The Five Most Useful Apps for Planning Photos

The Five Most Useful Apps for Planning Photos

Smartphones offer countless useful resources for planning and shooting photos. With tens of thousands of apps, it can be difficult to know which are the best. Here are my top five.

Google Maps

This first one is probably already installed on your phone, but it has a number of less well known features that make it a great tool for planning.

With a synced Google account, I can save locations via dropped pins or Google My Maps on the desktop. When researching a destination, I like to create a master list of places that I want to visit. This can include anything from specific vistas and trailheads to well-regarded restaurants. I can then attach notes about the time of day to visit or what equipment I should bring. With that info preloaded, I can view the maps under “Your Places” in the app and instantly know what is nearby or how to get to it.

Another great feature is the ability to download map information ahead of time. Originally, this was a hidden feature, only accessible via “OK Maps,” but recently this has been given a normal listing in the side menu on the app, as Offline Maps. With this, I can cache the map information so that Google Maps will still work even without a signal. This doesn’t work perfectly, as it seems to cull some more obscure listings in information dense areas. Even with that, I find that it works well enough to get me where I need to go, especially when combined with the Your Places functionality.

Finally, the satellite imagery and terrain mapping is a nice bonus, as it doesn’t require a separate app or subscription.

Astrospheric

If I’m planning any night shots, Astrospheric is essential. This is much more than a weather app. It provides a forecast of cloud cover, transparency, seeing, sunrise and sunset times, ISS transits, wind, dew point, temperature, and phases of the moon. The forecasts feel very accurate and the cloud cover satellite imagery is helpful when determining whether or not to wait out some inclement conditions.

Some of the features are overkill for amateur, wide-angle astrophotography, but I appreciate a free app that doesn’t purposefully degrade the experience just to force an upgrade. All of the information is immediately visible and conveyed multiple ways. With just a glance at the three colored bars under the map, I can easily tell whether a shot will be possible. The dark colors indicate better conditions, and I've found that anything darker than a pale blue is worth the attempt.

There are a number of other apps that provide information about sunsets and sunrises, and quite a number more that provide a forecast, but this app cuts right to the important info. This purpose built app is well worth the download if you find yourself wanting to shoot any night images.

Dark Sky

For a broader forecast, I’ve come to rely on Dark Sky. It has a good looking interface, built-in weather radar viewer, and a detailed day/week forecast.

For planning, the Time Machine functionality is a huge help. It provides a likely forecast for any location at any point in the future, based on past trends. I like to check on what sort of weather I should expect on a trip, and it is surprisingly difficult to find this info otherwise.

The weather notifications, both for impending rain and the weather for the day ahead, are nice to have. At $4 on iOS, it isn't the best value compared to Googling the weather in the area, but if you are looking to track multiple areas or are in a place with quickly changing conditions, it delivers value.

PhotoPills

PhotoPills is the quintessential photography planning app. I was reluctant to pay the $10, having been spoiled by the preponderance of free apps. When I got around to buying it, I was impressed by the numerous features and overall polish of the app. This is a purpose built tool for photographers, and it shows.

My most used features include the sun and moon planning tools. The augmented reality support is really the killer feature. It overlays the path of celestial objects right on a live view from the phone's camera. This makes planning shots a lot easier than trying to imagine 38 degrees of elevation at a bearing of 265 degrees, which is all some competing resources provide as guidance.

The app also includes a number of calculators, including DoF, hyperfocal, star trails, and spot stars. These can be customized based on the camera and lens in use.

My biggest complaint with the app is the difficult in setting and keeping track of what date you are actually forecasting for. Multiple times, I've been scrolling through the forecast in AR mode, and either overshot or reset the date. Alongside that issue, I'd love to see a feature where I can click a point in AR and have it calculate when the object in question comes closest.

Focalmark

I’m just getting started on Instagram and I found Focalmark to be a great resource. It provides suggestions of hashtags based on the type of photo. While it is easy enough to find a few local communities, Focalmark provides a relatively curated list of hashtags for everything from architecture to yoga. The app is free, but the ability to filter the hashtags beyond the category level is locked to an in-app purchase. This app could be a big help to photographers who shoot a diverse set of subjects or are trying to establish themselves in a new niche.

