Having the best astrophotography apps on your smartphone or tablet can be a fantastic – and inexpensive – shortcut towards nailing a great shot of the night sky.
The difference between taking a great night sky photograph or not can often be external factors, such as finding the right location, with optimal conditions, and timing it right.
More often than not, this will be a bigger factor in whether or not a great night sky photograph is produced, rather than having the latest and most expensive cameras, lenses, and other equipment.
In particular, there are some great free or cheap apps available that can help your astrophotography by helping:
- Find the right locations
- Checking the weather conditions, and
- Timing and composing shots
Below, we profile five great astrophotography apps that are used and recommended by the experts.
1. Photopills – best all-round night photography app
Photopills is another great app for Milky Way and night sky photography.
Like Photographer’s Ephemeris (below), it enables you to visualize shots with the location of the Milky Way, sun and moon considered for your specific location and time. It is a newer app and is one of the best in terms of usability.
Astrophotographer Talman Madsen outlines how he uses Photopills for Milky Way photographer in this piece. He says
“I used the app to plan for a night where the moon was absent to maximize the contrast in the sky, therefore, making the stars ‘pop’.”
It’s also described as “a great tool to plan ahead” by photographer Laura Krause.
Photopills costs $9.99 at the time of writing. You can get it via the PhotoPills website.
2. Dark Sky Finder – best light pollution app
One of the first things to consider when planning a shot of the Milky Way or stars in the night sky is the darkness of the skies in your location.
Unfortunately, most large cities and heavily populated areas suffer from light pollution.
Light pollution is where there are so many electric lights in a city – from street lamps and buildings etc – that they effectively light the night sky from underneath.
This means then for a person looking up from the ground, the skies are not dark enough at night time. Therefore the stars, planets and other objects in the sky are not seen as easily and are harder to photograph.
A key thing to do then when planning your astrophotography is to check the light pollution for where you are (or where you are going to be).
Dark Sky Finder is an app that enables you to examine different locations and see how much light pollution they have.
It’s available for iOS devices at a cost of $2.99 – see here
A great, free alternative available is the Dark Site Finder website. It doesn’t have an app, but can be accessed on mobile with an internet connection – find it here
3. Dark Sky – best weather app
The next thing to consider is the weather conditions for when you are planning to shoot the night sky.
You will need skies free of clouds to be able to capture the stars and so having a reliable source of hyperlocal information for this can be essential.
We recommend the Dark Sky app (confusingly, the name is similar to the ‘Dark Sky Finder’ app profiled above, but is different).
Dark Sky is available for $3.99 on iOS and Android – find it on their website here.
4. Photographer’s Ephemeris – best Milky Way finder app
The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a website and app that can be used for calculating the positioning and timing of the sunrise and sunset, as well as the moon and Milky Way.
This is a vital factor when photographing the night sky. The timing of the sunset and sunrise may be obvious, but another factor is where the moon will be and its brightness, as this can affect your ability to capture the stars. As photographer Marcus Cote says:
“The optimal time to see and photograph the Milky Way is during a new moon or moon phase that is not in the sky at night/early morning.”
This app features 3D augmented reality so that you can visualize your shots and plan how to align them. This includes the positioning of the Milky Way, pole stars and major constellations directly over the map.
Photographer’s Ephemeris costs $8.99 but there is also a free desktop version. Find it all on their website.
5. Stellarium – best planetarium website
Stellarium is a free virtual planetarium on your computer. It shows a realistic 3D sky that enables you to see what stars or planets you are looking at.
It also has functions to allow you to determine the time and direction the Milky Way will be rising at a specific time and location, which is ideal for astrophotographers.
Photographer Ivan Slade outlines how he used Stellarium to help him capture the Milky Way in this piece.
He says, “For the actual Milky Way orientation and times I use Stellarium, which is a free app for desktop (and also a paid app for mobile) that allows you to lock in a location, date and time to view the location of the Milky Way and other sky objects.”
Stellarium is free and available on web only – find it here
Conclusion – the best astrophotography apps
Many of the apps and websites above have been recommended by expert astrophotographers that we have interviewed in our astrophotography masters series.
One thing is for sure, using the tools above to help you plan your shots can make things massively easier for yourself and your night sky photography.
The first app provides your starting point – where can you find dark skies.
A weather app is then needed to help you plan your timing and ensure cloud-free skies.
The final three apps and website then offer much more in terms of planning and visualizing your photographs to give you the best chance of nailing it.
If you have any comments or suggestions on different apps and resources, then please let us know in the comments section below.
If you are new to astrophotography then you might also like our ultimate beginners guide.