Smartphone apps have made a dramatic impact on my photography – from recording scouting observations to planning a shoot from afar and later having that intelligence at my fingertips while shooting. I’ve compiled a list of my top 3 mobile apps with a mini review on each. I hope you find these tools as useful as I have.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris

An ephemeris gives the position of naturally occuring astronomical objects at a given time of day. The Photoographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) does so much more, including:

  • Time and direction of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset
  • Phase of the moon and % illumination
  • Times of civil, nautical and astronomical twilight
  • Graphical display on a wide selection of map types, from topographical to road maps with offline map options
  • Movable map pins
  • Celestial events like moon phases, apogee, perigee, solstice, and the equinox
  • Elevation above sea level
  • Azimuth and altitude of sun/moon for any time of day/night
  • Distance, bearing and elevation angle between any two points

Using these features, you can drop a pin to any location and specify any date and time to see things like where the sun and moon will be, how their shadows will cast, and even when they will appear from behind a hill or a ridge. All of this allows you to plan for those epic sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset photos rather than hope you stumble upon them.

At $8.99, the app is a steal – so buy it today for Android or iOS. You might also want to download the desktop version of TPE.

Sun Seeker

To augment the data TPE provides, I use Sun Seeker to show a 3D overlay view of where the sun and moon will be, both today and at other days of the year, on top of a live image coming through my phone’s camera sensor.

For only $9.99, this app well help you plan for that amazing shot well in advance. Buy it today for Android or iOS.

Gaia GPS

The offline maps alone make Gaia GPS an amazing tool. You can download a variety of map types including topographical, road, terrain and even satellite for a specified zoom level. I keep a topographical and road map for my home state downloaded at all times and then cache additional maps before visiting a location like the Death Valley area shown above.

There are also waypoints and trails tracking. I have over 1,000 saved  – including bucket list locations that I have not yet visited, beautiful roads and trails that I plan to return to, prior photo locations with my detailed notes, and even more logistical points of interest like campgrounds, forest service road gates that close at certain times of year, and places where I can fill up with water while on the road. All of this is seamlessly synchronizes between my phone and GaiaGPS.com for managing on either interface. And as you see above, you can sort the waypoints by title or my favorite: proximity to  current location. There is also a good search interface.

And again, it’s all available offline when I’m out of cell phone signal, including my notes and photos associated with each waypoint, conveniently overlayed on a variety of topographical and road maps. I use custom icons to differentiate waypoints on the map view.

I also use a set of high-level folders to categorize each waypoint. This allows me to quickly turn various categories on or off, such as removing all the noise from a map when I need to quickly find a campground. Parent-child folders are supported, but I would advise against it because the administration is somewhat difficult.

I keep notes about many of the waypoints, such as useful information about expected road conditions, if the location is better for sunrise or sunset, and even a cell phone snapshot image of my last visit there.  I also use the app to record my tracks on a bike ride or hike, which can be easily exported to GPX format for importing to services like Strava.

The developers should add tagging capability. This could replace the folder concept while providing multiple layers of metadata to each waypoint – such as indicating a photography spot rather than a campground, AND that spot is best shot at sunset (applicable tags).

At $19.99, Gaia GPS is twice the cost of the above two examples and you’ll pay another $39.99 per year for the “Pro” edition to get features like premium layered maps and custom waypoint icons.  But for me, the value is priceless. Buy Gaia GPS today for iOS or Android while also using GaiaGPS.com from your computer.

Honorable Mentions

There are several other valuable apps installed to my smartphone that I’ll quickly mention, including: