Astronomy & space, Google, Python

Using a Pixel 4 XL for space tech photography

I'm among those who think the best camera is the one I carry with me.

There's no grand scheme motivating my choice not to get a traditional camera, using instead my smartphone for on the go and travel photography. It's hard to beat a compact and light device I always have handy.

In my trip to Florida to view a rocket launch from Kennedy Space Center, I took photos with my current smartphone, a Google Pixel 4 XL. Its camera recorded the two rocket launches I ended up viewing, the space facilities and museums I visited, and general travel photography.

How did the 4 XL camera fare?

Distant subjects and rocket launches

Despite having been released almost three years ago, the 4 XL still holds up well.

The camera works best when the subjects fill most of the frame. But my daylight photos at Kennedy Space Center show also good detail of distant vehicles, such as the Crew-4 Falcon 9 rocket at launch complex 39A and the SLS rocket at 39B. The photos bring out also enough detail of the daylight Starlink 4-14 launch, despite the dynamic action and the high tonal range difference between the rocket structure and the bright exhausts.

The 2X optical zoom helped make distant subjects large enough to reveal detail better. However, I wish I had a latest generation flagship device with a more powerful optical zoom to enlarge those subjects a bit more.

Night launches

Where the 4 XL camera fell short is with night photography of dynamic events.

My photos of the Crew-4 night launch didn't record much light to reveal the complex detail and delicate tones of the exhaust plume of the ascending rocket. At that point, the booster was too far and not lit enough to show any detail.

As for the launch itself, from when the rocket engines ignited to when the booster cleared the tower and began ascending, the performance of the 4 XL was similar to that of the newer generation devices the friends who traveled with me used. In my photos, the ascending rocket looks like a saturated blob of light. The tonal range was so high, with the black background of the night sky contrasting with the blinding rocket exhausts, that not even recent smartphones may adequately capture and present it.

Wide-field photography

This travel experience with the 4 XL camera made me change my mind on lenses.

I thought a wide-angle lens wouldn't be useful to me, as I don't do much landscape or people photography, and preferred a lens with optical zoom.

However, by shooting photos at Kennedy Space Center, I realized that, without a wide field of view, it's hard to frame large and close objects in full — or nearly in full — without cropping. A wide field lens would have come in handy, for example, to shoot the Atlantis Space Shuttle or the Saturn V. You can come very close to these vehicles, which is a challenging observation point for framing.

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