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.