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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Photographer's Treasure Map


Discover your best outdoor photographs when you learn to use topographic maps

Labels: How-To
Old Faithful
Topography: Old Faithful

Layer MasksThis Article Features Photo Zoom

We’re on Island Pass in the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada, California. It’s evening. The tripod is locked, the camera is focused, and the 4x5 film holders are in hand. Conditions are perfect; it’s a photographer’s dream. The last of evening light flushes across the foreground, lights up the peaks and the film is exposed. It’s a jump-up-and-down, "high-five!" shot. Photographic paradise was ours, and we were taking it home on film. Easy? With a little research and practice, you too can find and photograph paradise by learning to read a topographical map.

Instead of leaving it up to chance—and hiking or driving over acres of land to find the right spot to set up a camera—you can learn to plan your photography around being at the right place at the right time, right down to the place where the tripod legs go. No fancy equipment needed—just a topographic map, a compass and a sense of direction!

"X" Marks The Spot

Topographic (or topo) maps are like treasure maps for photographers. These maps summarize the three-dimensional forms of the Earth’s surface on two-dimensional pieces of paper. Topos describe the shape of the land by showing prominent features, such as peaks, valleys, roads, meadows, marshes, prairies and rivers.

Some people use topo maps to keep from getting lost and to determine how much elevation they may gain and lose on a chosen hike, but their helpfulness goes beyond managing physical challenges. Photographer Larry Ulrich uses them to find promising combinations of terrain to help plan a trip or hike. In black, brown, green and blue, the alignment of potential foregrounds with midgrounds and backgrounds is all there for those who learn to interpret these features on the map.

A topo map allows you to accurately identify all the elements of the place you want to photograph. Are there major peaks that will light up at sunset? Is there a meadow, possibly full of flowers, where velvety afternoon light will fall? Will sunrise light up the lake and background, too? Are you above or below a timberline where trees will obstruct your view of sunrise or sunset? Does that beach get evening or afternoon light, and which season offers the best angles? It’s all there, right in front of you!

You have to know that to be ready when the right light arrives.

Getting Started

Years ago, Larry was studying an old topographic map of Yosemite Valley, trying to find new angles that we may had overlooked on previous trips. To his surprise, he found a trail that he hadn’t noticed on other maps he had studied. It was a trail to Rainbow View on the northwestern side of the valley. The topo map showed that there was possibly a potential image with both Half Dome and El Capitan in the same composition.

When we got to Yosemite, we searched for the trail and couldn’t find any trail signs. We explored the area in the valley where the map indicated it should be and finally found an old, abandoned road. A midday reconnaissance hike without cameras gave us the answer—there was a fabulous vantage point with open views of both of the classic domes. Larry pulled out the map and compass and determined that this shot had a narrow window when the light would work: a one-week period in winter or in fall. We made a trip back to Yosemite that fall, primarily to capture that image.

After you select a location to explore, get the appropriate larger map of the location and see if anything looks interesting. If so, download or purchase the topo map of the area. Study the map for potential compositions. Are there any prominent features, such as peaks, headlands and beaches?


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