Tag Archives: iOS

The Ideal Handheld App For Catching the Sun, Moon and Stars

Here at StarCircleAcademy we’ve been consuming and testing quite a number of photography related apps. So far none have risen to the promise that a handheld app could bring to the table.  Rather than illuminate what is missing from each app, here I describe what I want to DO with my handheld App.

In the Evening [5_057775+92]

  1. First, I need an app with accuracy to within 0.2 degrees! Why? Because the moon and sun are only 0.5 degrees in angular diameter. If I want to catch the moon exactly behind the Pigeon Point Lighthouse less accuracy will result in a “miss”.
    Monumental [C_038216]
  2. I want the app to accurately measure and save all the relevant data so I can reuse it and share it.  At minimum it needs to keep track of: From location, to location, altitude at the to location (degrees above horizontal), and any additional constraints like the fractional number of degrees that each measurement can vary. In some locations like the shore of a lake there is more leeway to move. In other spots, like the balcony of a building there is little leeway to move.  An ideal app would allow me to stand in two or more different spots to define that leeway.Rise and Shine [C_037951+77]If I’m solving for the moon, I’d like it to also remember the moon phase I’m interested in (usually full or slender crescent). The ability to take notes including things like height of the landmark is a big plus.
  3. Ideally I can save an image representing what I want with ALL data on the image so that if all I have is a photo, I can reconstruct the parameters in other tools or other ways.
    For example, SpyGlass shows me my GPS coordinates, the elevation, altitude and azimuth (compass direction) – though as you can see it’s calculation on where to find the moon is off by about 15 degrees (30 moon diameters) due to iPhone 4 compass inaccuracy.

    SpyGlass copy

    SpyGlass snap. Note that the plotted location of the moon is off due to iPhone compass hardware.

  4. I’d like to be able to pull up my saved locations and re-execute a search to find the next occurrence. For example, a Pigeon Point Lighthouse vista that I really like only occurs a few times a year. It’s not enough to keep track of the one event I photographed or plan to photograph.
    Project Impact [5_057573-615br]
  5. Bonus points if the data is stored in a server somewhere to make it easy to share. Extra bonus points if there is a way to have the server periodically check possible alignments and send me alerts or emails when such alignments are soon to become possible.
  6. For planning shots with the Milky Way or other prominent sky features (like the Andromeda Galaxy and the Great Orion Nebula), the app needs to accurately plot the course of those objects on an Augmented Reality frame. Images of the Milky Way presented must be realistic.  A poorly illustrated Milky Way won’t help me find the galactic center (which is what I most often want) or compare the alignment I want with the foreground I am trying to capture.
    Inflow [C_072091]
  7. For night related photography, the app must also factor in twilight and moonlight. That is, I want to be able point my device at say the Transamerica building and ask the app when (or if) the Andromeda Galaxy will appear above it when there is little or no moonlight.
  8. Make it easy to use, of course.  Most of the apps that embed maps in them are difficult to use on the tiny real estate of an iPhone – and require data connections as well.

Is it unrealistic to think a handheld app could meet these requirements?  I don’t think so. The biggest problem is overcoming the accuracy limitations in the current devices. The iPhone and iPad, for example have quite inaccurate compass readings except in perfect scenarios… but there are some clever ways (I think) to correct for that inaccuracy.  The tilt angle calculations from the on-board accelerometers and gyroscopes seem to be pretty accurate.

