PhotoPills: The Photographer's Swiss Army Knife

PhotoPills: The Photographer’s Swiss Army Knife

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It’s 6pm, it’s cold, and the sun is on its way to set. The tripod is placed, the composition is done – now I just have to wait for the big show that Mother Nature puts on every day to happen again. The sky is threatening, but with a little luck, the sun will pierce the clouds to pass above the lighthouse in front of me.

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If I think about the first time I went out with the tripod on my shoulder, it makes me smile. I knew more or less where to go, I had no idea of the exact time at which the sun would set, nor where. Failure was inevitable!

Years have passed since then, and many things have changed. But the biggest and decisive one is in my hands right now: PhotoPills – photo planning app.

What is PhotoPills?

PhotoPills is like having a Swiss Army Knife for all photography matters in your pocket, at your service. Whether you’re a seasoned photographer, or someone who’s barely touched a camera, PhotoPills has you covered. You have a question, you get the answer.

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Using PhotoPills at Durdle Door (UK)

Beginners will love it. I see it in every single workshop I run. There, in the field, before deciding the frame and the shooting spot, people enjoy using the Augmented Reality views, to easily track the position and the path of the Sun, the Moon, and the Milky Way. It’s the simplest way to understand what’s going to happen next.

On the other hand, on a more advanced level, being able to plan your shots directly on a map, even the Milky Way shots, saves a ton of time. PhotoPills’ Planner is so well designed, that you can quickly figure out the perfect shooting spot, date, and time for any scene you imagine.

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PhotoPills screen menu

Everything starts from a clean and user friendly interface.

You can choose between three menus, simply through a swipe to the right or left at the top of the interface. After choosing your camera, the map type, and other settings in “My Stuff” menu, you can enter the main section called “Pills” where you have the access to all the available modules.

The possibilities are almost endless, and in this article, I’ll do my best to describe some of the things you can do with this app. Are you ready?

Widgets

Imagine that you’re going to bed (at home, or anywhere in the world) and want to know at what time the sun will rise tomorrow, when the golden hour starts, or when the Moon will rise, or what about the the galactic center visibility times?

The first thing that I love in this App, is that all you have to do is to pull down from the top of the screen and enable the three PhotoPills widgets in the notification center. If you do so, you’ll have all the key light, sun, moon and Milky Way information in just one swipe. Also, you’ll have access to the five upcoming photo plans you’ve saved using the Planner.

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I love using the widgets when I’m traveling, since it’s so easy to have everything I need on one single screen. A cool feature is that it works offline too. As it happens with the Augmented Reality views, PhotoPills doesn’t need an internet connection to give you all the key data you need.

But that is not all, in the case you want to have all this information (and much more) for a different location or date, just use the new Sun and Moon Pills. So easy, and so nice to have everything together. I really hope that an Apple Watch version will be implemented soon too.

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Sun Pill

Image 5B

Moon Pill

Augmented Reality

In a landscape image, composition is more than fundamental. How many times have you arrived at your shooting location, and wondered where the sun would set? For me, every time – but before using PhotoPills, I was never able to have a precise answer.

The Augmented Reality (AR) module included in the App, makes things so easy. Just point your phone at a subject, and use the AR tools available within the Sun, Moon and Night AR pills to see where the Sun, the Moon or the Milky Way will be in the image.

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Sun AR in action

Besides, and this is particularly clever, you can change the time to see how everything evolves, just by scrolling on the screen with your finger.

The application is also useful for all the star hunters out there – with the Night AR view it is easy to plan star trails shots. For example, if you’re planning to shoot a circumpolar, the Night AR view will also help you locate the North Star (Polaris). And, if you live in the southern hemisphere, PhotoPills will give you the position of the south celestial pole, right where you need to frame.

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A Milky Way shot planned using Night Augmented Reality

Planner

If the Augmented Reality tools are my students’ favorites, I simply love the Planner. I use it to plan every shoot.

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No matter if it’s a sunset in Vernazza (above), a moonrise in Iceland, or the Milky Way in Yosemite National park, the PhotoPills Planner helps me find the right time, for the alignments I’m looking to happen. It’s my imagination’s best ally.

