Apps, Charts, Websites & Other Resources For Night Photographers—Plus A Little Time On The Soapbox

It’s official. The question I get most often is no longer, “What camera should I buy?” Now it’s, “What app should I use?” I’m not sure which of these questions I enjoy answering less.

Yes, I am sure. Talking about cameras is easy compared to software. The biggest challenge is addressing the difference between need and want. I’m constantly getting messages from photographers telling me about a new “cool” app they’ve discovered. I appreciate the messages and sometimes I get some really good advice from them, but often I think we get caught up more in the coolness of things than in their real usefulness.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with cool. Or fun. Or, “Wow, look at this!” I’m not trying to discharge bodily fluids into your breakfast cereal here. It’s just that as a full-time professional outdoor photographer (translation: Starving Artist), I don’t have time for cool. My apps have to work for me.

So the first criterion for any resource must be usefulness. Does it provide information that I can use to make better photos? And, just as important, does it provide the information in the most practical format? Here’s where things get messy and where people get the impression that I’m an old fart trapped in the 1970s, refusing to accept all the new technology at my disposal. “What, you mean you actually use printed charts?” “On paper?”  “Don’t you know you can do that with your phone?”

Okay, I admit it. I am an old fart. But I assure you that I will be the first to embrace any new technology that will help me make the house payment and put red wine on the table. My phone is loaded with apps, just like everyone else’s. But apps alone can’t do the job for me. I need a combination of apps, desktop software, website resources, and—gasp!—printed pieces of paper.

I have to confess, I’m presenting this information as much to answer all the questions I get as to provide information. I figured it would be easier in the future to simply reply to all the inquiries with a link to this post than to rewrite my answer every time. So you have to keep in mind that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of resources for night photographers. It’s simply a list of what I use and some explanation as to why. And, in no way am I suggesting that these are the resources you should use. Everyone has different needs and reacts differently to the various software interfaces. You should go with what works for you.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for other resources. Please just limit your recommendations to resources that will help me put red wine on the table. As I said, I just don’t have time for cool. ☺

Phone Apps

LunaSolCal

Everyone needs a good app for the Sun and Moon. I’ve tried a lot of them and found LunaSolCal to be the best by far. It has a very user-friendly interface and provides all of the information I consider to be most important: Rise and set times, azimuth, twilight times (astronomical, nautical, and civil), Moon phases and illumination, and an easy interface for adding locations. Note that I do not consider this app to be a replacement for printed charts of the Sun and Moon, as explained below. I use it mainly for traveling, when I will be in a particular location for only a few days, and for quick checks of the current day.

TrueDoF

Knowing the depth-of-field range is useful in any type of photography. For night photography, I am especially careful about making sure there is complete sharpness extending from the foreground to the night sky. I used to use a printed DOF card, but this app works much better for me. I’ve tried several, but TrueDOF is by far the best.

Night Sky 2

Here’s one that transcends the boundary between cool and useful. No one can deny the coolness of pointing your phone at the night sky and having it display on the screen everything that you see in the sky. But there are some very practical applications as well. I use it mainly to identify elements of the night sky for captioning photos and for locating faint objects in the sky. Night Sky 2 is also great for short-range planning because it displays what is below the horizon, as well as above. So you can see when the Sun or Moon or other objects are about to rise. Of course, this and other similar apps have a lot of other features and for some they can be very useful. However, I prefer Stellarium for a basic night-sky program. I think Night Sky 2 is only available for the iOS platform.

Aurora Fcst and Aurora

I have these apps for staying abreast of auroral activity. However, with the low sunspot activity of the current cycle and the fact that I live at 35-degrees latitude, they haven’t seen much action and I can’t tell you whether I like them or not.

Apps I Don’t Use

I’ve tried a ton of other apps that just weren’t useful. Cool, yes, but not a lot of help to me. I don’t use apps for satellite predictions, preferring to use the Heavens Above website instead. I don’t use phone apps for processing images. I do ALL image processing on a desktop computer, having big buttons for my fumbling fingers and a great big screen for my old-fart eyes. Rarely a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me how great The Photographer’s Ephemeris is, but it’s not on my phone. I can see how it might be helpful for some photographers, but it doesn’t do anything for me that having a general knowledge of the Sun and Moon can’t handle just as well.

Desktop Computer Software

Photoshop

I use Photoshop for ALL image processing. I do have some other software for certain tasks, but ultimately every image goes through Photoshop. I don’t use Lightroom and don’t plan to until it has layering capability. Please don’t tell me (again!) how great Lightroom is and how I can do everything I need to in it and never have to open my images in Photoshop. I’m a night photographer. I shoot multiple exposures for many of my images. Layers, layer masks, and layer blending modes are as crucial to my work as red wine is to my dinner table.

Photomatix Pro

For HDR blending, I typically go to Photomatix first. If I don’t get the results I want from it, I’ll try Photoshop and/or Nik’s HDR Efex Pro.

