Photo Pills Guide for Sky/Night Photography

A step-by-step approach to designing and visualizing landscapes and nightscapes using Photo Pills. Learn about the most important features, see detailed examples, and more.

How do you get from having an idea to pressing the shutter and seeing what you envisioned on the back of your camera? Photo Pills, a smartphone or tablet-based photographic planning tool, is one bridge for nature photographers.

The finest landscape photographs start as a creative flash in a photographer’s head. Pre-visualization, I often tell my students, is the key to genuinely creative photography. Photographers of all levels of expertise should see themselves as painters standing in front of a blank white canvas: what aspects of a scene will they place on which areas of the canvas? Photo Pills is a fantastic tool for nightscapes, skyscape, and landscape photographers.

A landscape or night photographer with a specific image in mind had to pay close attention to the movements of the sun, moon, and stars over long periods of time to understand how the rhythms of these celestial bodies would impact the image they had in mind before planning apps like Photo Pills became available. This was a difficult labor, as it required returning to the same location day after day, night after night, for months and even seasons to document how things evolved. If you make an incorrect assumption, you may find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong moment, leaving you empty-handed.

On New Year’s Eve, I knew a young photographer who trekked through Death Valley National Park’s wilderness to the Racetrack Playa in the hopes of photographing the Milky Way above the renowned Sailing Stones. Of course, in late December, this was impossible since the galaxy’s center doesn’t appear in the northern night sky until late April. He returned home disheartened and chilly.

We’ll learn how to use Photo Pills in this section. First, we’ll go through the app’s most basic features, such as the Planner (or “pill” in the maker’s language). Then we’ll look at how to use Augmented Reality features throughout the day and night, as well as more technical and advanced capabilities.

Main App Functionality

The Photo Pills Planner tool offers a thorough understanding of the exact placement of the sun, moon, and stars in the sky at any date – past, present, or future – from any point in the world.

The Photo Pills App’s four major screens. “Pills” are the app’s functions, such as Planner, Augmented Reality, Time-Lapse, and so on.

 

You may use the Planner to put a pin wherever you like and then dial in the date and time. You may either drag the map beneath the pin and position it anywhere in the world, or you can use GPS to place it where you are now. Following the placement of the pin, the Planner overlays colored lines on the map radiating from the pin location, displaying the azimuth (compass bearing) and altitude (elevation above the horizon) of the rise/set bearings, as well as the current positions of the sun, moon, and the center of the Milky Way’s arch. You may change the time by sliding your finger across the colored bar at the bottom, and the sun/moon/galaxy azimuth lines will update appropriately.

Photo Pills’ Planner screen in the day (left) and night (right) modes, taken in June 2020 at Sugar Pine Point State Park on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore. The sunset position is shown by the strong orange line to the west, while the dawn location is indicated by the yellow line to the east. The location of the sun/moon at the chosen time is depicted by thin lines. The light blue line represents moonrise, the dark blue line represents moonset, the light grey line represents Milky Way rise, and the dark grey line represents Milky Way set. In the app’s settings, you may turn each one on or off.

 

There are 10 distinct sections of information represented by white dots between the word “Planner” and the map at the top that may be accessed by sliding the bar between the dots and Planner to the left or right. As you swipe through day/night, this is where you’ll find a wealth of useful information, like the exact location of the sun, moon, and Milky Way, as well as twilight periods.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Assume you want to photograph the full moon setting between the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge at daybreak, in magnificent blue hour light, surrounded by colorful clouds, and from your favorite location – Horseshoe Park in the Berkeley Marina. To capture this vision, you’ll need to figure out two things (weather notwithstanding). First, from where do you want to shoot it, and second, when do you want to film it? Because the moon is only full once a month, there are only 12 potential days each year. If you wish to test September 2019, a simple look at the “Moon” pill reveals that the full moon in September falls on the 13th. But, if you’re standing on the seawall at Horseshoe Park in the Marina when does the full moon set?

