Author Archives: Eric Harness

Photo Pills Ultimate App for Photography

Originally Published Nov 29, 2013
Last Updated April 18, 2016

For me this app is why I have a smartphone.  It has a lot of features, which makes it one of the most inclusive apps out there for photography.  Even just one of their modules would make up the entire functionality of others apps.  You are essentially buying many apps in one since is has a plethora of functions and shortcuts. It is going to take a long time to master so do yourself a favor:  sit down with it for a while read up and explore.   First go to the section on learning and learn! Tapping and swiping allows you to switch dates, times, modes, and more. Getting the feel of the app without trying some critical calculation will put you in a better frame of mind.


Steven likes to point out that the app is only as good as the hardware it is built on, and I can attest to this. Steven’s iPhone 4 compass and accelerometer must be off – the sun and moon locations are wrong by up to 10 degrees (more than 16 moon diameters).  Inaccuracy seems to also be a problem with the 4s and the 5s there have been many complaints. The iPhone 5 seems to have better sensors.  See the Macworld article: Six Phones Can’t Agree on Magnetic North

While the Macworld article is the result of poorly conducted calibration, the important takeaway is that the app can only be as accurate as the environment you run it in and the hardware you run it on. It can’t be said enough: trust but verify. Then recalibrate and try again.  Bring your own GPS and compass to verify the accuracy. We are not suggesting to use the iPhone as a navigation device just an aid. Apple maps didn’t work out so well remember! We are suggesting that this can be a useful device for the visualization of photos or getting an idea of your compositions and bringing your most accurate tools to bear. If you’re fanatical about accuracy, like Steven you can also bring your compass, maps, GPS, planisphere (ref 123,) and sextant.  Ok, the sextant was a joke but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has one. Steven is crazy about accuracy in predictions.

Navigation Basics

Navigating the app is easy to get started. Start swiping and you will be unlocking all sorts of functionality.  At first you will be surprised by all of the hidden things you are doing.  For me the first time I opened it up I was like, Wow, what was that? What did I just do?  Once you begin to get a little more advanced you will start to realize you may not be remember the proper, tap, drop, swipe, handshake combination to get where you want to go.  Generally it will take some practice but let me give you some tips out to help.

More content dots – The dots in the image below are a symbol that shows there is more content on this topic available just swipe in the correct place to the left or right.

More Content Dots

The next page dots are sneaky because they blend into the background.  However, they can be found in the same general location so just look to see if they are there.

Transition between right and left pages by swiping seeing the more content dots.

Transition between right and left pages by swiping by paying attention to the more content dots.

Previous page button – Found in the upper left.  This button brings you back to the prior menu, usually. It can be helpful for getting around the app so don’t forget about it. Even when it says something strange, it usually is a “back” button – except when it is not there and is instead a “Done” button on the upper right.  There are also important buttons that appear in the upper right so when you are finished look up there for some important info.  Like what you ask? The save button often appears here – or at the upper right.

Photo Pills back button on upper left.



Changing your location or a value generally requires just a tap however in some cases it requires a tap and hold or double tap.  My solution try them all.  In the planner, the map will find have some icons you can tap (sometimes by accident).  Or save yourself a bit of hunting by finding the Learn page and reviewing the options described there.

The Photo Pills Menu in all of its glory

Photo Pills

The three main menus of Photo Pills.


What does every module Do?

Here is a short summary:

My Stuff

Plans – Where your Plans are saved.

Points of Interest – Local points of interest. Over 10,500 all over the world! Also has a search functionality.

Settings – Calculations are based in the units of measure you select, on the Camera body you select.   I would suggest starting here. Imperial and Metric are the options.


Planner – The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE)-like functionality. Is used for Sun and Moon alignment planning similar to what we cover in our Catching the Moon Webinar.  Mostly used for planning, as well as scouting, but has some nice sharing functionality which will help in the organization of scouted locations on the fly.

Planner looks a lot like another program I know

Sun – Detailed information about Sun rise, set,  Time to set Azimuth Elevation, Distance, Shadow Ratio, start of different twilights (Civil Nautical Astronomical), Magic Hours (Blue, Golden), Calendar, Augmented Reality, Seasons, and Sharing (Facebook, Twitter,  email, or save as an image).