Given the apparent black magic behind Instagram's algorithm, there are conflicting opinions on proper hashtagging practice. Some say the 30 that are initially suggested by Focalmark is too many. I'd tend to agree, and usually run with between 7 and 12 hashtags. This is easily adjusted in app, but isn't retained between uses. That minor annoyance aside, the app has definitely been useful in planning my Instagram posts. Based on the reviews, a number of users are experiencing crashes. I've not had any issues, but it looks like the problem may be a result of connecting Instagram to Focalmark. Without connecting, it is still possible to manually copy and paste the hashtags.

What apps are your must-haves for photography?

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21 Comments

I use this for pano and architectural image planning: http://pictureprep.appspot.com/

Seamus O'Hara's picture

Should adjust the heading to say "The Five Most Useful iPhone Apps for Planning Photos"

Alex Coleman's picture

Hi Seamus, all these apps are available on the Google Play store as well.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

I don't know why I can't find "Astospheric" and "Dark Sky" in the Italian App Store

Alex Coleman's picture

Sorry to hear that- international licensing can be messy. Are there any apps you like to use? I'd be happy to do a internationally focused write-up of apps.

For a similar product that should be available internationally- try Clear Outside. https://clearoutside.com/page/app/

I use TPE to plan for sun and moon set, trajectory, etc. https://www.photoephemeris.com
And it's free [edit: I read below it may no longer be free after all...]

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

Thanks Alex I already use ClearOutside. On the first stages of planning, I also like to use Google Earth on the PC with sun position simulation as it can give you an idea of where the light will hit the peaks and at what time. For night photography I like to use an app called LPM Light Pollution Map

:( "Astrospheric is currently not available in you region" - UK.

Alex Coleman's picture

Looks like your best bet for international use is Clear Outside: https://clearoutside.com/page/app/

Yeah it's a good app, got that one, nice and quick to read all the info without fancy graphics.

Eugene Braack's picture

The Photographer's Ephemeris is available as a paid IOS/Android app, and a free-to-use desktop version. It is probably the most widely-used photo planning app out there. Excellent tool for planning landscape and timelapse shoots. Desktop version:
http://app.photoephemeris.com

Alex Coleman's picture

That's another great one. I used their web app for years. What prompted my switch was PhotoPills AR features- it provides the same sun and moon position info, with easier visualization.

The iOS version of TPE offers comprehensive AR features, including sun, moon (with correct phase illumination), milky way and major stars and asterisms.

Alex Coleman's picture

Thanks for the correction Stephen. I always used their web app, but it looks like the mobile app offers a number of additional features.

Astrospheric uses the Canadian rdps weather model to derive all the astronomy variables, and it's been very accurate in planning for me. It's only available for the US and Canada though. They have a website as well at https://www.astrospheric.com

Alex Coleman's picture

I've really enjoyed Astrospheric. The NA availability is the only downside. I'd like if they integrated international forecasts into their app, as their UI is great.

The best app, by far, for nature photography planning that I've found so far is "PlanIt! Pro for photographers". Terrible names but great app. It has both AR and VR modes so you get an idea of how the scene is going to look before you get to the location. It shows, the sun and moon positions, the milky way, asteroid showers, eclipses, dark sky, tides, you name it and it even allows you to search for interesting events, for example when will the milky-way center be positioned above some landmark when shot from a specific location.
The more advanced features can be a bit complicated to use but the developer has some great tutorials that explain it all. There is a free version (without the pro in the name) but it's absolutely worth getting the paid one and spending the time to learn how to use all the features.

Kjell Vikestad's picture

I can recommend PeakFinder ar. Its an app made to find mountain names based on your position, but it actually is perfect for planning landscape photography. Because the app shows both sun and moon path an placement on the sky based on chosen position, date and time, you can plan your scene since the terrain is 3D modeled. Its easy to use, and gives a very good idea how the scene will look like.

Rupali Renjen's picture

Great app suggestions for planning photos. Thanks for sharing.

Toby Seb's picture

Golden Hour is by far the best app for shoots.

These are incredible app recommendations. Thanks for this list, Alex! For anyone looking for the exact directions to incredible photo locations, consider checking out the Explorest app! It's packed with tips from talented photographers. http://www.explorest.com