Great Android (and iOS) Tools for Sunrise and Sunset
A Smartphone or tablet can be a great tool for helping a nature photographer access useful information in the field. One of the most obvious resources is a program to find out what time the sun rises and sets where you are. But the possibilities go way, way beyond just this.
First off, let me frame the discussion by declaring that I'm an Android user. I have both an Android phone and an Android tablet. I've never had an iPhone for the simple reason that AT&T's long-held monopoly on the device would have meant switching carriers to get one. That's no longer true, but at this point I'm committed to Android as I imagine some of you reading this are, and in some cases for similar reasons. I used to have a Blackberry in pre-Android days but found it quite limited in terms of available applications. Indeed I was so frustrated with Blackberry that I resorted to writing my own application for determining sunrise and sunset times based on the phone's location. It wasn't pretty, but it did indeed work. Thankfully, both Android and iOS have so many programs available that I can leave this sort of project for others and concentrate on what I really want to do. But with all this said, I'm going to limit this article to application for the Android platform that I can recommend. Two of the three programs I want to review are available for both Android and iOS, but beyond that you iPhone and iPad users are on your own. I haven't tested either on iOS since I don't have a device that supports it.
For a basic display of sunrise/sunset as well as moonrise/moonset times and directions on Android, you can't do any better than the free version of Sundroid from the Android market (Google Play store). The user interface is polished and provides accurate data based on network location, GPS, location search or even user-entered coordinates. You can also save favorite locations to easily go back to them later. I have a number of favorite shooting locations saved as you can probably guess. The date defaults to current, but you can go forward and back in time easily. A "Pro" version for $2.99 adds widgets, planet rise and set times, eclipse and other event times, notifications and alarms, and a monthly calendar. The Pro version also includes a really cool Sun, moon and planet tracker that shows the path of any of these heavenly bodies superimposed on an earthly map or satellite view. The Sundroid screen layout is optimized for phones but does work on tablets too. Sundroid was created by Visalia Mobile Ltd.
An application called TPE, or "The Photographers Ephemeris" describes itself as a "map-centric sun and moon calculator." This works similarly to the sun, moon and planet tracker from Sundroid and you may be wondering why it's worth mention here given that TPE will cost you $4.99 from the Google Play store. The real power of TPE is its ability to also calculate the bearing, distance and elevation angle between any two points on the map (termed "Geodetics" by TPE). Although it takes some practice to figure out how to use this feature, its potential is quite cool. By comparing these results to the sun or moon angle and elevation at selected times you can take the guesswork out of otherwise difficult shots. TPE works great on both my phone and tablet, taking full advantage of the available screen real estate. Crookneck Consulting LLC, the makers of TPE, also has a free desktop version written using Adobe AIR. In other words, they charge you for the ability to take the power of TPE with you and utilize the full integration of the GPS, compass and so forth built into your Android device, but if you're happy with a somewhat less friendly version on a laptop, TPE is free. If there are any iOS users reading along, you can also get TPE now for iPhone and iPad. Be aware that the iOS version will set you back $8.99 which is a bit expensive compared to most iOS apps but for what it does I'd still consider it worth buying if I did use an iPhone.
The third application I want to make sure photographers are aware of is called the Sun Surveyor. While I have you iPhone and iPad users' attention, this one too is available for both Android and iOS. The Android version goes for $6.49 while the iOS version will run you $5.99. No telling how companies decide pricing on their software, but in this case you Apple folks get the price break. Either way, this is pricey enough that you'd assume Sun Surveyor must do something worth my writing about it here. And it does. In addition to its own version of the sun and moon tracker called the "Map View" that superimposes the sun and moon's path on a Google Map display, the program includes two other excellent features. First there's the "3D Compass" view that uses the device's built in sensors to help render a three dimensional view that moves as the device moves. Then there's the killer feature called "AR Camera," short for "augmented reality" that superimposes the sun and moon path on top of the device camera's view, and moves as you move the device. You can actually hold your phone up to the sky and see precisely where the sun or moon will be later on so you can know for sure that you're in the right place when the right time comes. Now that's cool. Sun Surveyor works great on both phone and tablet sized screens. The author of Sun Surveyor, Adam Ratana, has done an excellent job and talks some on his website about what it took. Having written my Blackberry sunrise calculator, I can relate to his descriptions, but he has outdone me by at least as many miles as there are between here and the sun we both labored to calculate the position of.
For less than $20 you can get the paid version of all three applications. While there is some overlap, each includes features the other doesn't. And while getting some great tools you can carry with you, you'll also be supporting the developers so they'll make these applications even better in the future. Isn't technology wonderful?