What We’ve Tried

  • Inclinometer. Great for measuring angles above the horizon. Even has a voice mode where it says aloud the measurement. Doesn’t do Now includes augmented reality mode so you don’t have to sight along an edge of the device. On an iPad, it seemed to be accurate to about 0.2 degrees!
  • GoSkyMap. Fun interactive sky map. You can change the date / and time and point it “at space” and it will show you great details about what is there. BUT you have to make sure you set the location correctly. Doesn’t have an Augmented Reality mode so you can’t tell how the mountain in the foreground interacts with the Milky Way, for example, but you can ask it where to find constellations and it will indicate which direction you should look.
  • Sky Map. Like GoSkyMap it’s an interactive planetarium.  I prefer to use it without the “point features”. It’s my Planosphere (Sky chart) in hand. Also includes things like Meteor Showers and radiants, a list of “what’s up tonight” showing rise and set times, moon phase, etc.  No Augmented Reality.
  • PhotoPills. Lots of things rolled into one app. Biggest complaints about this app are saving and reusing Plans, usability quirks, a grossly oversized moon or sun icon in the Augmented Reality modes and an inaccurate Milky Way representation. Oh, and I’d really like it if it would measure for me!  The planner would be great if I could have the Augmented Reality compute the Azimuth and Altitude (aka Elevation) for me, especially since it doesn’t seem to have a way to measure like the Inclinometer tool does. I see, for example where someone saved the “Manhattanhenge” event. It would be great if I could load it and click “find next occurrence”. That feature alone might be worth booking a flight to New York!
  • SpyGlass. Clever app with lots of onscreen information in Augmented Reality mode. We especially like the onscreen measurements which are saved when you grab an image.

Do you know of an app that’s highly accurate and will meet our requirements? Let’s hear about it. If it exists on an Android I’ll buy an android!

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!

Camera Control Devices Compared

IMG_0092 IMG_0106 Neweer_Shoot SatechiWireless._SL500_AA300_

Welcome to another investigative report on… devices to control cameras.

My readers will already know about intervalometers. No? Ok, you can read about them in this moldy old article.  Reduced to its simplest form, an intervalometer is a device that electronically presses your shutter button and releases it.  Fancy intervalometers have many other important and useful features including those described in that aforementioned article.

In this article I will compare four devices I have with one I don’t own. The devices I am comparing are all for use with a Canon 5D Mark II but most have variations that make them suitable for wider use with other cameras and brands. Here are the devices in question:

There is one obvious difference: price.  In my opinion the somewhat unreliable cheap Shoot Intervalometer is worth the price as a sacrificial device for use in a harsh environment but not something I would recommend for a critical shoot.

It is also a little unfair to compare the two smart phone based products on price alone since they require a smart phone to operate them. Both the Trigger Happy and the Trigger Trap are picky about what phones they support.  Neither supports an iPhone 3G – each requires at least an iPhone 3Gs, 4G, 4Gs or 5.  That’s unfortunate since I have an old iPhone 3G which I would gladly convert for use only as a camera control device. What I am hinting at is that you may want to consider the cost of an iPhone or Android phone to drive these devices.

If you’d rather that I just “cut to the chase” and tell you which of these devices I recommend… Here is my ranking from best to so so:

  1. Trigger Trap
  2. Satechi Wireless Intervalometer
  3. Promote Control
  4. Trigger Happy
  5. Shoot

Promote Control

PromoteControlThe Promote Control is the unit I don’t own and its ranking is based on three things: the cost (high), the features (many) and the usability. As a dedicated device the Promote Control is almost the most versatile. Indeed it is the only device I investigated that can control the camera – using a USB connection – not just the shutter.  But they bill themselves mostly as an HDR device. Watching their videos and following the many modes and button presses made my head hurt.  The smart phone based products clearly have a leg up. They can present the data more intelligently and allow more features through upgrade than the few buttons available on the Promote Control.  The Promote Control screen is reminiscent of those multi line text pagers of yesteryear.

Because it has direct camera control the Promote Control can perform several features that the others on this list can not touch. The Promote can: shoot real extended HDR shots, not only long-exposure HDR. It can also control the focus to do focus stacking.  In various modes it can do timelapse, star trail and “bulb ramping”.  And it *might* have a method to be dormant for a while and start running the configured program in the future… however it can never be as clever as the Trigger Trap which is able to take advantage of all the other goodies on a smart phone like GPS location, tilt/shift, on board cameras, and WiFi. Being this is a dedicated device, you may not have to worry about choosing between a timelapse and and important phone call.

I learned that there is another device like the Promote Control that uses WiFi to allow extended control of the camera through the USB link: the CamRanger ($299).   What is enticing about the CamRanger is that it says you don’t need to keep your i-device connected after you set up the shooting program – that would be very nice!

If you are a Nikon shooter, there is the curiously named Zesty or ZGR-1 ($70). I downloaded the ZGR-1 app – it looks like a bad hack job – especially the translation of the manaual (as they called it) from Chinese to English.  The ZGR-1 app seems pretty limited, too, but it’s hard to tell since it only connects to cameras I don’t have.


