PhotoPills: imagine, plan, shoot – an astrophotography planning tool.

One night, in 2015, I received a call from Mark Gee asking me if I wanted to be his movie extra for the purposes of filming with a Japanese TV crew who wanted to retrace his absolutely famous shot of the Moon. He said there will be hot chocolate, and I always fall for that, but to be in a movie about Mark Gee’s, even as an extra … hey, that was beyond awesome.

So we drove to this weird location behind many trees, where he setup his camera… and after a very short wait, lo and behold the Moon showed up exactly where he said it would. This is how the movie came out and I even had the chance to a couple lines.

I’m officially famous!

– How did you do that Mark? How did you know exactly where we were supposed to be at the exact time?
– PhotoPills…

he said… (If you know Mark, he is always very brief and to the point.)

If Mark (who IS a legend*) uses PhotoPills… then I, a mere mortal will pay attention!!


Now there are two species of astrophotographers, in my opinion. Landscape and deep sky. Each require different gear and different knowledge. Photopills is I believe mostly for the landscape photographer but it’s very handy for everyone. I wish I had it back in 2005 when I just would take my camera and spend night after night on the South Coast, because literally this is what I used to do with my nights when I arrived in New Zealand. I can still remember my first picture of Orion from Te Raikau Point in Wellington, that’s near the airport, it was a night with frozen wind and the most amazing sky – as it is always in NZ.

Photopills is a life-saving app for astrophotography. After watching Mark redoing his shot of the Moon I downloaded a copy on my  tricorder (phone), used it, and blessed its creators many times. Fast forward to last week, by chance, I met Rafael Pons, one of the inventors of PhotoPills, here in NZ on a PhotoPills tour. “That’s funny!!”, I thought “he has a PhotoPills” t-shirt!! and his t-shirt was the start of our conversation. When he told me he is one of the founders I thought I must interview him for the wonderful Milky Way Kiwi audience, which he kindly agreed. After all he was here to promote PhotoPills.

Nothing like an explanation about PhotoPills from bocca lupo….! Close enough, Rafael is actually from Spain. So here comes his story:

Rafael, what is PhotoPills?…

“Well, PhotoPills was born as an iPhone app back in 2013 but now, with so many PhotoPillers (PhotoPills app users) all over the world on both iOS and Android… It’s turning into something more exciting. It’s turning into a movement, a tribe of photographers that share the same vision: To be at the right place at the right time to capture the scene we imagine, to tell the story we wanna tell.

PhotoPills will help you plan any Sun, Moon and Milky Way shot you imagine… so you can go and shoot it. It’s all about helping people go from ideas to real photos. Ah! And also helps you with all the calculations when shooting too: depth of field, long exposures with ND filters and in low light, timelapse, etc.”

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Rafael Pons, founder of PhotoPills – in Wellington

What is the story of the PhotoPills awards?

“The PhotoPills Awards is a way of rewarding and inspire the tribe. You can submit your photos via the Awards button in the app for free. We feature one photo every day, both within the app and on instagram (@photopills.com). It’s a great way to help people with visibility. At the end of the month we pick three winners who get 100USD each. And at the end of the year, we pick the PhotoPiller of the Year, who gets 3000USD. Phillip Schmildli was the overall winner. Check the best photos in our Hall of Fame! It’s fun!”

PhotoPills is so good to help photoshoots as there are always all these questions to answer when you are out there with your camera. How did you come up with the idea of PhotoPills? What prompted it?

“It happened in 2010. Germán Marquès, the developer, bought a Nikon D90 to get started in Photography. One day, he came to me and said how difficult was this photography thing. So many questions that needed an answer?

When is the sunrise and sunset? When is the best light? What’s the depth of field? When is the Moon rising and setting?

…and many more!

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Understanding Golden Hour, Blue Hour and Twilights

So we decided to create something to help photographers answer all the questions fast so they can spend less time working out the numbers and more time out there shooting.

This is how PhotoPills was born, we wanted to create an All-in-One app to help people get answers fast.”

How long it took you to develop it?

“It took us 3 years to launch the first version of the app on iOS. We worked long hours after work to make it happen. Finally, on March 21st 2013 PhotoPills was launched. And we’ve kept improving it since then. Last month we launched the Android version too. We’re getting great feedback. Lot’s of positive energy to keep improving PhotoPills. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll!”

Was this a startup? And was it hard to make?

“It was not a start up. Everything began as a hobby, but thanks to the word of mouth we’re getting from our users, the tribe is growing and growing. Hard? Well, nothing is easy… but doing what you love really helps pushing you to the limit. I can only say that we’ve been enjoying every single day of this adventure. Let’s see where it goes.”

How many users do you have now?

“Over 100.000 at the moment spread all over the world. Many are here, in New Zealand! Photographers like Mark Gee have helped us a lot spreading the word… for example, every time they use the app to plan the Milky Way and share it on social networks.”

What are you doing in New Zealand Rafael!?

“I’m in a PhotoPills World Tour. New Zealand is my first stop.” (yay for us!)

Why are you traveling around the world?

“I love traveling and I love helping PhotoPillers master PhotoPills. So I decided to start traveling, make lot’s of video tutorials in awesome places (like Wanaka or Surat Bay) and run meetups and workshops to help people with the app” (check here on their Facebook page for the latest PhotoPills events).

Who can use PhotoPills?

“Any photographer that has a question that needs an answer can use PhotoPills. Beginners use it to find sunrise and set times, golden hour and blue hour times…” (my favourite is actually all the crepuscular information) “and for basic calculations like depth of field. Then we have the photographers that plan their Sun, Moon and Milky Way shots… it all depends on your needs.”

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What’s your favourite thing about PhotoPills?

“The best thing is being out there on the right spot, at the right time, living a moment that you and only you have imagined. Living that moment, catching the Sun, the Moon or the Milky Way right where you want them in the sky (and you planned months ago) is just priceless.”

What was the weirdest photo shoot that you’ve been to and used PhotoPills to plan it? What made the difference?

“We love shooting Full Moon silhouettes videos. We plan where and when the Full Moon will rise and we play a performance using the Full Moon as our theatre. It’s challenging and fun at the same time. But, don’t take my word for granted, have a look at the following video. I warn you, it’s a bit scary :)”

(it is scary, I’m very scared now, I think I’ll sleep with the light on.)

Where we can find more about PhotoPills?

“Go to photopills.com!

Even if you’re not a PhotoPills user, on our website you’ll find lot’s of tutorials that will help you shoot the Milky Way, the Moon, Sunrises and sunsets… we share all our secrets! For the tutorials you need to visit the Academy section.”

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* Mark Gee is a Legend but with PhotoPills you can shoot legendary photos too!

I am constantly amazed of what happens when people follow their passion, and you see people like Mark, like Rafael and his team, (like Rhian Sheehan who writes stellar music that I listen while stargazing) going after their wild rabbit, if we all did what we loved then the world would change into such a better place!