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Planning Pill for Vernazza shot above

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Planning Pill for Milky Way shot above

A lovely feature, is that once I’ve figure out the shooting spot and shooting time, I can save the plan in my To-Do list of planned photos. Then, every time I have an idea, I plan it and save it in my list. This way, I make sure not to miss any of my favourite shots.

Location Scouting

We’re all exploring new locations all the time, looking for new possibilities, and to be able to store the most valuable places in our own database is just a must. So, every time I find a place I’d like to remember and study for a possible shot, I use PhotoPills to save it as a Point of Interest.

Another useful feature is that I can upload to PhotoPills all my .kmz files, so I can bring with me all the plans already made with Google Earth!

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Point of Interest visualized on map

Calculations

Knowing the shooting time and spot is obviously the first step, but you also need to make many more decisions before pressing the shutter – this is where PhotoPills is brilliant.

These are just four of the numerous calculators I use to figure out the settings I need:

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Long Exposure calculator

Long Exposure calculator: You already know, my favorite one! With this module I’m able to calculate the exact exposure time when using ND and GND filters. By the way, PhotoPills has the only Long Exposure calculator that allows you to convert the shutter speed for non-standard f-stop reductions.

Spot Stars calculator: When shooting the Milky Way, it helps determine the maximum exposure time that allows me to capture the stars as big bright spots. The longer the exposure time, the more light is collected by the camera sensor, and the brighter the stars will appear in the image. If I go beyond this exposure time, stars will begin to appear as trails in the image, which is something I want to avoid at all costs.

Time lapse calculator: If you’re doing time lapse photography, this calculator will save you lots of time. Just set the frames per second (24fps), the duration of the event you’re shooting (example 6 hours), the desired clip length (30 seconds) and the image size (4Mb) to get the shooting interval (30 seconds), the number of photos (720) and the total memory usage of the SD card (2.81Gb). I used to need 15 minutes to figure out all those numbers, before I started using PhotoPills.

Depth of Field calculator: I use it to calculate the distance where to focus, to maximize depth of field (hyper focal distance). This becomes very useful in my night shots, since I want everything in focus, from the foreground to the stars. I simply calculate the hyperfocal distance and then I make sure to focus my lens at a slightly longer distance. This assures me that I’ll have the stars in sharp focus.

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DoF Calculator

Conclusions

PhotoPills is definitely a must have for (but not only) landscape photographers. The features are many and well-maintained, and the difficulties that you can encounter at the beginning, can quickly be overcome thanks to the Academy (a virtual university of PhotoPills where you can follow video tutorials, and read insights on each function of the application to really turn our ideas into real images).

The price of $9.99 in the App Store is higher than average, but is ridiculous compared to the large amount of features and practical uses, as PhotoPills replaces much of the paid, and free apps, in one go.

It must be mentioned that PhotoPills is currently available only for iPhone and iPad, but the Android version has been announced to launch in 2016.

After many months of use, now I cannot imagine a photographic adventure without this application. Once you fall into the Imagine-Plan-Shoot creative loop, you won’t be able to stop pushing your imagination, and this will lead you to discover a new world of possibilities.

Definitely, give it a try!

Pros:

  • Clean and friendly user interface
  • Many different tools in a single application
  • Cached maps for offline use
  • Possibility to import POI from .kmz files
  • Localized languages
  • Tons of tutorials

To be considered:

  • Android version still in development (release expected in 2016)

Do you use PhotoPills or another photography planning app? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Francesco Gola is an Italian engineer who's fallen in love with photography. Born in Italy in 1981, as soon as he started taking pictures he fell in love with long exposures of seascapes. For him a long exposure is a parallel universe in which to escape from the frenzy of modern life. His passion for the sea and for travels let him to visit some of the most iconic locations on this planet looking at them with different eyes. See more of his work on 500px or his website or join one of his Workshops around the world!

  • JKO

    A good alternative on Android is Sun Surveyor.

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  • I’ve been using the app for several months now and have found it to consistently display incorrect information in the AR (augmented reality) mode. It’s frequently 20 or more degrees off even though I calibrate it. In speaking with their customer service folks they tell me to shake my phone vigorously and then recalibrate, and even when I do this it is still WAY off. It seems like a great concept and has a lot of nice features I wish I could utilize, but I’ve quit using it and rely on The Photographers Ephemeris which has always proven to be accurate for me.