Moon – Detailed information about Sun rise, set, Time to set Azimuth Elevation, Distance, Shadow Ratio, start of different twilights (Civil Nautical Astronomical), Magic Hours (Blue, Golden), Calendar (Phases each day), Augmented Reality, Distance (Perigees and Apogees), and Sharing (Facebook, Twitter,  email, or save as an image).

Exposure – Allows you to determine equivalent exposures, that is equivalent brightness using different settings. Determine equivalent exposures by changing shutter speed, aperture, ISO. Will also help you understand how a ND (Neutral Density) filter will affect the exposure.  This also calculates the change in EV value.

DoF – Is a DoF (Depth of Field) calculator using your current exposure settings, (Camera, lens, aperture, distance to subject, lens set up teleconverter status), a DoF table, augmented Reality, and Sharing (Facebook, Twitter,  email, or save as an image).

Hyperfocal – A table which shows at a given focal length (14mm) and a given aperture value (F/1.4) what distance everything is going to appear in focus (15 ft 4in) to infinity.  We talk about it a lot now you have no excuse for looking it up.

FoV – Is a Field of View calculator using your current camera, lens, and distance to subject, Camera orientation (landscape or portrait) to give field of view information.  You can also inverse this so you know where to stand or use Augmented Reality to see it in the phones camera.  Oh and you guessed it; share (Facebook, Twitter, email, or save as an image).  Also allows you to find equivalent FoV settings between cropped sensor cameras.  One application Steven recently used was to determine what focal length to use to fill his field of view with Mercury, Saturn, Comet ISON and Comet Encke (136mm).

Night – Includes 3 main features Night AR, Star Trails, and Spot stars. Night AR allows you to see the location of the Milky Way, the rise of the moon, and the direction stars will rotate. Aids you in the pre-visualization of how long your star trails would be. Inversely, it allows you to calculate how long it would take for the stars to form a specified arc in the sky.  Finally, under Night is Spot stars which calculates the shutter speed necessary to make stars appear as spots without the aid of an equatorial mount.  For an in depth article on this subject, see here.

Time Lapse – Allows you to calculate data about your timelapse before you art.  Information such as Event duration in real time and as a final product, FPS, total number of photos and the file storage necessary to capture the sequence on your memory card.


Help – In depth help on the app, tips on the menus and how to navigate, what buttons do what.  There is a lot.  After a quick stop at the settings then go over here. Check it out.

About– Learn about the developers, Contact the support staff, rate the app, applaude the team.

The Awesome Parts

The app is just so big that I am not going to be able to cover all of it in detail.  There are a lot of parts of the app I want to touch on.

The data –  The data on every tab is amazing and detailed.  You want the data on what phase the moon is in, data on when the phases are that month.  The data just does not stop, it is not just the Sun or moon tab it is on FOV or DoF tabs.  For a guy who does a lot of panos all of the hyper-focal, FoV info is impressive.  I LOVE ALL of this data presented in a logical, clear and concise way.  But, wait we want more data.

Augmented reality – This is one of the most useful parts of the app.  For my money this was the best tool to teach and help students visualize where the North Star is and where the Moon and Milky Way is going to rise.  The overlay on the scene is the magic that allows students see where the Milky Way will be because it is super-imposed on the live picture.  There is AR for everything Night, Sun, Moon, Depth Of Field… Yes, even DoF – not a preview, but an on screen indication about the range of the DoF setting.   In my experience the AR has been accurate and responsive however this has not been everyone’s experience depending on your phone hardware.  I am told the inaccuracy issues are due to the hardware not the software, but that is not going to stop the complaining.  Can you use if for any scouting?  Well that is highly debatable (Steven and I have had heated discussions about this).  We would love to have more data on the photogenic parts of the Milky Way (i.e. Sagittarius, is much more deep and milky than Cassiopeia but the current depiction is rough).  Location of Stars to aid in the orientation.  I personally don’t care about the size of the moon.  Steven would like to see the size be more realistic – it’s currently shown about 8 times its actual size. I can foresee problems with people with bad vision or people not patient enough to search for the moon (I know a lot of those, bad vision not the part about being patient). The on screen display (AR) also doesn’t show the GPS, exact angle of elevation, or exact compass direction – the data is drawn in grids that are increments of 10 degrees vertically and 12.5 degrees horizontally.

