Landscape Photography Apps Compared

Landscape Photography Apps Compared

The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it
— Ansel Adams

An epic landscape image starts life in your imagination, but turning that idea into a finished image needs a little planning. What season will work best, what kind of conditions, sunrise or sunset, blue hour or astro? Where will the sun rise or set? What else is close by if conditions dont work out?

Like most Landscape photographers I have a mental calendar of places and times, but to really plan a shot I use a whole bunch of tools to help. I'll be looking at three of the most popular ones here. They all show you the basics, and let you save locations or entire plans and will let you fill your diary with shoots.

The Photographers Ephemeris

$12.99NZ

 
 

'TPE' was the first serious sunrise/sunset tool I found, originally just an online web tool using some maps API's, its still available for free online. Its the simplest tool out of the three here, but sometimes that makes it the quickest tool to use. It'll show you the basic sunrise and set positions, moon cycle and positions, elevation and even a Bortle map for light pollution.

Simply set the date and location you are interested in, and it will show you the ephemeris details in the lower panel. Swipe between information and use the time slider to see where the sun and moon will be.

It is fast and simple, and will get you the basic info without much effort.

Photopills

$14.99NZ

 
 

Known on iOS for the last 4 years to have a great balance between features and ease of use, Photopills gives you many tools to help your planning.

The primary 'Pills' are:

  • Planner
  • Sun/moon finder
  • Exposure and DoF calculators
  • Time lapse
  • Augmented reality
  • Star trails/spot star calculators

Alongside the Pills tab is 'My stuff' where your own plans, awards and points of interest sit, and 'Academy', where links to the user guide, videos and even T-Shirts exist.

The meat, though, is the planner, and superficially this looks a lot like TPE.

By using the top panel you have several more options for information display, including the milky way (visibility and centre finder).  Swiping between these shows you different information. One of the key things here is each panel has a button on the left to enable its special feature (milky way arch or blue/golden hour colours etc).  These can all be enabled or disabled independently.

The centre section showing the map has a few buttons: One to expand the map almost full screen, cutting down on clutter, and others to drop target pins, etc.

The lower panel shows by default a 24 hour graph you can scroll or zoom in for more precise control over timing.

Below this is a row of buttons for saving/loading plans, finding stuff, and the Augmented reality (AR) modes. You can also easily share your plans with others online.

Photopills daytime AR mode

Photopills daytime AR mode

The AR modes are heaps of fun. Hold the phone up to the scene and it will show you (after calibration) exactly where the sun or milky way will rise or set at any time of year. This is probably the best tool for planning when you can visit the location beforehand.

and night AR mode

and night AR mode

One of Photopills' secret weapons is the desktop widget that can run live on your phone's launcher (or notification area on iOS). These can show you all the info you need for today, or list your plans. From here you can launch directly into the app.

Planit!Pro

Free/$5.99USD

 
 

I've used this app for a few years now, as it was the most complete Android option I could find. It was always tricky to use because of the depth and clutter of the interface. It recently underwent a complete redesign, which makes it far easier to use than before.

Planit!Pro covers all the same basic ephemeris information the other two apps do,  plus a few other modes like meteor showers, light and shadow, panoramas, and tides. It is in fact the only planning app that does include tide information, even though on my phone it is a little slow to use. The list of tools include:

  • Camera/scene location (2 pins for distance/elevation etc)
  • Depth of field
  • Panorama
  • Sunrise/set, twilight and special hours (golden, blue hour etc)
  • Exact positions of sun/moon
  • Stars and star trails
  • Milky way location
  • Meteor showers
  • Dark skies
  • Time lapse
  • Sequence (sun/moon over time)
  • Exposure calculator
  • Light and shadow
  • Rainbow position
  • Tide height, Tide search
  • Map modes including google street view

The milky way finder is great, and it has a zoomable bortle scale light pollution map. Both combined allow you to plan your astro trips quite well. This is paired with the milky way calendar, which quickly shows you the best time to shoot (moon cycles and time above horizon etc).

One of the cool things with Planit!Pro is you can search by event then filter the results. So I can search a location for low tide in the next month and then filter by golden hour or new moon or whatever and it will show me a list of dates/times that meet my requirements. Makes planning something complicated far simpler!

Panorama mode will calculate how many shots you need for your composition based on your focal length.

