PhotoPills – New App For Planning Landscape Images

PhotoPills - ScreenshotOne 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:

PhotoPills - Planner

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?

TPE - ScreenshotSo, 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 :)

Download PhotoPills at the iTunes App Store

Also, check out their great video tutorials on how to use the app.

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steveb2About 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.


  1. David Pedersen says:

    Thanks Steve for a terrific source of useful information. I’m wondering? How do you suggest storing and maintaining large collections of photos. recently I became aware that to archive photos, there does not seem to be a long term solution for digital such as we can do with printed pictures.

  2. Michael says:

    Very cool, Steve! I’ve enjoyed using Ephemeris and am already seeing situations where PhotoPill has some excellent features. Anyone interested should check out their videos here to differentiate subtleties as the difference between function as Obstructions and Observation points, etc.

    For a high-level of the basics, see:

    … and I was pleasantly surprised to find pluses like a networked Points Of Interest database that also linked into Wikipedia – AWESOME!

  3. Rick Hollis says:

    I definitely want to take a deeper look at this.

    How does it do Depth of Field, Hyperfocal Distance and Field of View — do you put in your camera and lens?

    • Rick – there’s a “settings” page where you put in your camera info, but there’s no lens database in the app. For the lens, it just asks you for the focal length.

  4. Rick Hollis says:

    Thanks. I wondered because my cameras are not pro or even semipro models [Lumix DMC FZ-100 and a Canon SX 50]. They work for me for what ask them to do. But I have never seen them in any chart.

  5. Hi
    Any plans for an iPad version anytime soon please?
    Presumably an iPad Mini is an iPad for this purpose, so Photopills can’t be downloaded to either size iPad at the moment?
    I heard of Photopills in the Dave Morrow shooting the night tutorial, by the way!
    Thanks and Happy New Year to you.

    • Hi David, Sorry for my delayed answer. At the moment PhotoPills is an iPhone app, but it’s fully compatible with the iPad, but not iPad ready yet. We’re now working on converting the actual app to an universal one (it will be a free update), so when executed on an iPad it’ll adapt the user interface to have a bigger map. We hope we’ll be able to release it this year.

  6. I must be dumber than a box of rocks. I got PP and watched all their online tutorials twice but still don’t grasp how the planner works (makes PS look easy to learn by comparison). I can drag and drop the pin, but beyond that I’m lost. Apparent altitude? I’m lost. In one of the tutorials the speaker referred to the Washington Monument as an obelisk…really? Let me count how many times I’ve heard that term in the last year…oh yea, none. That’s like someone using the word “conflagration” instead of just saying “fire”…makes me think they were more concerned in showing me their use of an archaic word than conveying the instruction in a more user friendly way. Less than impressed with this app. $10 not well spent.

    • Hi Steve,

      I’d recommend you to start with the basics: move the pin and move the time bar to know where the sun and moon will be at any time and location on Earth. The video explain step by step and in detail how to do it.

      We know there are also advanced concepts, but they are only needed for the advanced features of PhotoPills like, for example, if you want to use the “Find” tool to search for a moon above a building… There’s no other way to explain it to know at which altitude will be the sun/moon.

      Remember that you can use PhotoPills to know where the sun/moon will from any location and date&time. The “Find” tool is only needed to know when the sun/moon will be at an exact position (azimuth and elevation). It’s a powerful tool and I recommend you to use it when you feel comfortable with the app.

      Regarding the word “obelisk”… we use the Washington Monument (and we say it) to explain how PhotoPills can predict the shadow length it will have. I don’t know another word to name these structures. In fact, the news magazine Time also uses it:

      If you have doubts you can contact us at

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