Matt Payne Photography | Using PhotoPills to plan your next night photography or moon photoshoot

Using PhotoPills to plan your next night photography or moon photoshoot

April 06, 2016  •  3 Comments

Two of my favorite subjects to photograph are the night sky and the moon. Both seem to captivate me in ways that accentuate my love for the wilderness and my connection to the natural world. If you ever travel outside of the city, I'm willing to bet that you remember the first time you intentionally gazed upon the stars and felt the awe, wonder, and amazement that can only be produced by being away from light pollution and beneath a blanket of stars and our galaxy. Even more exciting for me was the first time I successfully managed to photograph the Milky Way with a camera. Seeing all of those stars and the galactic core on the back of the camera on the LCD is one of the most exciting things for me as a night photographer. Call me a nerd, but when it comes to photography, there's not much else that provides that reward in such a consistent way.

Moonrise at Bisti BadlandsMoonrise at Bisti BadlandsWhat an amazing night of solitude! I woke up at 12:30 AM this morning and drove 2 hours to the Bisti Badlands of New Mexico to photograph the Milky Way. Wandering in the dark in the hoodoo-strewn desert landscape of the Bisti Badlands is such a surreal experience. No sounds. No light. No other living animals. Just me and the night sky. About 30 minutes into my photo shoot I noticed the 35% lit moon rising on the horizon, which added some great ambient light to the scene.

For this Milky Way session I used the Planner function of the Iphone app PhotoPills. also utilized a lesser-known website called Clear Sky which helps me find and plan for ideal weather and dark skies.

Unfortunately, landscape photography is quite fickle, which can be quite frustrating for those of us without unlimited time on our hands to sit at the same location for days on end waiting for the perfect conditions. Night photography and lunar photography can be even more unpredictable and frustrating because of the limited time horizons created by the laws of astronomy. The lunar cycle, coupled with the angle of the Earth at a given time of year or day create tight windows of opportunity for photographs of the Milky Way or the moon. If you try to photograph the Milky Way when there is a full moon, it will be washed out by the brightness of the moon. If you try to photograph the Milky Way when there is no moon, you have the challenge of having absolutely no light available to illuminate the foreground. Suffice to say that execution of high quality photographs of the Milky Way or the Moon requires a great deal of planning. Without planning, in order to produce a good night or moon photo, a photographer must depend on luck or worse yet, compositing of a moon or Milky Way into other images. Don't get me wrong, I actually have nothing against compositing, in fact, I have done it myself on several occasions; however, if you can produce the real thing, why not strive for that standard?

Galactic Celebrations in the San Juan MountainsGalactic Celebrations in the San Juan MountainsI setup this selfie Milky Way panorama using the photo app PhotoPills on my iphone. I shot two rows of 9 vertical shots at f/2.8 for 30 seconds each and at ISO 4000. Andromeda is seen in upper right. There was some insane airglow on the horizon, adding some intense greens, oranges, and reds to the sky. Hope you like it!

That's where PhotoPills comes in. PhotoPills is an IOS application that has a variety of amazing tools at the disposal of the time-constrained photographer that can significantly increase the likelihood of capturing that perfect night or moon photo. Since purchasing the app in November, I've used it to plan several photoshoots which have all led to successful images. Just to be completely transparent, PhotoPills is not paying me in anyway or endorsing my blog here, this is just me having a great deal of excitement about a product and wanting to share it with the world. 

How can PhotoPills help you plan for and execute those great photographs? Surprisingly enough, the app is quite user-friendly. My favorite feature is the "Planner," which has several sub-tools embedded which make planning for photos a breeze. To demonstrate the usefulness of this feature, I think it is best to walk through how I used it on a recent shoot.

Mount Hood and the Galaxy AboveMount Hood and the Galaxy AboveMount Hood beneath the blanket of the Milky Way Galaxy. Taken from Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain near Portland, Oregon and Govenment Camp.

I recently decided I wanted to take photos of the Milky Way in the Bisti Badlands of New Mexico. I had already made a trip down there once before in February to scout locations and create GPS waypoints using another awesome app called Gaia GPS. The night before my photoshoot, I opened up PhotoPills and went into the Planner tool to help figure out the timing of my photoshoot. Since I would have to drive a couple of hours to reach my destination, I wanted to figure out exactly when to leave my house for my hike in (and also figure out how much sleep I would be getting that night). The app is tied into the Google Maps API, which makes finding your locations a breeze. I landed on the Bisti Badlands and then looked at the various indicators within the app that showed me all kinds of awesome information including:

  • Time and location of sunrise and sunset
  • Time and location of moonrise and moonset
  • Time and location for when the Milky Way core would be visible and/or fade from view
  • Golden hour time
  • Blue hour time

Here's a screenshot from the app showing the Galactic Core location through the night (the circles that increase in size), where it is located at that time, and the window of visibility during that arc of time (and where that visibility is in relation to the viewer). The light grey line indicates where the Milky Way core is first visible. The dark grey line indicates where the Milky Way core ceases to be visible. The yellow line indicates where the sun will be when it rises, and the orange line indicates where the sun is when it sets. The light blue line shows where the moon is when it rises, and the dark blue line shows where the moon is when it sets. This of course all changes significantly as you adjust the date and time using the slider at the bottom. Lastly, at the top you see the "Visibility GC" tool is selected, which is short-hand for Visibility of the Galactic Core of the Milky Way. It shows what time it is visible (from - to) and where in relation to the horizon it will be. I can't even begin to tell you about all of the applications this has for planning shoots. 