But I digress, the great part about AR is that it can help you see what might be possible, when might the moon be near that object.  You may still have to do the work over again because we have seen the predictions be as far off as 10 degrees if you rely on the phone hardware for compass direction.   

The moon is 0.5 degrees if you are running photo pills with a bad compass (bad hardware or just a bad calibration) The moon could be 20 moon diameters away in this photo (10 degrees / 0.5 degrees = 20 moon diameters). The moon would be out of this frame in that case.

The moon is 0.5 degrees if you are running photo pills with a bad compass (bad hardware or just a bad calibration) The moon could be 20 moon diameters away in this photo (10 degrees / 0.5 degrees = 20 moon diameters). The moon would be out of this frame.


Planner – It is not as good as I would have liked.  My main gripe was the small screen is difficult to navigate and to pinpoint the exact point where the alignment is going to be.  One thing is that there is elevation profiler which will allow you to determine what the height of the object is on the horizon.  Useful yes but useless if there is a huge building in the way.  It also currently doesn’t have ready access to a Topo Map so determining where there might be a hill in the way is not simple – unless, of course you are on site..  I like the share options, in the Points of interest tab you can export all of your points to a KMZ file you can open in a map editor (like Google Earth).   The win for me was the portability, I always have my phone so I can just scout whenever I see something interesting so I can come back later.

I can plan a shot where ever I am, unless I need the map and am not able to get a data connection, that is.  If I see something interesting, I can check for an alignment right on the spot.  I can figure out if it is possible then bring out the big guns for double checking.  I think this is one of the biggest advantages.

One thing that tripped us up… there are two AR modes in the Planner. The outer one – which is for “getting an idea” and the inner one that appears after you start a Find operation. The AR choice after selecting Find allows you to use AR to set the location of your desired target. Point the display and tap it to place the moon or sun where you want to capture it. Remember, though, that the moon or sun will be shown about 12 times larger than actual size.

To close this app is the most comprehensive and inclusive of features, some planned usability enhancements will definitely kick it up a notch.

Enhancements We’d Like to See

What we would like to see alignment prediction tool additions.  Photo Pills has so much. Now that we have seen what it is capable of we want more.  Serious, understatement there because, honestly we what a whole LOT more, and that’s not to say we hate the app – not at all. It still packs more punch than everything else we’ve looked at.  However, as noted, we would like to see more data in the AR and in the planner.  We would like to be able to take a photo of the scene and have the all relevant data overlaid on the same photo.  Further, we would like to have access to the meta-data burned into the photo.  When we share a plan, it doesn’t seem to include the elevation (altitude), azimuth (compass direction) and tolerance information. We are geeks we want to write scripts to sort and map that data, and track our exploits much like Spyglass.

There are a couple of little niggles in the interface that are annoying. Lines that don’t get drawn on the planner map, accidentally resetting the observer location by dragging our finger over the “set location here” icon while scrolling the map, and others.

If possible, we’d like to see an “enhanced accuracy mode” so that you can be 90% confident that the AR alignment that you are shown will indeed be within 0.5 degrees.

Even though of how we’d like to improve the visual interface… but hey, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work well as is.

How Accurate Is The Application? Participate and Find Out!

We want to collect data from testing in many environments on many devices, not just from our own half dozen devices.  Please do the following.

  1. Play with PhotoPills a bit to be sure you understand it.  Go to the help menus and learn about the AR and other functions.
  2. Kill your compass app and Photo Pills (all apps preferably). This is to insure that you have a chance to calibrate.
  3. Start PhotoPills. Go to “Moon” make sure that “Info” has the current time (double tap the center of the Moon).
  4. Click on AR.
  5. Verify that the current date and time are correct in the upper left. If not, go back to Info and double tap the Moon or go into settings.
  6. If/when the phone asks, perform a calibration on IOS 7.0 and later you “roll a ball around”. Older IOS versions may ask you to wave the phone in a figure 8. Hold your phone normally (Portrait mode)
  7. Point the camera at the Moon. Obviously the moon must already be up in the sky for this test. You CAN try this using the sun instead, but that wouldn’t be good for your eyes or the phone unless the sun is just rising or just about to set.
    Once your target is in view select the “Action” button (lower right).

