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Helios - Iphone App review.


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#1 John Brawley

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Posted 21 July 2009 - 05:09 AM

Just thought I'd post a review I wrote for another forum....


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Helios V2.1

It’s funny that we think of iphone apps as being expensive once you go past $10 and yet we’d happily pay a lot more for applications for desktops that do the same thing. Maybe it’s because people still think of the iPhone as just a phone.

Well after your initial revulsion at the buy price of this app maybe you WILL want this beguiling little app...

The sun comes up and the sun goes down. Clearly for cinematographers, light is one of main tools of choice in image making and the biggest light source around is the sun. When shooting outdoors be it stills or motion, you’re usually in a constant battle with the sun to try and get thing looking the way you want. When will it rise, where will it be in the sky and when will it clear tall obstructions like mountains or even buildings ?

The reason it’s a battle, is because the damn thing is always moving ! At different times of the day it’s in a different part of the sky.

And that’s where Helios comes into play. It plots and predicts the sun’s path through the day for a given location. It also tells you the sunrise and set too, (although that’s readily available from other sources). Written for cinematographers specifically, it’s designed to be used for doing location rece’s and want to accurately predict the sun’s behaviour in that location, days or weeks or even years in advance.

It will also tell you the exact bearing on the horizon for where the sun will rise and set for a given day. Very useful if you want to set up a lock-off shot of sunrise where you want the sun to appear from below the horizon into frame. How else would you know where exactly to point the camera with a very long lens so that you capture the very first beams of light as they flare down your lens ?

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By default it opens in what they call Heliometer view and shows you the sun’s highest position in the sky and the time it will be at that position. You can drag the sun with your finger though the hours of the day and the Heliometer will tell you where on the compass the suns direction will be coming from. It also dynamically updates the shadow length ratio, which you can use to predict the length and movement of shadows cast by the sun.

The little orange wedges either side of sunset and sunrise indicate when magic hour is, that magical time that us cinematographer's and photographer's love, which is that small window of time just before sunrise and just after sunrise, when there’s enough light to take a photo, but the sun is actually below the horizon. The funny thing is, that depending on where you are on the planet, magic hour is rarely an hour long. Now you can get a prediction of exactly how long it is.

Tapping on the Skyview to the far right plots another version of the suns path. If you imagine lying on your back and staring straight up into the air the centre is right above you and the outer circle represents the horizon. This shows the sun height or elevation as it moves through the day and again you can dynamically drag the sun along the timeline at the bottom to check it’s position at different times of the day.

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It all really comes together when you tap the compass on the bottom left to activate the iPhone internal compass. In both Helioview and Skyview, the indicators will now “float” as you pan the iPhone around. Super cool.

Actually though, for my money the best feature of this app is its integration with the iPhone inclinometer to very accurately predict when the sun will be at a certain elevation in the sky. Imagine you want to organise a fashion shoot down one of Melbourne's famous little alleys amongst all the tall buildings. Now you can visit the location and using the clinometer function, find out exactly when (or even if) the lane will have sunlight, for how long and how high the sun will be in the sky at that time.

You might also want a shot of a tall building with the sun just starting to peek around from behind it, with a lovely glint of the windows. Once again, you can predict exactly when (or even if) this is going to happen on a given day from a given location.

You may even be shooting somewhere like the Snowy Mountains and want to know exactly when the sun would break from behind a mountain and light up your valley location.

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After activating the inclinometer, you simply sight along the iphone from the location you’re wanting to test for, tap the screen to lock it in and you’ll get a very accurate time prediction for when the sun (if at all) will shine through said window.

You can also use the inclinometer to predict the fall of shadows and even their length on the ground, assuming you know the object’s height.

Any of these predictions can be calculated for days weeks or even years in advance if you want, by just tapping through the date function. You don’t have to even use your GPS location, you can easily recall one of the the 30 000 pre-set locations around the world, or just enter a lat and long. You can also create a set of favourite locations and store them.

If you want to appear really geeky Helios can produce a table of raw data for a given location so you can work out for yourself. Um..but I’d rather just use Helios thanks !

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It’s accurate too, apparently more so than many other similar apps as Helios takes into account “Precession”, which is a slight wobbling of the earth’s rotation cycle that takes place over every 26000 years as well as “Nutation”, another wobble introduced every 18.6 years by the moon. If only the iPhone battery was good for that long.