Using the PhotoPills app, I knew exactly when the Milky Way would be visible, where it would be at a given time of night, and how high above the horizon it would be. Pairing this with my knowledge of the location I was wanting to shoot and I could pre-envision my shot before even arriving on scene, saving me a lot of time in the field. Knowing the moon would be rising late in the morning at only 35% illumination (PhotoPills has a tool for that too), I could pre-plan this next shot where I placed myself between the camera and the moon to create a dramatic silhouette coupled with a really eerie rock formation. 

The Pedestal and the PendulumThe Pedestal and the PendulumThe Pedestal is a well-known hoodoo feature at the Bisti Badlands of New Mexico. This feature is located on the northern reaches of the Wilderness Area. Upon discovering it in the dimly-lit moonscape, I had an epiphany that I could place myself between the rising moon and the camera for a quite interesting silhouette effect. I think it turned out well! Hope you enjoy taking in this image as much as I did in creating it.

Another awesome tool within the planner at the bottom of the app is the "Night AR" tool, which stands for Augmented Reality. This tool allows you to see a virtual reality location of the Milky Way using the phone's camera. As you rotate the direction of the camera phone you see where the Milky Way will be. This is especially helpful if you are scouting a location and wanting to know where the Milky Way, moon, or sun will be on a particular date and time in the future. 

Another useful tool within PhotoPills is the "FOV" tool or "Field of View" tool. This tool allows you to again use the phone's built-in camera to simulate different focal lengths. This saved me a lot of time and frozen fingers when I recently went out to Molas Lake near SIlverton, Colorado to photograph star trails over the Grenadier Mountains, my all-time favorite mountain range. The app allowed me to pinpoint exactly which lens and focal length to use to execute the framing I wanted for my vision of the final product. I wanted the whole range in the scene with enough room above for the stars. Easy!

Stars over the GrenadiersStars over the GrenadiersLast night I took a trip to Molas Lake north of Durango to get some photographs of the Grenadier Range at sunset and at night. I had some really interesting airglow as well as some awesome views of the stars. I started with a very long exposure at f/11 for 2 minutes using long exposure noise reduction for the foreground. I then shot about 30 sequences at 30 seconds each for the star trails at f/2.8 and 52mm. Hope you like it!

This photo is only available as a limited edition print.

I did mention that this app is great for planning lunar photography, right? Well it is! I recently travelled to the San Luis Valley to witness the migration of thousands of Sand Hill Cranes in the town of Monte Vista, Colorado. During this trip, I wanted to capture the moon rising behind my second favorite set of mountains, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, including Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Kit Carson Peak, and Mount Adams. In order to establish the exact timing and location of the moon, I used the Planner feature of PhotoPills. I simply looked to see where the moon would be rising and then found a location on the map that placed the moon exactly behind those particular peaks. I then noted the time of the moon rise and drove to that location and set-up for the shot. No fake moon here, folks, this is the product of planning and the use of a great technology.

Moonrise over the SangresMoonrise over the SangresA waxing Gibbous Moon rises over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as seen from the San Luis Valley north of Center, Colorado. This might be one of my favorite vantage points in Colorado due to the number of incredible peaks seen in one glance. The impressive Crestones including Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak can be seen right of center next to Kit Carson Peak with the tip of 14er Humboldt Peak seen between them. THe awesome 13er Mount Adams can be seen left of Kit Carson Peak, left of center. This is Colorado.

What's remarkable is that I've only demonstrated the power of a few of the tools within PhotoPills. The app has several other amazing tools that are foundational for any landscape photographer, including a long exposure calculator, a time lapse calculator, a star trail calculator, a hyperfocal distance table, and more. If you love taking photos involving the night sky, the moon, or even the sun, this app will help you tremendously. Purchase PhotoPills and get out there and execute your vision! Good luck!



Really inspiring words Matt thank you...useful app reference too!
You create some great images....I hope one day to emulate your abilities!
Have a great day
Matt Payne Photography
Hey Dennis,

They are very similar apps - I think TPE has some advantages with the mapping software and the GPS abilities; however, PhotoPills is cheaper and has more features for night photography.
Dennis Smith(non-registered)
Hi Matt;

How is this differant than TPE?, thanks Dennis.
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