  • Hi Carl! Sorry to hear that. The Planner is 100% accurate, no error and you can check it by comparing the results with any other planning app. But, when using the Augmented Reality views we rely on an external sensor: the iPhone’s digital compass. So we cannot do better than the accuracy it has. If there’s an external magnetic field nearby or an electronic device it can affect this sensor and add more error. Even a case with a magnet affects it a lot.

    In most cases it works pretty well, but if not, what’s the solution? The first thing is to shake the device, because it’s a way to demagnetize the digital sensor. It that doesn’t work, now you can visually calibrate the AR view. Just open the AR view, tap on the calibrate button and align the sun/moon with the real sun/moon. That simple 🙂

    But of course, if you are doing long distance shots or you need 100% accuracy, the Planner and the 2D map is the tool to use.

  • Marcus Burtenshaw

    I use “Planit! For Photographers” and SunSeeker on Android.

  • Marcus Burtenshaw

    I use “Planit! For Photographers” and SunSeeker on Android.

  • Abhianv

    Can you please develop it for Windows platform…or please suggest any other alternative for the same.

  • Teo Bartulovic

    Yeah, I would like to see something similar for win devices…

  • Thank you very much for the helpful reply. I tried it again this morning and found it off. I tried the visual calibration feature (I didn’t know about that) and it worked well. I wish my phone was accurate since I’d like to use this app for planning my shots in advance, rather than having to make adjustments after the Moon or stars are visible.

  • We always trust the map when planning the shots, that’s 100% accurate. When we’re in situ we use the AR views to double check the sun/moon path or to plan a Milky Way shot. The error is barely noticeable when using the Night AR view, because photographers usually use wide or short lens to be able to include the foreground and a big portion of sky (50mm or lower).

  • Joseph Morris

    Same here. Can’t believe the article never even mentioned PlanIt!

  • This article is just one point of view that one of our writers uses, he felt some people would find it helpful. We’ve done articles on PlanIt in the past on its own.

  • Joseph Morris

    Okay, but . . . PlanIt! is available for both Android and iOS (for over a year now) whereas PhotoPills is still only availaable for iOS at the moment. At any rate, even on iOS, it would seem to me that an article comparing both would be more useful to your readers.

  • Francesco Gola

    Hi Joseph! Thanks for the reading and feedback! The article is just my humble opinion, not an absolute truth 🙂 If you love Planit! I’m happy that you found the best solution for you! I tested Planit and in my opinion cannot be even compared to Photopills. But again, just my 2cents! All the best!

  • davesworld

    Since the folks at PhotoPills are responding directly to this discussion, are there any more specifics you can share on a release date for Android? I think there are a lot of us that would like to put it on the calendar.

  • davesworld

    Since the folks at PhotoPills are responding directly to this discussion, are there any more specifics you can share on a release date for Android? I think there are a lot of us that would like to put it on the calendar.

  • Yes sure. It’s on our FAQs and in every message we answer about this question 🙂 We’re working on it right now and we expect to be able to release it at the end of this year.

    If you want to be notified when we release PhotoPills for Android and it’s available on Google Play, add your email to this form: http://photopills.us6.list-manage1.com/subscribe?u=c8bd6a708289d5a92d72a17fd&id=d7f1cb843c&orig-lang=1

    Thank you!

  • Thanks for your thoughts, we will consider that.

  • This looks like such an amazing app, but I have android, so bad luck to me I guess. I hope they do bring out for the rest of us, it would be nice. I can think of several people who would love it.
    Great article.

  • Pat

    I can’t wait for this to be released as an android version. I would also like to see a desktop version available for home use/planning. This app sounds fantastic and is just what I need; PE on steroids and so much more. And the price puts it within the reach of every photographer out there, bar none which equals millions. Great job developers.

  • K.C. Chan

    Hi, I live in Taiwan. Great if you could release a Traditional Chinese Version. Thank you.

  • William Connell

    If you have an iPhone 4 {like me} it won’t work you will need a minimum of iPhone 4s for this to work.

  • Yes, it needs at least iOS 8.1, but you can still use PhotoPills 1.2.8 that works on iPhone 4. Send us an e-mail to info@photopills.com if you don’t know how to install this version. Thanks!

  • We plan to support more languages in the future, and Traditional Chinese will be one of them for sure. If you’d like to help us, don’t hesitate to contact us at info@photopills.com. Thanks!

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