance Ulanoff)

With this information, I positioned the Samsung Galaxy S23 so that it was pointed directly at that star. Since I live in a crowded suburban neighborhood, I made sure to extend the tripod above the fence line and point it above surrounding homes. If you can get somewhere out in the wilderness where you have a lot more open sky and less light pollution, do so. Still, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra does an excellent job of beating back a lot of that unfortunate night light.

With everything in place, and the tripod secured so a gust of wind didn’t blow it over, I left the phone alone for the next three hours, after which I stepped outside, tapped the photo button to stop recording, and dragged my gear back inside.

The image at the top of this story is a capture from the final 41-second video. the GIF just above is just a bit of the full video.

The final video shows some cloud cover streaking in, but then it clears away and, as I hoped, the stars appear and all start circling around a bright center point: the North Star. 

I still can’t believe I can do this with a smartphone, but I have to hand it to Samsung, it’s really setting the bar for astrophotography. It’s time for Apple to step up.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.