It’s clearly been specifically designed for cinematographers, but anyone who wanted to predict the suns movements would find it useful. Stills photographers seem obvious and will also find is as useful as their motion picture brethren.

I imagine anyone renovating or building a home may want to know exactly when the sun will shine through their new doors or windows at certain times of the years as well. Gardeners too would love to be able to predict when shadow’s would fall on a certain area from other objects like fences, trees etc. And something I feel we all will be doing at some point soon, trying to work out where the best place to site your new solar array ! Maybe AU$36 is cheap for that kind of knowledge.

The interface is beautifully elegant and at first incomprehensible, but that’s only cause I wasn’t smart enough to read the manual first to work out what everything meant. Helios does a great job of doing what it sets out to do, enabling the user to accurately predict and visualise the sun’s movements and it’s light and shadow affect on a given location. The graphic layout is pleasing and the interface makes sense once you know what everything does.

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Built into this app is a comprehensive manual which is aimed at dopes like me who don’t know their azimuth from their longitude. Well actually it’s not built in, but a web linked HTML manual, but you don’t have to leave the app to use it. It’s well written and has a fantastic light sense of humour about it, something rarely achieved in instruction manuals. You do of course need a data connection to access it.

For extra fun, it’s worth checking out their saucy lounge-themed demo video as well and you’ll get a great sense of how the interface works.

The price ? Well AU $36 might seem rich, but the nearest equivalent in handhelds for cinematographers and photographers is the wheeler sunpredictor software which is only available for windows mobile devices and is US $145. I feel a bit unpatriotic because this software is used by a lot of cinematographers and was designed by fellow Australian cinematographer John Weeler

I figure my “get out of jail” on this is that it’s not available for iPhone and it doesn’t have an inclinometer function built into it, one of the best features of this app.

If you were doing it old school, you’d be printing out tables from the admittedly free sources and then using a $100 Suunto inclinometer and compass on location to work out the shadow info. Now you can do it all in one device.

It seems like a bit of a bargain to me compared to the work and gear you’d have to carry otherwise and you can take on a near Mayan soothsaying status amongst your friends when you pronounce with certainty where the sun will be travelling throughout the day.

One extra feature I should note here to is that it will also produce an emailable summation of the sun’s activity for sending onto others in your production office. Daily call sheet’s for example usually list the sunrise and sun set time.

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The software was designed by a couple of poms living in LA at Chemical Wedding. There’s some additional info and screen shots on their site along with the aforementioned saucy demo video. ( It’s worth a look for this reason alone). Stay tuned because they have a number of great film and production related apps still to come.

All in all, I found it a delight to use and especially loved the inclinometer function. Helios delivers an accurate and useful tool for any cinematographer or serious photographer and would also be of great use to any gardener, architect, town planner or builder / home renovator. This unit is still cheaper than any comparable mobile application and is the only one that actually uses the built in inclinometer. If you’re serious about cinematography and own an iPhone then it’s a must have.

*I'm not affiliated with this product and I paid full price for my copy.

jb
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#2 Nic Sadler

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Posted 21 July 2009 - 01:25 PM

Thanks for such a lovely review. We really appreciate it.

Helios is out first iPhone application and we are very proud of it. We are putting the final touches to our second cinematography based application. Keen to find out what you think about it. Look out for Artemis in the app store.

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#3 Gregory Middleton

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Posted 21 July 2009 - 09:46 PM

I happened upon Helios 2 days after it was posted to the Apple Apps store. I bought despite having no reviews yet because it seems well thought out in its description.

I can say now after shooting a feature mostly exterior distant Location ( Osoyoos BC ) that it works great. It was alway accurate and the interface once you get used to it i very easy to use. Making snap calls on ...what happens if we fall 2 hours behind , what will it look like then? Making exact predictions in a Valley of when the mountain shadow would cover our set was easy.

Previously I would use printouts from David Parrish's SunPath software which also works well. But the ability to have a larger database in your phone handset and use GPS location finding instead of a database is fantastic.

Great application. Well worth the money. Thanks.

cheers,
Gregory Middleton csc


Thanks for such a lovely review. We really appreciate it.

Helios is out first iPhone application and we are very proud of it. We are putting the final touches to our second cinematography based application. Keen to find out what you think about it. Look out for Artemis in the app store.


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