Category Archives: Review

Planispheres (Star Maps): Paper or Electronic?

Published May 29, 2014
Last Updated April 18, 2016

A topic that comes up a lot is discussion about what makes a good astronomy helper application. Whenever we suggest purchasing a paper Planisphere our critics remind us that they are not necessary because “there is a great app” to do that.


We take exception to the “there is an app for that” assertion… but perhaps not for the obvious reason. In fact we DO use several apps for forecasting and navigating the night sky. But ultimately we find the good old fashioned planisphere to be the most effective for most of what we want to do. We’ll make the case for a paper (or plastic) planisphere in a moment.

Why Do We Want Something Besides our Eyes?

Let’s start with determining why we want something to help us with our night sky navigation. Some scenarios to consider include:

  1. We are a beginner and we really don’t know Canis Major from Major Appliances.
  2. We have some familiarity with some of the constellations, but we want to learn more.
  3. We want to take a shot with a particular sky object behind a particular landmark.
  4. Even though we know the night sky pretty well, we still need to be able to find faint objects, or find objects in less than dark skies – the Milky Way, for example is difficult to see unless conditions are good and the sky is dark.
  5. We are going to go to an unfamiliar place with a latitude that is very different from where we normally gaze at the night sky.
  6. We want to know where to look to observe a particular phenomenon like the Geminid Meteor shower.

Can’t I Do that with an App?

It might seem that and android, iPad or iPhone app is the best tool since you can take it with you.  And that MIGHT be right except for the following significant problems:

  1. Unless you keep the app brightness really low or use it in a “dark sky mode” (usually dim red), you’ll damage your night vision making it difficult or impossible to see dimmer objects in the night sky.
  2. If you’re trying to find the Milky Way (the dense part in Sagittarius) but you try to use the app during a period when the Milky Way is not visible. No matter what time of night you enter, you won’t see the Milky Way (e.g. November through January).
  3. The representation on the app is often NOTHING like what it may look to your eye in your location. Every app suffers from this problem in one way or another. Some apps make the Milky Way in Canis Major appear to be incredulous – actually its very sedate there.
  4. You want an idea when it will be BEST to get the Milky Way aligned over your target. But on an App you will need to determine the time manually.
  5. If you mistakenly trust the app to tell you where it’s pointing you may be surprised how wrong it can be. Due to iPhone, Android, and iPad hardware limitations, a handheld app could be anywhere from close enough to off by 180 degrees!  It will be even worse if for some reason your App is configured for the wrong timezone, or the wrong GPS location.
    True story 1: I happened on a family in Yosemite, California and the dad had out his iPad pointing out to his children: “see … there is Orion”.. and over there…” but he was from Alabama and his iPad was off by 3 hours – and his compass wasn’t calibrated either so he ended up almost 180 degrees off.
  6. Dead battery. If you have to choose between enough battery to make an emergency call or figuring out your night sky… well, we recommend saving the battery.
  7. Most apps show only a fractional portion of the sky which may confuse anyone who is not already familiar with the sky.

While we freely admit that we like and use the following applications, we prefer a paper/plastic Planisphere.

  • Stellarium – FREE runs on Mac, PC and Linux.  We like it because it has excellent sky condition simulations that help give a realistic view of the night sky.  It won’t show you dim stars under bright moonlight unless you ask it to. It can also track comets and satellites. What we don’t like is that it is fidgety to configure.
  • StarMap by Fredd software for the iPhone/iPad. We like this one because it’s quite complete. It is well organized to show you, for example, what meteor showers are visible, what “dimmer” objects you can find, and has a simple interface for adjusting the sky brightness or the time of day. What we don’t like: we like to call the constellations by their scientific (and we believe) more common names.  Herdsman?  That’s Bootes. Big Dog? That’s Canis Major, thank you.  Note there are TWO versions of this App, unless you’re a serious astronomer, the less expensive one will work.
  • GoSkyWatch – admittedly we like it because we got it as a free app through Starbucks app of the week but we think its worth the price anyway! We like that it’s pretty versatile, when you point it at the sky it gives the altitude and azimuth (elevation angle and compass direction) which can come in quite handy – even though as we’ve already noted the compass direction is probably wrong! Zero in on an object and it will give you and idea what it looks like. We like that it’s Milky Way representation – while overly bright is pretty close to what it looks like. You won’t confuse Canis Major with Sagittarius, for example. It also includes a great assortment of dim objects and shows constellations with “good names” not just the “common name”. It also has a night mode to conserve your night vision.  It doesn’t have meteor showers or satellites, however.

