I was very privileged to be asked by Stephen Trainor earlier this year to be one of the beta testers of a new app he has designed to complement the hugely successful and absolutely essential photographers app, The Photograpers Ephemeris (TPE).
TPE has been around for a while now and is available as a desktop program or as an iOS or Android app. For most landscape and outdoor photographers it has become an essential part of their location planning kit. I couldn’t imagine doing my job without it. I also can’t imagine the brains and ability that has gone into designing such a complex and useful program.
Not content with TPE, though, Stephen has forged ahead and designed a new app for us photographers called, officially, “The Photographers Transit” but it is shortened to “Photo-Transit”. This is an app which again uses Google Maps as it’s foundation. The app then adds the ability to place yourself at any point on Earth and face in any direction. You can then select any lens for your camera (and it takes into account you sensor/film size) and it shows you what field of view you will achieve at any given focal length. This means, no more worrying if you have packed the right lenses for a long hike or a flight where bag weight is critical. It also means you can plan key shots in advance based on your kit. You will know if your lenses have the width or reach you need for the shot you envisage. Or, before arriving at a location you will know exactly where to be to make best, use of your lenses to get the optimum image. This is location planning in real detail.
There is also the ability to look at elevation data in the app to give an idea of how the land rises and falls. This helps with understanding how shadows will appear, when the sun will break the actual horizon and so on. You can also flip from the app over into TPE to work with both apps together which is very useful. The app can be used offline with available data and to help visualise potential images close to roads you can combine the app with Google Streetview. Added to this is the unique ability to save location information as you plan it, or to take images at a location and tie the image together with the map/lens/body/field of view information and save it for future reference. There is also a linked website sharing facility so you can share this data with your friends, camera club members and so on, including sharing via message, email, Facebook, Twitter etc.
I was pleased to be able to grab some time with Stephen in his frenetic schedule to interview him about Photo-Transit and here is what he had to say.
DC: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed Stephen. Can I ask first about your background and how did you come to design and program TPE?
SJT: Thanks for the opportunity, Doug. Maybe somewhere in my background is the semblance of a career plan, but if there is one, I haven’t found it yet! Over the years I’ve worked in classical music and opera, advertising, theatre engineering, telecoms and consulting, doing a variety of things along the way, including software engineering. I moved to Colorado from the UK in 2007 and started doing more landscape photography. Around a year later I signed up for a weekend workshop in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park . The workshop offered a ton of great advice and information on how to plan a shoot for the best light. Participants were asked to bring a number of items to the workshop, including paper topographic maps, rulers, protractors, calculators, pencils etc. It occurred to me that things in the digital world were by then at the point where all of this could be done in software. When I discovered that no such tool apparently existed already, TPE was born.
DC: Were you surprised at how popular TPE has become? Do you have any idea how many users there are now?
SJT: Very pleasantly surprised, yes! Across the various platforms we now have tens of thousands of monthly active users. The desktop version is downloaded around 75,000 times a year.
DC: Has anyone used TPE in ways you didn’t anticipate?
SJT: We’ve had some uses by archeologists looking for historical sun/moon positioning. Also, I’ve read about it being used by hunters, in the US mainly. Oh yes – and the trainspotters too!
DC: Is developing TPE and other photography apps your full time work, or do you have a ‘day job’?
SJT: I spend around half my time developing apps and the other half I do technology consulting, mostly in the area of digital media and online video.
DC: Are you a keen photographer yourself? If so, what style of photography do you like? Do you have a personal website where we can see your images?
SJT: I am. I like to shoot landscape primarily. I prefer a simple, clean style without too much post-processing. Photos that are “overdone” are all too common nowadays. At the same time, I’ve never much cared for the well-worn line of “my photography is an unaltered reproduction of what my eyes saw that day” and its variants. No matter how little processing is done, that’s clearly untrue, as cameras and photographic media, whether digital or film, just don’t work the same way as the eye. I’m definitely a fan of simpler compositions, although that’s something I continue to struggle to achieve in my own photography! I have a (slightly neglected) website at http://stephentrainor.com
DC: What are some of the technical issues in developing a program like TPE?
