Google Earth. The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Heavenly-Opportunity are all about maps, azimuths and sunrise/sunset data. To plan your shoots with a more visual approach, check out Google Earth (earth.google.com). This free download for Mac and Windows lets you view satellite photos of virtually everywhere on Earth, but that’s only the beginning of its usefulness for photographers.
The program opens with a straight-down view of the globe. Double-click on the globe to start zooming in to a location, or type a place name, address or zip code into the search box. Once you’ve zoomed in to a suitable scale, you can add a place mark to remember that location. Click the “sun” button to see a simulation of sunlight and shadow across the landscape. Move a slider to choose different times of day. Choose sunrise, for example, and you can see what portion of a mountain will get golden light. One caveat: The program can’t hide the real shadows present in the original satellite photograph. It takes practice to disregard those shadows and focus only on the virtual shadows cast by the virtual sun.
To see photos taken by other users of a particular location, click a blue square nearby. For popular destinations, you’ll have many choices; for remote areas, few or none.
Google Earth’s most amazing feature is the ability to tilt the view. Use the Shift key plus the scroll wheel to gradually change the view from straight down to looking horizontally across the landscape. Other controls let you rotate and scale the view almost as freely as if you were a bird. Granted, the view is somewhat distorted, but it’s still a very useful way to visualize what you’ll find.
iPhone/iPad Apps. Once on location, you’ll want accurate information on sunrise and sunset azimuths, as well as the sun’s position during the day. The iPhone and iPad versions of the Photographer’s Ephemeris work well for this if you have an Internet connection, but there are three other apps worth considering. All give sunrise/sunset times and the sun’s position throughout the day. All are available at the iTunes store (itunes.apple.com).
Sunseeker ($2.99) uses an “augmented reality camera 3D view” to help you visualize the sun’s path through the sky today, as well as on the summer and winter solstices. The app puts an overlay on the live-view camera image. The overlay shows graphically the sun’s path in relation to objects in the scene. For example, you can see when and if the sun will clear a tall building or peak. The app requires network connection. For iPhone 3GS/4 and iPad.
Focalware ($4.99) is the only app of the three that offers both sun and moon data. It can use WiFi to get your location, or you can enter your location with the integrated map. Once your location is stored, no Internet connection is required. For iPhone 3GS/4, iPod touch and iPad.
The most sophisticated (and expensive) of the three, Helios Sun Position Calculator ($29.99) lets you use the electronic compass and inclinometer built in to the iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 to measure the angular elevation of an object such as a peak or building. That, in turn, allows you to predict when the sun will rise or set over that obstacle. No network connection is required for most features. For iPhone 3GS/4, iPod touch (limited functionality) and iPad.o
GPS. The virtues of a GPS on the trail are well known. If you’re using software like Google Earth or any of the other applications we’ve discussed in this article, a GPS is particularly useful because you can plan your trip at the computer and then program the coordinates into a handheld unit to guide you to the exact location in the field.
<<DeLorme Earthmate GPS PN-60 With built-in Top North America 9.0 and a USB interface to connect to your computer, the DeLorme Earthmate PN-60 GPS is an ideal GPS for photographers looking to get to their location. Estimated Street Price: $399. Contact: www.delorme.com.
<<Garmin Oregon 400t The Oregon 400t is a next-generation GPS that’s preloaded with topo maps and 3D map views, and includes a microSD card slot. The touch-screen display and user interface are easy to use and intuitive. Estimated Street Price: $499. Contact: www.garmin.com.
<<Magellan eXplorist 610 You’ll find it exceptionally easy to make notes on the trail and include a visual reference with the Magellan eXplorist 610. The unit has a 3.2-megapixel camera built in and an integral microphone. Note a location, snap a picture, and you can make a detailed plan for a return trip. Estimated Street Price: $449. Contact: www.magellangps.com.