    • If you have a Twitter account choose “Twitter” and send your photo to @starcircleacade be sure to include #photopillstest and your iPhone version e.g. #iphone4 or #iphone5s and your ios version e.g. #ios703.
    • If you don’t have Twitter, please use email and send your photo to
    • If you don’t have email available, you can save the image or post it to Facebook – just be sure to share it with us!
  8. Next turn your device 90 degrees to Landscape mode, spin yourself around a full 360 degrees (trying not to get dizzy), point the phone back at the target and repeat step 7.
  9. Super Extra Credit would be to take a photo of multiple iphones on a table all set to compass mode.

Please only send two photos one in portrait, one in landscape mode per each device you have Photo Pills on.   Thank you for your help! Also, please note that large metal objects (your car for example), computers, electronics and what-have-you will affect the accuracy of the compass. If you can move away from such things to do your calibration and take measurements that will help.

We will publish an update to this material once we get enough data to make some calculations.

Photo Pills discount Code

Photo Pills = The reason I bought a smart phone

UPDATE!! 10/30/13 11:18pm

The developer gave us another discount code but this one is also limited.  Maximum usage is 50 people BUT you are going to have to wait until I finish the article.

I am in the process of writing up an amazing app for smartphones called Photo Pills. The verdict is Photo Pills is an incredible app, it has so many features that the blog article is taking a long time to complete. I want to release the discount code to the public: 6M7H3NJ44KXR   All Gone!!  We only got a few to give out and they are gone

There is a lot to take in so I recommend watching the 11 video-tutorials here:  
Looking forward to getting this article finished….Whew in the mean time enjoy the app!!


Spyglass: Scouting tool for iOS Devices


Spyglass: Realtime image overlaid with useful data

Spyglass, an iPhone/iPad application is a great tool to have in your photography arsenal.  In the field it is difficult to for a new photographer to know where to point their camera to get a star circle, and also get an idea what the composition may look like. Now there is an app for that: Spyglass.  Spyglass typically is used for aviation or navigators but adapts well to night photography where it is well suited for scouting and shot pre-planning.  Spyglass overlays a navigation compass, star location and other information on the live camera view of the scene. All of the displayed data can be recorded right on the image as well as in the EXIF data of the photo.  In the past we would use a complicated tripod leveling and degree app to show where Polaris would be.  Not anymore. SpyGlass can show the position of Polaris during daylight well before it is time to set up for the pre-twilight shots.  The students get a solid understanding what the photograph is going to look like before the night starts.

Please note while we are fans of this app we are not paid to support it or promote it.  This is not a comprehensive review. The user manual is 61 pages long for good reason! Spyglass is a well thought out app with a lot of functionality.

The Con’s

  1. The app is only as accurate as the sensors on your phone, meaning that if the GPS, Digital compass, gyroscope, accelerometer and camera are poorly calibrated your results can be very inaccurate.  There is a lot that can contribute to errors or compound errors, and in some cases in some cases affects usability of the app. Really these issues are hardware related, but does affect accuracy and usability of the app.
  2. The superimposed photos taken with the app are “soft” focus in the detail around the text.  However a screen shot of the same graphic is much crisper then a photo taken through the app.  While not a show stopper the image could be a little crisper.
  3. You cannot see the path the object will take in the sky.  This is troubling when trying to align objects like the moon to things on the foreground when the alignment is going to happen a few hours.
  4. Text color selections need to be carefully chosen to contrast with the background or they are difficult to see.
  5. The app only works on Apple products.