What We Don’t Like

We’re not fond of anything we haven’t listed. Not that there aren’t better apps, but every one we’ve tried falls short in some way. Take for example, SkySafari.

SkySafari for example, is mostly a disappointment. Not only are there 12 different versions for iOS that range in price from $1 to $40, but the app doesn’t do a good job simulating the night sky, prefers to show useless images of the mythological constellations (which fortunately can be turned off) and shows a garish orange Milky Way which might be exciting to look at except that it will never look like what the app reveals.  SkySafari also doesn’t adjust for the effects of twilight or moonlight.

SkySafari does have some nice information about each object in its database, but the database is not searchable.  If you’re interested, for example in M101 you’ll have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the Messier Catalog page.  If you want to catch a glimpse of the ISS (Zarya/Space Station) you’ll have to slog through the Satellites page.

Why We Like the Planisphere

In this day and age it’s pretty normal for people to navigate by GPS, not by map or even by written instructions. It’s convenient to rely on devices. But we have driven to places and had NO idea how we got there except that “Mr. Carson” – our pet name for our British Accented “voice” – told us where to turn. In other words, we accomplished the goal of getting somewhere, but not really learning the geography, or even getting a good sense of direction. And we trust our GPS at a potential cost: the instructions could be WRONG, or dangerous, and our device might die. True story 2: we accidentally wiped our handheld GPS track when our goal was to return through a heavily fogged in trail at night – depriving us of the very bit of information that we needed!  We lived, obviously, but took several wrong turns as a result.

First we like the Planisphere because it is indeed a Map.

You can study the Planisphere day or night and observe what constellations are near other constellations.  A planisphere is in fact a rotating map. Unlike directions to grandma’s house, the appearance of the night sky changes minute by minute and season by season because of the earth’s rotation and the earths path around the sun.  While you know you can always turn left to get to grandma’s house, what you want to find in the night sky may in fact be “upside down” from what you remember 3 months or six hours ago.

From a larger map like a Planisphere you’ll discover that lining up Rigel to Betelgeuse (in Orion) and keeping straight will get you to Castor and Pollux in Gemini.  Following Orion’s “belt stars” toward the Rigel side will get you to Taurus and from there if you keeping going you’ll find the Pleiades… and so on. You’ll learn that you can navigate to the stars WITH the stars.

A Planisphere is also a Chart of Dates

A Planisphere also has a very powerful do-it-once approach to aligning things in the night sky. Spin the wheel to the sky configuration you wish and you can read around the edges every time of night over about 5 months in which the sky will appear in the same configuration!  No app we’ve seen does that!  In fact, we use the Planisphere to decide when the Milky Way will appear over our favorite waterfall or when Andromeda will be high in the night sky so we can snap it’s picture with the minimum amount of atmospheric distortion. The planisphere doesn’t tell us about the moon, but it does give us all the dates we have to work with.

Planispheres are Hard to Misconfigure

An app must have the correct location and timezone – which you may have noticed in True Story 1 can easily be quite wrong, a Planisphere is based on your local time. The only parameter you have to get right is to match your latitude with the proper Planisphere chart. If you live in San Francisco, you’ll want a chart that is valid from 30-40 degrees, not one that is 40-50 degrees and thus more suitable to Seattle residents. The most often made mistake on a Planisphere is to not subtract an hour from the time shown on the chart during daylight savings time. Some charts have the daylight savings time equivalent printed on them, but if not, just remember that during the summer if the watch reads 9 PM, you dial the chart to 8 PM.  The universe does not suddenly lurch 15 degrees when we decide to artificially set the time ahead an hour!