You can see that the moon sets at 6:13 a.m. on September 13 and dawn occurs at 6:49 a.m. by using the location chooser on the Planner page to position the pin on the seawall. The moonset is somewhat too early for our hypothetical shot, but the timing is almost perfect. What about the site, by the way? The solid blue line from our pin to the west indicates that the point where the moon will set on the 13th is actually too far to the north to give you your shot.

The blue line depicts the position of the full moon setting at sunrise on September 13 as seen from Horseshoe Park at the Berkeley Marina, which is too far to the north of the bridge’s north tower.

 

While this is near, it won’t quite meet your expectations, so how about October? As the earth circles around the sun, the moon sets more to the north each month as we transition from fall to winter, and the moon rises later with the seasons. October’s conditions are just the reverse of what you desire, with moonrise later and further to the north. However, the full moon falls on August 15th from your chosen location. The sun rises at 6:24 a.m. and sets at 6:25 a.m. This is fantastic. What is the location of the moon’s setting? From 6:10 to 6:25 a.m., it precisely separates the bridge towers.

The location of the setting full moon as seen from Horseshoe Park near the Berkeley Marina in San Francisco Bay at dawn on August 15. The blue line between the bridge’s towers is shown.

 

Of course, if you wanted to photograph the full moonset between the bridge towers in September, you could simply walk to the south in the Marina and place the blue line of the moonset’s azimuth between the bridge towers. You can also use the app’s more complex capabilities to see if the moon will be high enough to be visible over the bridge deck, which we’ll go into later.

Why not use Photo Pills to plan your Milky Way photography? Let’s go back to our first failure, the Death Valley Sailing Stone. Using the Planner, you can clearly see that the Milky Way center does not rise in the night sky over the Racetrack on New Year’s Eve.

On the stated day and hour of New Year’s Eve, the Galactic Center is “always invisible” from this point on the Racetrack. I’m curious as to who the aspiring photographer was that returned home empty-handed.

 

In the northern hemisphere, the summer months are ideal for Milky Way photography, so we’ll plan our next trip to Death Valley for June 2020. I’m picturing a Milky Way photo in a completely black sky with no moonlight, so I can shoot one frame for the sky and another for the stones with a long exposure lit by starlight. Others may opt to paint the stones with an LED light panel in a single frame.

The app’s lunar “Pill” feature.

 

The new moon in October 2021 is Wed, October 20th, according to the Moon page in the app. From 10:04 p.m. until 3:41 a.m., the center of the galaxy may be seen by sliding the screen over the top of the planner to the Milky Way information. This should give you plenty of time to experiment with different approaches and compositions. You might even be able to create a photograph similar to this one:

On October 20, 2021, the Milky Way would be in the sky above you if you were standing on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Consider the white dots to symbolize the arch of the galaxy above you, with the thickest white dot (and the white line) representing the galaxy’s azimuth or bearing to the center.

I could even utilize the Night Augmented Reality function and my phone’s camera to forecast what my Milky Way shot might look like if I happened to be at the Racetrack. Keep an eye out for it later. Consider what you may gain as a landscape photographer by mastering simply the Planner function of Photo Pills for the time being. You can now predict the exact position of the sun, moon, or Milky Way in the sky at any location on our globe, at any time in the future. As a photographer, this allows you to reach your maximum creative potential. Better planning equals fantastic photos!

Advanced Features

While the aforementioned functionalities are the “meat and potatoes” of Photo Pills, the software may also assist photographers to create their finest image through a variety of other features. So, what else can we get out of this app?

Photo Pills can help you plan time-lapse shoots, calculate the depth of field and hyperfocal distances with virtually any camera/lens combination, estimate the size of tall objects in your frame based on lens selection and distance, estimate the length of star trails in very long exposures, and even add geodetics to the Planner’s basic functionality.

We’ll take a look at a couple of these extra features right now: Augmented Reality, Exposure, and Star Trails/Spot Stars. These are the ones I use on a daily basis when arranging night photography shoots.

Augmented Reality

Photo Pills’ Augmented Reality (AR) features are incredible: the app uses your phone’s GPS to locate you on the earth, then uses your phone’s camera and your specified date/time settings to display live on your screen where the sun, moon, or Milky Way center will be at a future time you choose, superimposed in real-time on the image you’re looking at on your screen.

