May 10, 2023

Photopills v TPE

Two apps that help with the task of planning photographs – which one is the best? We put them head-to-head in the battle of the planning apps

Last week, I gave a talk to the online camera club, PhotoClub247. During the session, I was asked about the benefits of using Photopills over The Photographer’s Ephemeris, as I had mentioned earlier in my presentation. I was happy enough with my answer; however,  after reflecting on the session, I realised that I was providing an opinion based on my outdated knowledge of one product over the other. I think it’s worthwhile to open both apps and critically look at them side by side to discover which is the best – The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) or Photopills.

What are these apps?

Before I kick off, it’s worth giving a quick overview of TPE and Photopills. Both of these tools sell themselves as doing similar jobs. They use the position of celestial objects such as the sun, moon and the milky way to plan a photograph. Clearly, these are beneficial for landscape photographers, but I have also seen the tech being used by fashion photographers who are looking for specific conditions.

TPE was launched in 2009 with the hard-to-pronounce name of The Photographer’s Ephemeris. An ephemeris is a book with tables that gives the trajectory of astronomical objects and has been used since the first millennium BC by the Babylonians. In 2009, a weighty book was replaced by a new app from Crookneck Consulting in Boulder, Colorado, that provided information about the sun and moon positions while out in the field. The App is free to download, but advanced features are only available with an annual fee ranging from £30-£45 per year.

Launched four years later in 2013, Photopills was developed in the Balearic islands and provided improved functionality on TPE. It was also much easier to pronounce and spell! While it has sold itself as a planning tool, Photopills has some additional features that make it more than just a planner. Photopills have a one-off cost of £10.99, and all updates are free.

Planning Tools

Both Photopills and TPE offer an excellent range of tools. The interface for TPE is much easier to use than the Photopills one. However, you can do slightly fewer things with TPE without paying an annual fee. Milky Way planning is only available with a fee in TPE, whereas this is a free option in Photopills once you have bought the app. About halfway through the first year, Photopills becomes a more economic purchase.

Some options are available in TPE that aren’t seen on the Photopills app. The first is a light pollution view, which becomes available when planning a shot in dark hours—an overlay that can be switched off and on shows where you can expect the darkest skies. Red means terrible, and blue/black means you can expect to see more of the night sky. It works for most of Europe, the east of the US and a few other countries worldwide. However, outside of these areas, coverage is patchy.

The second TPE-only option is called Skyfire. This feature uses weather data two to four days in advance. It predicts the likelihood of a colourful sunrise or sunset and indicates when we might see a burning sky in the morning. This feature is available in the most expensive payment plans, but it could generate some fantastic images if it works. The Skyfire tools are only available in Europe, Australia and the US. If you’re in Canada or anywhere else in the world, then sorry, you can’t get this.

Photopills does have some planning functionality not available in TPE. The best example of this is the Field of View tool. When switched on, you can visualise what you see in a shot using a particular focal distance. This is great if you are heading into the hills and want to reduce the weight you’ll carry on your back.

Another feature that Photopills offers and isn’t included in TPE is the ability to plan a shoot and save it within the app. TPE offers the planning element, but you’ll need to screenshot it and add it to a Google calendar or similar.

In terms of use, getting to grips with TPE is much easier. The interface is reasonably uncluttered, and the symbols are obvious what they do. In contrast, the feature-rich Photopills need lots of manual reading (or video watching) to understand how to use all the functions and a good memory to recall how the functions are accessed and work. I also like how TPE can be used on the phone in either landscape or portrait orientation. Photopills, by contrast, can only work in portrait mode.

If all you want from an app is to plan sunrises and sunsets, then TPE edges Photopills. However, landscape photographers often want much more.

Not just planning

Where Photopills does excel over TPE is the additional photography tools. Anyone who has attended my Switch to Manual workshops will have seen me use the Depth of Field tool to show how aperture isn’t the only thing that affects depth of field. In total, Photopills offers 16 tools that can help you get the photo you want.

In last week’s blog on Hyperfocal Distance calculation, you’d have seen how easier it is to calculate the exact focal point to set your camera to get front-to-back sharpness in your photos.

There are a couple of handy tools for planning Milky Way shots. The Night AR tool visualises where the milky way can be seen in the night sky. It includes the all-important milky way Galactic Centre, a supermassive black hole around which all the rest of the milky way rotates. Get this in your shot, and you see a real intensity of stars in the sky. Use this along with the Spot Stars tool, and you can calculate the slowest shutter speed you can use and still see the stars as individual points without starting to create a star trail effect.

However, if you want star trails, a tool allows you to calculate how long an exposure needs to be to get larger and larger circles of stars.

I can understand why TPE doesn’t bother with these tools. Thousands of apps do some of these things. However, the reason I have stuck by Photopills over TPE is that I’d much rather stay in one app instead of flitting between lots of others.

Multiple Platforms

Like most apps, there are versions for iOS and Android with phone and tablet versions. That’s kind of expected, and the features available are the same in all the varieties. A win for TPE is that there is also a desktop version. I find it much easier to plan shoots in the warmth of my office on a large screen rather than out in the field on a tiny mobile.

The TPE desktop interface works really well, but there are many of the free features on the mobile version have been made paid for on the desktop interface. This includes the light pollution tool and different map versions, including Google Maps. I would also like to be able to plan a shoot on the desktop and then send the date and time info to my phone – however, this isn’t available, even with a paid plan.


Which is better?

I will do a bit of fence-sitting to conclude this blog. I confess that I had to re-add TPE to my phone as it had been deleted in the distant past. However, it is much easier to use as a planning tool, and I’ll give it another try. However, this won’t be at the expense of Photopills. I love all the added feature tools available in the Pills screen, and the fact that you can save a shoot’s date and time in the app makes it an invaluable addition to my mobile screen. I will try out the Skyfire overlay and see if I get more burning sky sunsets. If I do, I’ll have to suck up the £50 a year fee – as a professional, it’s tax-deductible anyway, but for the hobbyist, that’s a reasonably large chunk of change to outlay each year. I just wish both these app producers would get together and share their functionality, and we’d have the perfect photo app.

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About the author

As well as running Edinburgh Photography Workshop, Rich Dyson is a professional photographer. His photographs are regularly used in newspapers such as The Times, Guardian and Daily Telegraph. He also had two solo exhibitions and was featured in a members-sponsored exhibition in the Scottish Parliament. You can see and buy his photography at