The one unfortunate thing about planispheres is that not all are created equal. We prefer DH Chandler’s LARGE charts because they are double sided and have less distortion than the single-sided charts. While it might be counter-intuitive to create a chart of black dots on a white background to represent the stars, it’s actually easier to read at night with a red flashlight than a chart with white stars on a black background.  You can get DH Chandler’s charts from Amazon for about $13 and from many other retailers.  If you join us for any of our events, we always have a supply on hand for our students.

Guardian of Forever

How to Fly with Camera Gear

We, that is, Steven and the Mrs. recently had to attend a funeral on the East Coast. Steven lives on the Left Coast.  If you’re wondering what this post has to do with photography, he will admit that this article is part rant against Delta Airlines and part tips on transporting photography (or other) gear and assorted other tips. I’ve flown all over with my gear both in the US and internationally and picked up a few tips which I offer to you. I would be interested to hear any tips you have as well! If you want to skip the rant and go straight to the tips, just scroll down for the title: “Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

Fare Tip: Bereavement fares may be available, but those fares are very likely to be a bad deal. Qualifying for a fare requires many hoops to jump through. You may find, as we did, that you can get a much better price by using PriceLine or similar service. Warning, however: you may also discover that you will be treated like a pariah. Our 3 flights went from San Jose, to LAX to Raleigh-Durham. In each flight we were relegated to the non-reclining back row seats.  This means no-resting, and extreme first hand familiarity with the poo bin. Indeed, even the new aircraft we flew on from LAX to ATL actually had direct visual access INTO the bathroom. Arom-rama and people standing around twitching does not really heighten the flying experience in any way.

Book early enough to NOT have to be in or near the back row (hard to do, of course if your travel is of an emergency nature).

But wait, it’s worse!  When we booked we were only able to claim seats on the last leg of our 3-hop circuit. The other two legs were “gate holds”.  When we checked in at the airport desk rather than actually giving us boarding passes for any flights, we were given a “placebo pass” for the first leg and told to claim our boarding passes at the gate. The gate was CHANGED however. It wasn’t actually gate 7, but gate 5.  At gate 5, apparently there was some additional difficulty. The printer was not printing.  No problem, we were told… just stop at any attended counter when we disembark.  Mind you that we only had a 40 minute layover, the plane was late arriving and since we were at the back of the plane we lost still more time while the hordes ahead of us disembarked. We had what seemed to be fractional seconds to exit the plane get boarding passes AND get to the departure gate in another terminal.  The first attended Delta counter employee said “Sorry, we’re really busy with this flight right now, could you please go to another counter?” What did we learn from this?

Insist on getting all of your boarding passes at the beginning. Don’t believe it when they tell you you can get them later – you may not have enough time or cooperation.

We ran to the gate listed on the flight display only to find that the plane we were to take the next 4+ hour ride on was already boarding.  We found ourselves relegated again to the “bathroom seats”. By now we were quite hungry, but without time to even buy a snack in LAX. We were relying on the food (at extra charge) to be served on the long leg of our flight. BUT (you knew there’d be a BUT), they RAN OUT OF FOOD about 12 rows ahead of us.  One bag of peanuts and pretzels were our only sustenance.  On a subsequent leg, beverage service was suspended due to turbulence.  The back half of the plane was unserved – not the airline’s fault, of course, but it is a cautionary tale about being prepared.

Tip: Pack something to eat *and* drink. Something substantial because you can’t trust the airlines (Delta, at least) to have any food for you. Bonus tip, make sure that your food is in your “personal item” since you may not be able to fetch it if there is turbulence, or you have to store your bag far away (see below). Ditto for any medication you might need.

The Delta in flight entertainment screens worked great except for the intermittent pop-up 32 second advertisements that were SO LOUD you literally had to yank off your head phones or risk deafness. Oh, and the Delta attendants were also hawking American Express cards seat to seat. On the way back, I was amused to learn that the entertainment system runs Linux, and crashes!  So a tip here is do not use the Delta entertainment system unless you really want additional aggravation. Besides, they are going to charge you $5 to play Sudoku – you can get the iPhone app for free. Another thing to consider: in my experience about half of the jacks for headphones are marginally to completely non-functional.  You’re better off bringing your own entertainment on board.