It does have an AR mode, but its far more difficult to use compared to Photopills. Though it does have the ability to plan your composition on location with photos taken previously.

There is a free version lacking some key tools for avid landscape/astro shooters. It is worth trying before you buy the full version.

Conclusion

Its difficult to dismiss any of these three apps. They all do the job, and do it well.

TPE is by far the simplest, and that makes it quick and easy to use. Its also far more limited, but covers the basics of sun and moon positions and moon cycle.

Planit!Pro has some incredibly powerful tools if you take the time to learn how to use the app. Even with its reworked interface and built in help, it is often tricky to use. The flipside is it's incredibly versatile, and can combine a bunch of tools/views in one to give you all the information you will ever need. It is also the only one with tide information!

Photopills, at its most basic, is almost as easy to use as TPE. At the same time it offers almost the depth of Planit!Pro. It has become truly cross-platform recently, and has the most awesome AR mode.  It is also a lot more social than the other two apps, with plans shared between groups. love the widgets.

For me, I am more likely to use Photopills now, as it has a nice combination of depth, features and ease of use.

Meet-Up at Godley Head

Meet-Up at Godley Head

Avoiding the glare

When you spend as much time planning and preparing landscape photography workshops as Rob and I do, the reason for our efforts sometimes fades into the background.

Waiting for sunrise

We started Hero Workshops for our shared love of photography, and to enable others to enjoy it as much as we do. When spreadsheets and emails threaten to take over our lives, it's time to call a Hero Meet-Up, meet other photographers, and head out to shoot.

Rob looking for his camera

The latest iteration at Godley Head had a rough start. Bad weather required us to postpone a previous attempt on short notice. Imagine our bliss when the forecast predicted a calm, sunny morning this time. We were finally getting away from our spreadsheets!

Not the worst way to use an old bunker

It was a beautiful morning to be out and about. The light breeze invited to just sit in the tussocks and watch the sun rise over the horizon. Not that we did sit down. The photos weren't going to take themselves, after all.

Unfortinately, the lack of cloud cover didn't allow us to take the killer shots we had gotten out of bed for so early.

Getting all the gizmos ready

As so often in landscape photography, we had hoped and planned for certain conditions, and made the best of what we got in the end. It is almost always the unexpected shot, taken after packing up and taking out my gear twice, that I end up liking the best:

Lyttelton Harbour & Banks Peninsula

Lyttelton Harbour & Banks Peninsula

 

Hero Meet-Ups are randomly announced landscape photography events. Join us for free advice, take photos with us, and have a coffee afterwards. Watch the Meet-Up section and our Facebook page for the next event.

Two Boy Scouts in Queenstown

Two Boy Scouts in Queenstown

'Just another day at the office!' is what went through my mind when I took this selfie of Rob and me. An evening like that is what made us fall in love with the outdoors and photography in the first place: Sitting on a mountain, overlooking a vast, overwhelmingly beautiful landscape, and knowing that we, as photographers, can take a slice of it home with us. One click at a time.

The Remarkables and the Lower Shotover 

The old saying that 'the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle' applies. We want our students to experience a healthy balance of learning and fun, so our non-shooting hours were spent chasing around Queenstown. We had a long list of locations from shooting here previously. But the nitty-gritty of fitting them into four days required feet on the ground. Not that we needed much of an incentive to go to Queenstown!

The shore of Lake Wakatipu is not short of subjects

Getting some face time with astrophotography legend and Queenstown local Jordan McInally was a special treat. At some stage a spontaneous 600m climb up the Remarkables was in short order considered, approved, and finally rejected due to a lack of sleep, gear and stamina. One of us even forgot his tripod, but I'm not going to tell names. You know who you are!

One of Jordan's special astro places

Rob and I absolutely cannot wait to get on the road in April. While a scouting trip is fun, it is the experience of exploring as a group of enthusiasts that makes these weekends truly special. With an office like that, working weekends is a burden that we will happily put up with.

Moke Lake on a gloomy morning

What: Hero Holiday Queenstown
When: Friday 7/4/2017 - Monday 10/4/2017
Mission: Learn how to plan, shoot and edit your own landscape hero pic
Included: Accommodation, tutoring, handout materials, welcome package, a lot of ideas, a big smile on your face
Price: $1500
There are still a few spaces available. More information here.

Dennis & Jordan looking for the mother of all compositions