IMG_0078This device is the newest in my arsenal and is perhaps the most promising. The funny thing is that I was able to test it without having the dongle… because the TriggerTrap and the Trigger Happy dongles both work on the same principle: they attach to the headphone port of your smart phone and control the shutter button by playing sound through that port. If you have an alert, or incoming call, it may make the camera do strange things – I’ve noticed that behavior with the Trigger Happy product, and unfortunately an incoming call during my star trail test with TriggerTrap terminated the current exposure even though I didn’t do anything to the call. Indeed, selecting the home screen on the iPad or iPhone seems to terminate TriggerTrap’s signal – it doesn’t continue to run in the background like the built-in Music Application or White Noise do.

The TriggerTrap application exploits features of your smart phone or iPad in very clever ways not only can you configure it to do normal timelapses, star trails, bulb ramping and long exposure HDR shots.  TriggerTrap can fire your camera when it:

  • determines you’ve moved x meters from your previous location
  • notices movement in the smart phone camera
  • notices faces in the smart phone’s camera
  • detects that the device is moved
  • hears a sound of a configurable volume (clap, bang, whistle)
  • detects magnetism / metal (presumably using the built-in compass)
  • gets a wi-fi signal from a master – that is it can become a remote control device.

The TriggerTrap application is well done, has copious help, lots of little features, and clear definition of functions. If it lacks anything, it is the ability to save a particular camera or shooting setup. IMG_0086I really appreciate the ability to set times and duration using a slider with a pop-up spin control to fine tune the values that are hard to hit via the sliders alone. And it supports sub-second intervals, timeouts, etc.  It also calculates and displays the results of your changes on the fly so if you increase the number of photos that will be taken in timelapse mode, it shows you how many seconds the timelapse movie will last, and automatically calculates the photo interval.

It really only lacks ONE very useful feature that I would use… the ability to set an initial delay or an ending time.  I’d like to app to “sleep” until 20 minutes before moonset and THEN start my star trail sequence, or set it to end 40 minutes before sunrise, etc.  It has the built-in intelligence to know when the sun will rise or set for your current location so it’s just a small matter of code to add the delay function or the cut-off function.

IMG_0110Some functions are a little too cute. The Cable Release mode, for example, has an odd little spin-wheel to select functions. A pull down would be easier to use than the mostly useless single letters on the wheel. The area you press to start the exposure is both small and it does not light to show when it is exposing. In the diagram at the left the exposure has been started but nothing is counting down and nothing has changed since pressing the small gray “start” button.

One problem with this app, and the Trigger Happy application, is that it must be dedicated to use for the purpose it is intended to serve.  I made the mistake of leaving my Bluetooth on and with my car parked nearby my phone paired with the over-visor Bluetooth speaker in my car and could not drive the camera (but I got strange buzzing noises in the car). Turning off Bluetooth  solved the problem. BUT a phone call or pressing the home button to return to the main screen effectively ends your exposure. Oh, and the cable is short – about 1.5 feet total – so you’ll need something to hold your iPhone or iPad close to your camera. And the app spills light which may affect your shot. Oh, and an inadvertent touch may stop whatever you’re trying to do.  But it does do sub-second delays between exposures. I got mine down to 250 milliseconds between shots without missing any exposures on my Canon 5D Mark II – that’s 1/4 of the time you can do with the run-of-the-mill intervalometer.  Indeed, I set my exposures to 26.63 seconds and delays to 250 milliseconds. 45 shots took 20 minutes, 10 seconds which works out to 26.88 seconds per shot.