The Pros

  1. There is a ton of data overlaid on the photo.  (See figure) Data includes the Date, time, Direction (Azimuth you are facing) in degrees from true north, Altitude, Accuracy, Position in Lat. And Long., Position in Mil Spec.  Azimuth Circle, Target pointers,  Ranger finder, Horizon/Roll,
  2. The data is overlaid in real-time with adjustments depending on height, speed and incline, direction.
  3. Photos show the data overlaid on the foreground as well as GPS coordinates. This data is encoded in the EXIF data of the photo, too.
  4. One of the most exciting features is the Sextant and Calculator which allow you to determine the height and angle of elevation of objects in the distance from the place you are standing.  Very useful for celestial object (moon) alignments.
  5. Sharing your location and data is easy.   Just tap and hold and you have a bunch of options to share where you are. Unfortunately you can’t share the photo and the location data in the same message.
  6. Multiple locations can be saved on the map so you can remember where those photogenic locations are and mark them for return to later.
  7. Multiple sky objects can be tracked.  The Sun, Moon, and Stars (Polaris).  Knowing that Polaris is right behind a landmark helps you put a Star Circle where you want it. If you know where the Milky Way is the app can help you determine if it is possible to get the Milky Way arching over this pointy Tufa tower.

Examples of some of the things you can do with Spyglass. 

The northerly direction is discovered using Spyglass

The northerly direction is discovered using Spyglass

Resulting alignment from the positional analysis using Spyglass.

Resulting alignment from the positional analysis using Spyglass.










Or facing south, the Milky Way will appear above this sand tufa structure (our censors asked us to blur the exact location information to protect this fragile structure)

Sand Tufa

Sand Tufa







You can plan a Moon contact shot by measuring altitude and azimuth and then use those measurements as we describe in the “Catching the Moon” webinar to determine when the moon will be exactly where you want it to be.

Moon and Osaka-Jo

Looking toward the next day for the moon alignment.  Checking the altitude and azimuth for helping determine the exact location to stand for the alignment of the moon over the Castle.

Moon Alignment with Osaka Castle

The resulting alignment from previous days scouting of Osaka Castle.
















Spyglass does have competition. There is another app called Photo Pills which we are also evaluating. Write ups soon!

Need Multiple Batteries Charged?

This article is one for those who do a fair amount of travel and for those of us who have multiple cameras. You run into a little bit of a problem with the batteries. Steven has covered in the past the Camera Battery Hack. We have also linked to other Camera battery hacks to extend those star trails long after the stock battery would have died.

What I want to talk about here is chargers for your stock batteries and here is the rub most of the chargers you buy for camera battery are specific for only one battery. Recharging batteries is a pain because batteries drain and recharge at different rates so at sometime you are left with 3 dead batteries all different types. That takes three different chargers all of which charge at different rates. And carrying more chargers means more chargers to forget, more outlets that are occupied.  And since each charger charges at a different you have to keep checking and checking the chargers to swap in the discharged batteries.

Suppose you move between hotels and locations in the remote Alps with your photo buddies on a once-in-a-lifetime time trip. But, you just forgot your charger in civilization. Well sucks for you. You will have to nurse that battery and it looks like no star circles for you. Well your friend might have you covered. If he had the Digipower travel charger which can charge multiple batteries at the same time. So lets look at the specs of the charger…North America/Japan and European Voltages (100-240VAC 50-60Hz 0.2A) (even the ability to charge two batteries at once.) These changers also come with the wall outlet adapters no need for use or buy another voltage converter. There is also a safety timer to prevent batteries from over charging as well as short circuit protection. The best part is the multiple inserts for different battery types. No matter where you are or what type of battery your buddies have, you got it covered in one charger. These multi-chargers are typically sold as brand specific Nikon, Canon, or Sony but they cover a large number of battery types in that brand. All of the interchangeable plates are included so no need ordering separate plates or voltage converters.  In the version I got (Nikon) it cover 5 battery types EN-EL3e (D90,D300, D300S, D700) EN-EL9/9a D40x D60, D3000, EN-E14 P7000 D3100, D5100, D7700, EN-EL15 D7000, V1 D800, D600, EN-EL20 J1. This covers all of Nikon’s pro cameras so your main body and the backup are covered.  Sweet now back to shooting.

Another system with interchangeable charger plates is the Delkin single or dual plate charging system.

Of course the downside to all of these systems is that they require you not only to carry the charger, but also the plates for the batteries you may need.

Lenmar Plate Charging System (with USB power outlet)