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PhotoPills: Two Thumbs Up!

Editor’s Note: PhotoPills is 50% off today only November 28, 2014

All I can say is that PhotoPills is the single most useful photography app on the planet, and I highly recommend it. Here’s a link to their website, and the Apple app store.

Want to hear more? Ok. I’ll start with the only two downsides, and they are minor. First, it’s only for iOS; they are making the Android version, but no release date, yet. Sorry, gang. Second, it’s designed by Europeans, so as an American using it I feel it’s not always as intuitive as it could be. Sometimes the names for things are different, but I had no problem navigating after just a few minutes, and their videos are really useful. That’s it, the only two things I think could be improved. Now let’s talk about a few of the features.

Basically, this app answers most of the questions I have when I want to shoot landscapes, and many of my questions when I want to shoot portraits, as well. It’s intended for iPhone, but I enjoy using it on my iPad; it requires a camera to work at it’s best. I said this app is the best in the world; I haven’t used all the apps out there, but this leaves me wanting nothing else. I’ll talk about three of the things it helps me to do: planning a shoot, maximizing my camera, and collaborating with friends and clients.

Planning

The most wonderful feature of this app is that you can stand in a place and ask it when the sun or moon or stars or Milky Way will be in a specific part of the sky and it will give you a time and date.

That means if you want the sun to be in that particular spot on Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, you can use this app to know the day and time it will be there. Or when the sun will rise through a certain window in a building. Or, in the case of the following image, I used it to know exactly what day the sun would rise while the moon set behind the spot I photograph my client’s trucks; my client went nuts over it.

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Another time I used it to see exactly when and where the sun would be the day after the art director and I visited Dead Horse Point so that we could make pictures for her publication.

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And I can’t tell you how excited I am for the time next Spring when the moon will rise directly down the middle of this bridge in Portland, Oregon.

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My beef with this sort of app is that they typically don’t account for the elevation I’ll be standing at when the sun rises, nor do they account for the elevation of obstacles (like mountain ranges) between me and the sun. PhotoPills, however, does account for these, and that means it’ll tell me when the sun will rise locally, and not if I were at sea level. This is a huge bonus, and the designers should get the Nobel Prize for app design.

Not only does it tell you where the sun and moon will be, but it also has “Augmented Reality” to show where major stars and the Milky Way cloud will be in the sky. It uses the phone’s camera and overlays the track of celestial bodies on the picture so that you can see exactly where they will be and at what time on which date. I’m only a casual astro photogrpaher, but this app helps me look good. Other apps do this, too, but this one includes so many other features that I’ve removed the others from my phone. Why go to multiple apps when this one does them all so well? And did I mention that it only costs US$9.99? That’s kind of expensive for an app, but it’s still the cheapest tool in my bag, and I use it almost daily. It’s on sale Black Friday (November 28, 2014) for just $4.99.

Maximizing the Camera

The more I understand about photography, the more I realize how little I understand. But PhotoPills helps me fill in the gaps with useful calculations for things like Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distances. These numbers give me settings I can use on the camera to help me understand how my final image will look, how much will be in focus, how to maximize the depth of field, etc.

For instance, in the bridge image above I used it to know that setting the focus on the lens at a certain distance would allow everything in the frame to be in sharp focus, eventhough I only used f/11. When making panoramas like this, that kind of knowledge is essential to ensure the finished image looks good. Maybe we’ll tackle Hyperfocal in it’s own post sometime, but until then, know that these are cool tools. It even lets me program it for just about every camera and lens combination ever made.

Collaborating

You know that I love to collaborate, and that I think the best thing in the world is working on great pictures with other photographers. PhotoPills has a share button at the bottom of every screen to help facilitate sharing. I can share the map views, or the technical specs, or the sun position. It’s so great that the app gives several options handy all the time. I think they get big kudos for encouraging collaboration. These tools also help me to help my client understand what I’m talking about. It’s pretty clear that the orange line is the sun position, and that makes it easy to communicate clearly.

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Tips for Optimum Use

I’ve been using PhotoPills for a while, and I have some tips that will help you maximize your experience with it. Firstly, it’s a powerful tool, and you can expect it to perform exactly as well as any of your other powerful photography tools, like your camera or Photoshop. That is to say, if you don’t put in the effort to learn how to use it, don’t expect it to magically give you stunning pictures. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to learn to use and understand. The app doesn’t have a glossary built in, but a quick Google search will get you aquainted with any terms you don’t understand. I will say it’s much easier to master than either your camera or photoshop. Secondly, use PhotoPills.com to learn it. I’ve already mentioned the videos, but they are really a must see; you won’t get far without them. The Support page is also excellent. If you take a little time to get familiar with this app and it’s capabilities, I think you find, like I have that it’s a bit of kit you’ll use all the time.

Update, November 2014

I want you to know that I’m still using this app regularly. I used it the other day when I was in Moab, UT. I didn’t have control over the date of my visit, so I dialed up PhotoPills to see what the sky would look like during my visit. I was excited to see that the full moon would be rising right behind Delicate Arch just as the sun was setting–what a great picture that would be! Unfortunately, I couldn’t finish my work in town quite earlier enough to make the hike to the arch before the moon was already too high…that, and I may have gotten a little lost on the hike out. Fortunately, the full moon was really really bright, making the hiking enjoyable. The pictures turned out pretty well, too.

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Panasonic GH4, Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 lens, f/2.8, 60 seconds, ISO 400. This is a 7 frame panorama. I shot it as a panorama because that Leica lens is the best lens I’ve ever used, and it was too tight to fit the arch in one shot. So I shot 7 frames to make one large image.

Still lovin’ the PhotoPills!

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