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

As you are probably aware, Delta and many other airlines charge an additional fee if you check baggage. The additional charge has many side effects, including making it take longer to check-in. And of course it also means people are taking MORE on board the airplane to avoid those fees.  The geniuses at Delta (and Virgin) have confounded the problem with their policies. If you lug a huge-ish bag all the way to the gate, they will gate check your bag for FREE. Smart people have concluded that schlepping a large bag to the gate will likely result in not being bilked out of another $50!  The bag fiasco also means that the airline will try really hard to convince you to gate check your bag otherwise there won’t be enough overhead space!

My fully packed f-Stop Tilopa photo bag WITH tripod easily fits in every overhead bin I’ve faced. I usually separate the tripod and put it crosswise in the narrow section at the back of overhead bin. You can also attach the tripod to either side of the bag, but depending on your tripod, it might be too long to fit.

FStop Tilopa Pack

FStop Tilopa Pack

On most aircraft, the Tilopa fits long-way in – meaning the bottom of the pack is at the back of the bin rather than sideways. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit that way. The Tilopa might look bigger than many carry ons, but it’s not! My Tilopa even fit sideways in the 50 passenger commuter aircraft. One additional benefit to carry ons: domestic airlines do not usually weigh your carry on. You might get away (as I did*) with stuffing 45 pounds of gear in there! And don’t worry, the posted weight capacity of those overhead bins is around 160 pounds… so even if three of you packed the crap out of your bags and stuffed them in the same overhead bin, the bin is engineered to take it.  It also means if you could appear to effortlessly shuffle a 100 pound bag around the airline would be none-the-wiser and you’d not have to pay an overweight baggage fee! If the airline wants to shake you down for every nickel and $20 bill they can, you might as well do some creative baggage management of your own. Besides, do you really trust baggage handling to not break or “lose” your thousands of dollars investment in camera gear?

I’ve never had a problem traveling with my tripod. Screeners seem to understand what a tripod is both when traveling domestically and internationally. Once when leaving Israel I was warned that I might not be able to take the tripod on board but there was no problem going through security. Every once in a while I am asked to remove my camera and lenses from the pack, but most of the time the pack – chock full of bodies, lenses, batteries and miscellany goes through screening without a hitch.

Those overhead bins aren’t ONLY for passengers. On our Delta flight we found toilet paper, and leaking bathroom deodorizer refills together with the usual oxygen and blankets in the overhead bin above us. To find space for your pack, you’ll want to get on the plane as SOON AS YOU CAN. That usually means you want to be IN LINE well before your zone or row are called even if they politely insist that you wait in your lounge seat. But being the first in your group may not be enough. The only available overhead space might be many rows in front of or behind you.  I now understand why the guy in row 33 put his junk over my row 17 seat: he was not lazy he had to adapt because the airline had co-opted what would have been his overhead space.  If you’re traveling on Southwest, it is probably well worth the $10 fee per flight to get “automated checkin”. That may get you in the A list for boarding.  If you find yourself in the “B” or “C” section on Southwest, you might want to get the $40 business boarding “upgrade” for at least one in your party.

Those overhead bins apparently are seldom ever cleaned. I used a thick white paper towel to wipe out the leaking bathroom deodorizer and the paper towel came out as black as my camera bag!  Don’t throw a sport jacket up there unless it’s in something to keep it from getting icky – or maybe you don’t mind smelling like a lavatory 🙂

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

*I often carry about 45 pounds (17 kg) of gear in my pack. Only the Greek airline Aegean asked to weigh my carry-on bag – and their weight limit was 7 kg despite the 90 kg capacity of the overhead bins.  They allowed me a waiver since the flight wasn’t full.  Despite their check of my carry on bag Aegean is one of the best airlines I’ve ever traveled on. Delta could learn a few lessons from them!

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.