Star Circle Planning Tools in The Field

In early September, I discussed the four essential tools for planning a star circle or star trail shot. Briefly recapping, those are:

  1. Google Maps (or other mapping software preferably with roads and terrain maps).
  2. An ephemeris
  3. An Inclinometer
  4. A GPS Unit – very useful for finding a location as well as finding north (if your unit has a compass built in, that is).

In this article I am expanding on those basic items and I am about to tell you where most of these tools reside… wait for it… my iPhone. Trust me I am no great gusher of “all things Apple”. My co-workers have been defecting to the Mac platform while I have been cursing myself for sticking it out with Windows 7 and all of the bizarre behaviors that came with it.

But my iPhone is an indispensable tool for me. I use it much more onsite than for pre-planning, but the apps are very useful nonetheless. Can you do this stuff with a netbook? Probably. Android phone? Most likely. But I do not have those and I have come to love my *first generation* iPhone. Yep. Still first generation.  Sure I could grab my wife’s former G3 model since she’s moved on to an iPhone 4… but my iPhone feels quite comfortable to me because it is set up just how I like it.

My indispensable apps in approximate order of their value to me are as follows:

  1. Words With Friends $3 – or get the free version  (App Store, website)
    I have to do something to pass the time while the camera is clicking away. This is for playing scrabble with folks. Requires a data connection through wifi or carrier. Was VERY buggy, but stability has improved. I am usually playing 10 to 15 games at a time.
  2. Clinometer (for iPhone / iPod or iPad) $1  (App Store, website)
    Probably my most useful application. I use this onsite to measure angles from the horizon. I can determine if the North Star will be visible, and how close or far to get from a foreground object to have the north star where I want it. I start the app, sight along the long edge of the iPhone and read the angle on the display.   I can scout during the day and get just what I expect when it gets dark. I will cover this very useful tool in more detail in an an upcoming column as well as the next workshop.
  3. Starmap $12 or Starmap Pro $19  (App Store – regular, pro).
    I bought the regular version even though I knew the pro version was coming out. Great planetarium app with dates and locations for meteor showers of every description, sun, moon and planetary data, constellations and the ability to customize the display to match your viewing conditions. My main gripe is that it uses only “common” names for the constellations. I know the latin names (I much prefer Orion to “The Hunter”). Has a good “find it” feature and you can set it for different dates and times and locations. Very handy for navigating the night sky.
  4. Photo Buddy $2 (App Store, website)
    It is overkill for what I use it for which is primarily: calculating the hyperfocal distance, and calculating the angle of view. It will also calculate depth of field and has a sunrise and sunset function. There is a very wide selection of cameras and models which makes configuring it pretty easy even if the interface is just a bit clunky.
  5. Focalware $5 (App Store)
    I do not use this as much, but it will calculate sunrise, moon rise, sunset, moonset and altitude and azimuth for each. It needs a signal to determine your location or you can enter GPS coordinates.  There is a very advanced version of a similar app called Helios which sells for $30 – if they had it for the moon it would probably be worth the price.
  6. iCSC free. International Clear Sky Chart –
    Predicts visibility on an hour by hour basis for the next 24 hour period. Widely used by astronomers and usually very accurate. Covers most of the continental US and Canada.
  7. Safari (builtin) Sometimes you have to look something up on the internet… if the internet is available, that is.
  8. Flashlight (free). (App Store)
    This app is a bit clunky, but you can use it for light painting and once when my headlamp broke it was very adequate as a “flashlight” substitute since it can be set to any color or luminosity.
  9. Built in Camera (free)
    The old iPhone has no zoom so it is possible to measure angular dimension with just the camera display. It also comes in handy for grabbing quick shots of possible shooting locations. Admittedly the G3 version with built in location info would be better for this.
  10. TPE [The Photographer’s Ephemeris]  $9 (App Store, website)
    Sadly, since this app requires a data or wifi connection to be useful, and since the screen real estate is so tiny, I find this a less useful substitute for the free version which you can use on your laptop or desktop machine (Mac or PC). An iPad version is available which provides much more real-estate to work with. Haven’t tried that version yet, however. A new feature has been added which seems very interesting (finding WHEN the moon or sun will be in the direction you want)… but I haven’t used it yet.
    If you’d like to learn how to use TPE, there are many resources available, including a tutorial I did:  Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris
  11. TideApp (free)  (App store)
    When photographing along the coast it is very helpful to know when and how high the tides will be.  There are not many tidal stations and finding the closest and most accurate one is not easy… but it sure is handy when you need it.  Hint: if you want tides along the Pacific Coast do not pick stations that are inside of bays, rivers or estuaries.

What do you think about this?