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Outdoor Photography – Planning ahead for the sun’s position

February 15, 2013

We all like to think we can just grab our camera, head into the great outdoors and stumble across the perfect landscape scene to shoot. Not only will we find the perfect location but we will arrive just when the light is at its best. It can happen but most of the time when location scouting, we might find something great but not when the light is at its absolute best. So assuming you can recognize the potential of a location when it is poorly lit (a skill unto itself), what can you do to plan your return to get that perfect shot? Or if you only have one chance to be at a location (e.g. while traveling abroad) how can you determine where the sun will be so you can time your arrival perfectly?

One of the most valuable tools that can help landscape shooters in this type of preparation is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). By the way, an ephemeris is a table of values that gives the positions of astronomical objects in the sky at a given time or times. TPE is a software tool that is available for Desktop Computers (PC & Mac, both free!) as well as mobile devices (IOS and Android). It uses an interface that provides Google Satellite Imagery and allows the user to quickly and easily pin point a location. Once the location has been selected, TPE provides lots of information but most importantly the position and times of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset on any given day. A real plus is that not only are the positions supplied as compass bearings but their light path is overlaid on the map to allow you to “see” where the light will be coming from as a line across the terrain.

For example, let’s say this coming July 1st you want to drive out and photograph sunrise at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Using TPE (see Figure 1), you could see that the sun would rise at 5:34am and rise above the horizon at 50 degrees (there are other features of TPE that account for mountainous terrain but I’ll keep it simple for this example). The light orange line shows you the path of sunlight and would let you “see” what mountain peaks should light up nicely as you look south. Similarly, if you wanted to wait around until 10:02pm, TPE shows you where the sunset light will fall (dark orange line).

Fig 1 TPE Moraine Lake

Let me give you a real life example of how I used this tool in the planning of an image that was many months in the making. I had discovered a really nice old abandoned farmhouse that had several other buildings surrounding it. The house faced due west, so to show the front of the house, I would need to have the camera pointed east. I wanted it to be a sunrise photo and I was planning to create a large panoramic image of the scene. The problem I faced was with the position of the sun as it came over the horizon. The several buildings behind the house were located to the NE and SE and I wanted the sun rising between them and bathing the side of the house in light.

Figure 2A shows that by using TPE, I was able to determine that I only had a very limited number of days in early October during which the sun would be in the perfect position for the image I had in mind.

Fig 2A TPE perfect

I had to put the shooting of the image on hold and wait months before my opportunity arrived. And of course, just because I knew where the sun would rise on any given day, did not mean I would get a wonderful sunrise. We all know how unpredictable weather can be. So when my shooting window arrived, I traveled out to the location each morning, setup and waited for the sun to rise. It took me four mornings before I got what I wanted.

Figure 2B shows a view from TPE in the days leading up to my shooting window. Notice that the sun would be rising too far to the north to be visible and would not light up the side of the house the way I wanted.

Fig 2B TPE to early

And Figure 2C shows a view from TPE just a few days after I did capture the image. Notice how the buildings to the South East would have been blocking the view of the sun.

Fig 2C TPE to late

Without using TPE, it would have been much more difficult to plan and execute the capture of this image.

As per the image itself (see below), I have since printed it at 50”x20” and I’m very happy with the result. I’m glad that I took the time to determine when the sun would be in the perfect position and that I was there when it happened.

Finished Image

As mentioned in my previous blog posting, if you are interested in all the details on how this panoramic image was captured and then all the details on how it was assembled and processed, then please check out my upcoming seminar being presented by The Camera Store in Calgary.

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