Trigger un-Happy

IMG_0092Trigger Happy ranks near the bottom of my list not because it is unreliable, and not because it is more expensive than its TriggerTrap cousin, which it is, and not because many people are reporting months long delays in receiving a working product. No it’s near the bottom because the iOS application (version 1.03) that was released to control it is… maddening.  It seems to have features I want (timelapse, Bulb Ramping, HDR Bracketing) but its sophomoric interface feels like it hates me.  For one thing, the many screens are all “single purpose” but you MUST select things in the order the app expects or it will both complain AND ignore you.  IMG_0100For example, you must start by setting the Interval. If you then try to set a shutter time that is longer than the interval it refuses to let you go ahead – you must go back and change the interval.  Moreover when you try to set the Shutter time, it doesn’t TELL you what the current Interval is. A better application would add a “Star Trails” mode where all you do is set the exposure length and it ASSUMES a 1 second or less pause between shots.  And a MUCH better application would either adjust or offer to adjust the other parameters for you. A good example of a better application is the TriggerTrap. TriggerTrap shows the settings together on the same screen and doesn’t divide them across screens.

IMG_0091If you switch e.g. from “Timelapse Normal” to “Timelapse Bramp” it pops up an annoying dialog box “Bulb Mode Required”. Switch the Shutter mode from “Auto” to “Manual” and guess what dialog box pops back up! Blecch.  A little on-screen reminder would have been fine, but why pop up a box I can only say “OK” to?  Thankfully it has sub-second exposure and interval lengths, but it could be made MUCH better if it asked you what camera you are using and initialized the settings for you… or if you could create a profile for a specific camera.  There are many other problems with the interface… for example in “Single Shot” mode the banner across the top on my iPad still reads “Time Lapse” what? A One shot timelapse?  The good news is that a release of a better app could dramatically improve the usability and usefulness of this device.  I have tried to persuade the makers to do a better job with their application, but the very young adults who started this project long ago on Kickstarter and apparently have had a falling out after collecting $221,000 in starter money.

Satechi Wireless

SatechiWireless._SL500_AA300_Rather than expend a lot of energy writing about it, you can read my (rather glowing) review of the device on Amazon (its the topped ranked favorable review).  One thing to note: the device I received was labeled “Young Nuo”  not “Satechi”.


Shoot Intervalometer


This devices is a cheap knock off of the manufacturers device. Like the Satechi, there are different connectors available to fit different cameras.  I bought three of them for loaners with my workshop participants and one of them developed the problem I described in the review.


Device Comparison

F E A T U R E Trigger
PromotControl Trigger
Price $ USD (3) 30 320 50 60 15
Control Type Audio USB+S Audio Shutter Shutter
Computer-less operation Yes (4) Yes Yes Yes
Timelapse Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
StarTrail Mode Yes ? No No No
Delay Before Start No No No Yes Yes
Sub-second intervals Yes Yes Yes No No
Bulb Ramping Yes Yes Yes No No
Ease of Use (6) Great Fair Poor Good Good
Bulb based HDR Bracketing Yes Yes Yes No No
Full HDR Bracketing No Yes No No No
Focus Control No Yes No No No
Android Compatible (5) No Yes No No
iOS Compatible Yes No Yes No No
Battery Life (7) ? (7) Months Months
Flash Control Yes ? No No No
Wireless use (2) (1) No No Yes No

(1) Can use WiFi with Master/Slave for remote control.
(2) Theoretically all audio jack based controls COULD be operated via a BLUEtooth audio device.
(3) Includes the cost of an application and a cable or cables to connect to the camera.
(4) Computer and USB cable required to upgrade the firmware, but not for programming/use.
(5) The android application has fewer fancy controls, but the timelapse, bramping, and star trails work fine.
(6) My subjective evaluation of ease of use.
(7) I ran both the Trigger Trap and the Trigger Happy applications on my older iPhone 4. Each ran for over 4 hours and consumed less than half of my battery – and that was with all phone functions left on (WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular).  Of course your battery life may vary.  I did not test the battery life of the Satechi in Wireless mode.

 Yet More Control Ideas

  • DSLR Remote (Homebrew Hardware)
  • CamRanger ($299). Wireless (WiFi) control with USB support. Allows you to view photos like you can with the EyeFi card but you can also control focus, and much more.
  • Zesty or ZGR-1 ($70, Nikon models only)
  • Timelapse+ ($210) In development – also a Kickstarter Project.  Currently only shutter control, but it looks like it may be a serious competitor to the Promote Control with USB support *and* an iPhone application to control it.
  • Rubberband. Yep, rubber band. Set the camera in continuous exposure mode and hold the shutter button down with a rubberband. Works in a pinch – trust me!