You can use this feature to see a close approximation of what your photo will look like in the future from the same location, in either Day AR mode, which shows the positions of the sun and moon as well as ephemera (arc through the sky), or Night AR mode, which displays a live representation of the Milky Way’s core.

Let’s have a look at an example of night AR mode to see how accurate it is. In July 2021, I led a Milky Way photography workshop at the (beautiful) Sugar Pine Point State Park on Lake Tahoe’s west side. How could I be certain that I could teach pupils how to photograph the Milky Way? Before scheduling the lesson, I went to the park during the day in June and utilized Photo Pills’ augmented reality function to choose the day and time of my class.

In June, I took a screenshot of Photo Pills’ Night AR function while standing on the park’s pier looking south during the day.

And here’s a snapshot from e class, taken around 11:15 p.m. on July 23rd:

Students in Grant Kaye’s Milky Way photography class on the dock shooting Milky Way in July 2021 at Sugar Pine Point on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore. For quicker web loading, the quality was purposely lowered.

 

During my July session, the app properly depicted the real-world situations that my students would encounter. When you’re looking for a solid composition and a strong foreground at night, this Night AR function comes in handy.

The Day AR option works similarly: it overlays the sun/position moon’s on your screen, enabling you to see where these objects will be in the sky at a future time at your location. Because the location of the sun may be a crucial element of lighting on your subject, and time is frequently essential, I’ve made significant use of the Day AR function in my commercial and architectural photographic preparation. Note that this might be a handy option for portrait photographers who exclusively utilize natural light.

Exposure Calculator

Shooting two distinct pictures and blending them together in Photoshop is a method I use regularly in night photography: one “short” (25-30 seconds) exposure for the sky and one for the foreground. This is known as “multiple exposure blending,” or simply MEB, and I go into more depth about it in my essay High Dynamic Range vs. Multiple Exposure Blending Editing for Photographers. I use Bulb mode (or “Time” on Nikon) to get enough stars in the foreground to properly illuminate the landscape, which can take several minutes.

Because most of us don’t have reciprocity tables memorized and have no clue how long the foreground exposure needs to be to reach the appropriate exposure level, the MEB technique can be challenging, especially in low light.

With its Exposure function (or Exposure “Pill” in the app’s parlance), Photo Pills makes it simple to find this out. You start by guessing at a test exposure until you achieve the required lighting. This is accomplished by setting your camera’s ISO to the highest possible setting (ISO 25,600 or even 102,400) and guesstimating reasonably lengthy shutter times (5, 8, 20 seconds…). Shoot and tweak until you’ve reached the correct amount of light in this throw-away file, as determined by your histogram. Remember, when the image’s histogram is clear of the left margin (no regions in pure shadow – RGB 0, 0, 0), you’ve achieved this.

Once you have the values for the desired test exposure set, you can enter them into Photo Pills’ Exposure calculator, which uses reciprocity tables to calculate how long an equivalent foreground exposure needs to be at a very low ISO, allowing you to lower your ISO and keep noise in your usable image under control. Remember that even with your lower ISO settings, extremely long exposures in bulbs are inherently noisy, so don’t forget your dark frame!

The exposure function in Photo Pills compares the lighting (exposure) of two photographs shot at different settings.

Spot Stars

The Spot Stars calculator is another Photo Pills tool that I utilize. This Pill will indicate how long of an exposure you can take before the stars in the middle of your shot shift from dots to lines according to your camera and lens combo (i.e. when you start to get star trails). Long nighttime exposures will ultimately alter the shape of all the stars in the frame from dots to streaks due to the earth’s rotation and the distance we are from the stars we observe.

This might be advantageous if you want to create a star trails picture. However, if you’re aiming to produce a picture of the Milky Way’s center, the trillions of stars in the galaxy should be as near to dots as possible and seem as they do to us.

Some Behind-the-Scenes Math

Using the NPF rule as an example, here’s a quick rundown of how the math works. I can shoot a frame for 10.56 seconds using the NPF rule, or 25 seconds using the “500 rule,” if I point my Canon 5D Mark IV at the sky and connect my Rokinon 20mm f/1.8 lens. The NPF rule is far more precise, and it employs the (simplified) formula:

The amount of seconds the shutter may be open is equal to (35 x Aperture + 30 x Sensor Pixel Pitch)/Focal Length of Lens.