Dynamic Auto-Painter Pro

There are a gazillion ways to render your images artistically, whether they were shot during the day or night. I’m not very knowledgeable about many of the options available, perhaps because Dynamic Auto-Painter is so easy and does such a fantastic job with my night photos. Between it and Photoshop, I’m covered. The program is available as a smart phone app as well, but as I said above, I do all image processing on a desktop machine.

Stellarium

I’m certainly no authority on the software available for viewing the night sky, but I can’t imagine that there is a program better suited for night photographers than Stellarium. It shows the sky exactly as you would see it with your own eyes, is very easy to use, and the desktop version is free. You can get it for your phone for a small price, but I don’t think the phone version has all the features of the desktop software and you don’t get the same warm and fuzzy feeling using it on a tiny screen. For field use, a tablet is ideal. Press a few buttons and you can see instantly what the sky will like at any time, any location, in any direction. I know, Stellarium isn’t the only program that can do this, but in my experience, it’s the best. And did I mention that it’s free?

I used Stellarium to look up the information for creating the Milky Way chart, listed below. I also use it to help me prepare the monthly Night Photography Events Calendar.

Websites

Sky & Telescope and Astronomy

Each of these websites provides a wealth of information that all night photographers can use. Both provide weekly views of the night sky, although I prefer the one from Sky & Telescope. It’s the same one I link to on the right-hand column of the blog.

timeanddate.com

The most useful website I’ve found for viewing rise and set times for the Sun and Moon, as well as time zone and world clock info. Once every year I print out monthly charts from this website for the Sun and Moon.

Heavens Above

I use this website for checking the upcoming appearances of the International Space Station and Iridium Flares. You can register for free and enter as many locations as you wish. I know there are several apps and other websites that provide the same information, but Heavens-Above is an old friend that has worked very well for me over the years.

Printed Material

I’m excluding books here. We all have a library of favorite reference books, but as a rule you don’t keep them with you and refer to them regularly. I’m restricting this list to the resources that I reference on a regular basis.

Planisphere

While some might consider them obsolete, the venerable planisphere still has a place in the night-photographer’s arsenal. It provides the quickest and easiest method for seeing what’s up in the night sky at any time of year and it does not require batteries or an Internet connection. The drawback is that they are a little bulky and they don’t show the planets or Moon. The one I use is called “David H. Levy’s Guide to the Stars.”

Astronomical Calendar

Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar is among the few printed and bound resources that I refer to regularly. At 11×15 and 85 pages, it’s not something you’ll stuff in your back pocket, but once you try it you’ll likely keep a copy on your desk at all times. Among its features are a detailed monthly guide to the night sky. I use it to help me prepare the monthly Night Photography Events Calendar. Ottewell publishes a new edition of the calendar each year.

Sun and Moon Charts

Apps are great for checking conditions for certain days and locations, but there is a huge benefit to having a month’s worth of data visible all at once. Once a year, I go to timeanddate.com and print 12 monthly charts of both the Sun and Moon for my home region of Asheville. With these charts in hand, I can instantly see the rise and set times and the nightly progression of the Moon, which is very helpful in choosing the best nights to go out and shoot. For instance, I can look at a chart and instantly see that, say, in the first week of the month, the Moon will be up and too bright for night-sky photography, but beginning the second week it will not rise until late in the night. And I can do this for any month of the year. Any app or website for the Sun and Moon can give you this info, but for me, they simply cannot replace the convenience of having a month’s worth of data printed on a piece of paper.

Milky Way Chart

Stellarium, a number of apps, and even a planisphere can show you where the Milky Way will be for any time of the year. However, as with rise and set times of the Sun and Moon, I find it most helpful to have this information charted for a period of time and printed out. That’s why I created the Milky Way chart. It tells you instantly the general position of the Milky Way for any day of the year and time of night. I only recently created this chart, but it has already proven invaluable in panning night shoots. Here’s a blog post with more info about the Milky Way and the chart.

Other Resources

Weather Radio

With all the weather apps out there, why would you need a separate weather radio? Well, you might not need one, but if you ever try one, I suspect you’ll make it a regular part of your night-photography gear. I’ve had mine for over 12 years and it feels like an old friend. No matter where I go in the U.S., I can push a button and get a continuous weather report directly from NOAA, which is from where nearly all weather forecasts originate. It also gives alerts for potential dangerous weather. Yes, my phone is loaded with weather apps, just like everyone else’s, but the only one I use regularly is a radar app. That’s the only drawback of the weather radio; it can’t give you a radar view. There are many models of weather radios available. Here is the one I have. It’s small, lightweight, and easy to use. Mine doesn’t have the cradle, but I don’t need that, anyway.

Fellow Photographers

Among my greatest resources is YOU. I get messages every day from fellow photographers alerting me to events, new products, and techniques. Some of the info is not new to me, but I am grateful to everyone for taking the time to get in touch. So, please, keep ‘em coming!  Thank you!

Did you like this post? Well, I sure would appreciate it if you told your friends. Thanks!
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