SJT: The initial challenge is implementing the various algorithms required to calculate accurate sun and moon data. Nowadays there are a few implementations out there, but the accuracy and sophistication does vary. Not all algorithms account well for factors such as atmospheric refraction, for example. (I certainly can’t take any credit for the algorithms themselves – in that regard, I’m standing on the shoulders of mathematical and astronomical giants!) Maintenance of the software becomes a bigger issue over time as the code ages and grows. I’m currently in the middle of a major modernisation of the TPE for iOS code base, much of which dates from 2009-2010 – the middle ages, in terms of iOS software. Once that’s done, the Desktop version will need to be reimplemented as a web app – all required to keep up with the technology of the day.
DC: What then gave you the idea to develop this new program, The Photographers Transit? (TPT)
The concept of displaying the field of view on a map was a suggestion made independently by a few different TPE users. I liked the idea very much and wanted to think about how to incorporate it into the app. However, after thinking it through, I decided to develop it as a separate app for the primary reason that there would be a lot more inputs required of the user to make it work: which camera? which lens? what orientation? where are you pointing it? etc. One of the keys to simplicity of use in an app is minimising the amount of input you require of the user. I think – and many would agree – that TPE is quite complex enough already without piling on yet more functionality.
DC: What is TPT designed to do for the photographer?
SJT: I think of Photo Transit as a general purpose digital planning tool for outdoor photographers. It provides a mix of digital “surveying” tools that you won’t find elsewhere, so far as I know: a horizontal field of view indicator overlaid on a map and a vertical field of view chart plus elevation profiler that shows what terrain is visible. In addition, we spent quite a lot of time on shot saving and sharing. You can create projects that contain multiple shots and share these easily with friends, colleagues, workshop participants etc. from the app. We were keen to make sure that any information you put into the app is easy to get out of it, so there’s the ability to email shots/projects, view them on a freely available web-site (http://share.phototransit.com) and to export as KML. You don’t need to own PhotoTransit to be able to view shots that have been planned using it. (BTW, ‘we’ is my wife, Alice, who does all of our graphic design, and I…)
DC: How do you see photographers putting TPT to use in their work?
SJT: It’s an advance planning tool, first and foremost: you can use it to build up a list of shots that you’d like to capture on forthcoming trips or shoots, having explored the compositional constraints of the location, your camera and lens ahead of time. Beyond that, I’d like to see photographers using it to share ideas for shots with one another. It provides an easy and complete way to share the physical setup for any stills image. I think it also has an educative role. Many people find numerical values such as field of view or focal length easier to understand when they can be visualized and, like TPE, Photo Transit is a visualization tool.
DC: How does TPT work with TPE?
SJT: Currently, you can open TPE directly from Photo Transit and match the same subject location. The next update to TPE will add the ability to open Photo Transit directly from TPE to go in the reverse direction. We have some further bells and whistles in the works too that will improve the interaction between the apps even more.
DC: What hurdles did you have to overcome to get TPT working?
SJT: Not too many – fewer than for TPE, I’d say. The data model in Photo Transit is definitely more complex (projects, shots, locations, cameras, sensors, lenses), so that took more work. However, many of the harder lessons were already learned with TPE. The Apple maps saga of 2012 cost many hours, but the lessons learned made the mapping choices and implementation for Photo Transit much more straightforward.
DC: Can you give us any clues as to your next project? or is it a secret? or are you still so tired after working to get TPT out that you haven’t had time to think about it yet?
SJT: We have another app in the works that we’re dusting off – it was shelved at the start of the aforementioned maps saga last year. It’s not directly photography related, but more than that I can’t say quite yet. We also have multiple TPE and Photo Transit updates and improvements planned.
DC: Final question, can you recommend websites of any photographers whose work you love? Who are some of your photographic heroes?
SJT: Some names that spring immediately to mind: Bruce Percy (http://brucepercy.com): I think Bruce’s photography was the first that really conveyed to me a sense of personal style. He does a great job of distilling, culling and crafting to achieve a portfolio that has an amazingly consistent ‘voice’. Jack Brauer (http://www.mountainphotography.com): Jack has an incredible collection of beautifully produced photography covering mountains all over the world. He produces wonderful photographs of places that I don’t ever expect I’ll have the strength or fortitude to reach! Guy Tal (http://guytal.com): Guy’s work from around the desert southwest of the USA is probably the most original and distinctive being produced today. He has a great eye for compositional simplicity.
You can visit the Photo Transit website HERE and you can follow on Twitter @photoTransit