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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

X Marks The Spot

New tools to guide you to the perfect place for the perfect photograph

Labels: How-ToGPS

This Article Features Photo Zoom

January sunset at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah.

The first time I tried to photograph the full moon setting over Longs Peak from the summit of Twin Sisters in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains was a complete fiasco. I got up at 2 a.m., hiked to the summit in the dark and discovered that the moon was so far to the right of Longs Peak that I needed a wide-angle lens to include them both. That lens rendered the moon so small that it looked like a pinprick in my 35mm slide. I realized I needed much better planning if I wanted to be in the right place at the right time.

That was in the early 1990s. Today, we have software that makes it much easier to pick the right day to shoot the moonset over Longs, as well as to answer a number of other questions, such as, “When will the light first hit (or leave) my foreground? What portion of Capitol Peak will receive sunset light at different times of year? How much of Hallett Peak can I see from Bear Lake, and how much will be hidden behind the nondescript midground ridge? Will the peak at the head of the valley appear taller than the lower, but closer ridges forming the sides of the valley?”

Lots of websites and programs can provide basic sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset data, but my favorites go well beyond the basics. The Photographer’s Ephemeris (www.photoephemeris.com)) is a web-based mapping application that helps me visualize the terrain, how sunrise and sunset light will interact with it, and where the sun and moon will be at anytime, any day, anywhere in the world. It’s a cool way to plan your shoots, but it does have one weakness: You can’t search for the days when the sun or moon will rise or set in a specific direction.

Ancient limber pine on Twin Sisters and Longs Peak at sunrise, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
You have to guess-and-check if you want to know, for example, when the moon will set over Longs Peak as seen from Twin Sisters. To save time, try Heavenly-Opportunity (ho.fossilcreeksoft.com)). This $15.95, Windows-only program lets you search for a desired sunrise/sunset or moonrise/moonset angle. Used together, The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Heavenly-Opportunity help me plan my shoots more efficiently than ever before.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a free download for Mac and Windows desktop computers; iPhone and iPad versions cost $8.99. The basic idea is simple: Choose (or search for) a location and select a date. The program displays a detailed topographic map with a red Primary Marker at your chosen location. You can drag the Primary Marker to a new location at anytime and save locations in The Photographer’s Ephemeris database. Color-coded lines extend from your location to indicate the direction of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset. The broad yellow line, for example, extends from your location toward the rising sun. Look along that line, and you can immediately see what obstacles, if any, will block sunrise light from reaching your foreground. You can see, for example, if the sun must rise over a distant ridge before reaching your location. Drag the Primary Marker to your subject’s location (instead of your own) and you can see what obstacles will block sunrise light from reaching it, as well as how your subject will be lit: frontlit, sidelit or something in between. Alongside the map is an information panel that displays the time and azimuth (compass bearing) of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset.


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