One of the great things about being a nature photographer in the digital age is that we have all these wonderful apps to help us plan our shots. And, now with the smartphone we can bring many of these apps along with us in the wilderness.
I’ve already talked about a few of these great apps, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and Stellarium. But, I just discovered another one that can be extremely useful in planning landscape images: PhotoPills.
PhotoPills actually does a ton of stuff, but there’s one thing it does better than any other app I’ve seen: it can tell you exactly WHEN the sun/moon will rise over a distant mountain (or lake, tree, etc) as viewed from a specific location.
For example, let’s say you wanted to photograph the moon rising above Ryan Mountain at Joshua Tree National Park (while standing northwest of the mountain). With PhotoPills, you can set the location you’re photographing from, then set the location where you want the moon to rise, and finally just hit search and you’ll be presented with a detailed list of possible options. Here’s a few screenshots that show this process in action:
What’s really useful here is the results screen because it gives you a quick preview of your options by showing what phase the moon will be in and color codes the background based on the time of day the alignment will occur (this is helpful if you really want to photograph the scene during the golden hours of sunrise/sunset).
Doesn’t The Photographer’s Ephemeris already do this?
So, The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) does already do this kind of search, but I think PhotoPills presents the results in a way that’s much easier to browse through.
With TPE, you have to step through the results one by one. And, I’ve also noticed that TPE is pretty precise with their results (the sun/moon has to be within 0.5 degrees of your target), whereas PhotoPills isn’t as conservative with their results.
Another limitation of TPE is that it only allows you to search for two phases of the moon (full or waxing crescent), whereas PhotoPills will show you results for ALL phases of the moon.
I still prefer to use The Photographer’s Ephemeris for general planning and scouting out potential locations for a landscape shot (especially since they have an iPad and desktop app, and PhotoPills does not). But, I think PhotoPills has become my tool of choice for planning a shot at a very precise location where I really want the sun/moon to be at a specific spot in the frame.
Each app has their strengths, so I think they work great together.
Other features of PhotoPills
PhotoPills is also packed with even more photography tools, such as:
- Sunrise/sunset calendar
- Moon phase calendar
- Moon distance calendar
- Solstice/equinox dates
- Exposure calculator
- Depth of field calculator
- Hyperfocal distance table
- Field of view calculator
- Star trail calculator
- Time lapse calculator
Personally, I only see myself using the “planner” tool of the app, but it’s such a powerful tool that I think it’s definitely worth the price of the app ($9.99).
Right now, it’s only available for the iPhone, but hopefully they’ll be working on an Android version soon
Also, check out their great video tutorials on how to use the app.
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About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.