The rise of mobile computing, the app ecosystem, and widely available public data sets has given landscape photographers a new superpower: detailed and precise trip planning from the comfort of your iPad. From virtual location scouting to route planning to reserving accommodations, today’s app ecosystem has you covered. This article covers the three applications I use to plan photography trips, and also mentions a few ancillary apps that round out the planning experience.
While this discussion is focused on iPad and iOS, all three key applications mentioned are also available on Android devices.
Think of Gaia GPS as a turbocharged version of the handheld GPS devices that have been on the market for a couple of decades. Gaia GPS’ biggest advantages over a classic handheld GPS are the iPad’s high resolution display and quick access to multiple mapping data sets. Using multiple data sets, you can track down locations on a topographic map, then switch to satellite overlay to examine details via satellite imagery. In the USA, Gaia GPS can overlay National Park Service visitor maps where appropriate, making trails, visitor centers, and campgrounds visible.
Once you’ve found a location you’d like to visit, you can mark it by saving a waypoint. If you’re using Gaia GPS on multiple iOS devices, the waypoints will be synced across your devices. In the field, Gaia GPS can save a track of your trip, showing altitude, speed, distance, and of course it’s easy to save waypoints to mark locations you would like to return to.
Gaia GPS is free to download. Access to mapping data beyond the default topographic maps is a $10/year subscription.
Google Earth has comprehensive satellite imagery with elevation data for virtually the entire planet, and it is super useful for assessing the view from various locations. The app is integrated with Google Street View so one can pop into Street View for detailed looks along roads and some trails and viewpoints. It is also integrated with Google Photos and will show you photos taken at or near the location you’re viewing. This is a great way to see what other photographers are doing and what can be seen from a location.
The 3D view in Google Earth will really blow your doors off. Once you pop into 3D mode you can rotate the view around and zoom in/out to get an idea of what the landscape is like from various viewpoints.
Google Earth is a free download from the App Store.
Photo Pills is a veritable Swiss Army knife for photo planning. For any time/date and location, Photo Pills will show you sun/moon rise/set times, tell you when the golden hour and blue hour will occur, and show you the precise direction where the sun and moon will rise and set. The app will also show you how the Milky Way will traverse over your selected location, helping you plan amazing nightscapes.
Photo Pills also includes a number of useful photographic calculators, so you can easily determine Field of View, Depth of Field, and Hyperfocal distance for your camera and lens combination, and plan time lapses and star trail photos.
To help find places to shoot, Photo Pills has a searchable database of over 10,000 points of interest (POIs), and will also save POIs that you identify. A saved POI can be shared into Apple Maps, making it straightforward to research driving directions and times to your planned location.
This short description doesn’t do justice to the wide variety of useful features in Photo Pills. It really is a must-have app. Photo Pills is $10 on the App Store.
App Quick Hits
The iPad also has a number of general purpose apps that round out your trip planning.
Apple Maps or Google Maps will give you driving distance, directions, and times, as well as a satellite overlay for exploring remote locations.
Safari, iPad’s web browser, is a go-to for all sorts of important tasks. Using Internet search I’ve discovered discussion forums dedicated to tracking road and site conditions in Death Valley and other parks I visit frequently. These sorts of forums are great for up-to-date insider detail, especially for wilderness areas.
The web is also the place to find seasonal weather conditions when you’re planning weeks or months into the future.
The iOS weather app does the job for short term forecasts. For more detail, including timely precipitation predictions and animated radar maps, the AccuWeather app is great.
YouTube is well known for all sorts of great photography education. If you dig a little deeper you’ll also find it a great source of detail on various backcountry locations. For example, there’s an entire genre of time-lapse travel on back roads in the South West USA. There are also numerous vlogs detailing landscape photography trips to popular (and not so popular) locations.
Before wrapping up, I should mention that while the iPad is an astoundingly useful tool for planning photographic trips, it is not omniscient. Nothing will replace experience and common sense in the wilderness. Virtual route finding can sometimes be far off actual road and trail conditions, so be careful out there. Have fun, and make pictures!