High tech planning

Posted by Justin Franz
on Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Northern Lights near West Glacier, Montana. Photo by Justin Franz.
I have dedicated a fair amount of space on this blog to the art of planning in railroad photography. As I noted nearly a year ago, while some enjoy flying by the seat of their pants, I’ve always subscribed to the idea that while film (or pixels) are cheap, your time isn’t. Whenever I’m about to embark on a railfan adventure to a new area, I spend a fair amount of time doing research, either on Google Maps or perhaps my favorite, RailfanAtlas.com.

However, I recently started using another tool: PhotoPills, a personal photo assistant for your smartphone that promises “legendary photos.” I downloaded the app last summer to aid my astrophotography (a genre of photography in which I’m still very much a novice) but recently started using it more for rail photography. The most obvious and useful tool is sun and moon planner, which is essentially a souped up version of SunCalc. Just last week, I used the app while train chasing to determine well in advance of arriving at a specific location if the light would be right for the shot I wanted. The app can also tell you where the Milky Way will rise with its augmented reality feature. Another tool that I’ve found especially useful as I’ve been preparing for an upcoming trip is the planner that allows you to tag and save locations of interest.

Those are just a few of the many tools the app has that I haven’t even explored, including an exposure calculator, depth-of-field table, star-trail simulator and even a time-lapse calculator.

Of course, detailed planning can never replace the most important ingredient to photography: a little bit of luck. Last summer, a good friend and I decided to venture to Glacier National Park to shoot the Milky Way. We arrived early to find our spot, set up our cameras and took some test exposures. As I looked at the back of my camera, I noticed a green light on the horizon. Perhaps it’s light pollution, I thought to myself as I adjusted my settings and took another shot. It turns out, that dancing green light was no light pollution, it was the Northern Lights. No photo app could have predicted that (although the aurora forecast app I have can, but it doesn’t do you any good when you don’t check it).

Have you turned to high tech gear when planning your railfan outings? Let us know in the comments below.

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