Each letter in the NPF rule indicates a variable: N = aperture (usually represented by the letter N in optics), P = pixel pitch, and F = focal length. The center-to-center spacing between individual pixels, measured in microns, is known as sensor pixel pitch. In general, a higher pitch is preferable since it reduces picture noise – think of bigger buckets piled in a grid catching more falling ping pong balls (photons of light).

You may check up the pitch of your camera sensor online or manually using the formula: take the width of the sensor in mm (such as 35mm) and divide it by the maximum picture resolution width in pixels, then multiply by 1000. Here’s a rundown of what’s going on:

Finding Sensor Pixel Pitch

Sensor Pixel Pitch = 35/sensor width in pixels multiplied by 1000 = Sensor Pixel Pitch

Let’s try this using the Sony a7 III together:

The sensor has a width of 35.6 pixels. The maximum sensor resolution width is 6026:1:1:1:1:1:1:1:1

5.91 = (35/6026) x 1000

The a7 III has a sensor pixel pitch of 5.91.

Finding Max Sensor Resolution Width

If you’re wondering where to get your maximum sensor resolution width (6026), you can either look it online or do it yourself if you’re like that kind of thing. You’ll need to know your sensor width and effective megapixels to locate it manually. This is something you’ll need to seek up in your camera’s specifications. It’s 35.6 and 24.2 in this case. You may start calculating now that you have this much…

Step 1: Sensor Resolution = 35.6/24.2, giving you a result of 1.5.

Step two: Now that we have our 1.5 ratios, we need to figure out what our vertical resolution is. Take 24.2 (the a7 III’s effective megapixels, which we found in the specifications) and multiply it by 100,000, then divide by 1.5. 16133333. You must calculate the square root of the answer. To acquire 4017, I just utilized an internet square root calculator (or 4016.6320883712183).

Step three: Now that we know the vertical resolution, all we have to do is multiply 4017 by 1.5 to get 6026.

The a7 III’s sensor resolution is 6026 x 4017, which is slightly higher than the 6000 x 4000 maximum file picture resolution.

a7 III Pixel Pitch and NPF Example for Exposure Calculation

Here’s how you can use the a7 III’s 5.91-pixel pitch now that you know what it is. Remember, the simplified NPF formula is as follows:

The amount of seconds the shutter may be open is equal to (35 x Aperture + 30 x Sensor Pixel Pitch)/Focal Length of Lens.

Let’s suppose I want to use a 24mm lens and shoot at an aperture of f/2.8.

(30 x 5.91) / (35 x 2.8) / (35 x 2.8) / (35 x 2.8) / (35 x 2.8

30 x 5.91 = 177.3 35 x 2.8 = 98

…then…

275.3 = 98 + 177.3

Finally…

Our lens length is 275.3/24, therefore we’ll need an 11.5-second exposure. Your star “dots” will start to turn into star “streaks” when this length of time has passed.

500 Rule

The 500 rule dates back to the days of film and, while not as precise as the NPF rule, it nevertheless gives you a fair idea of how long your exposures may be. It’s even simpler than that: divide 500 by your lens’ focal length (or the length you’re shooting at). Using our 24mm lens as an example, this means that your star dots will become streaks after around 20 seconds. This is certainly much too lengthy of exposure for sustaining “dots,” as we already know from the more exact NPF calculation – especially when looking at the image up close. The only way to tell for sure is to photograph and inspect your image closely, both in the center and at the edges. What one photographer finds acceptable may not be acceptable to another.

The software has two options: “Default” for hardly visible trails and “Accurate” for big prints. This decision takes into account the fact that really large prints may accentuate trails owing to magnification — in other words, tiny streaks will simply be more apparent in a large print vs. a web-sized image.

This year, give Photo Pills a go. This software significantly improves your planning abilities. You could come back from your next picture shoot with a memory card full of exactly the shots you envisioned. You’ll also feel more at ease in your surroundings.

 

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