X Marks The Spot

New tools to guide you to the perfect place for the perfect photograph
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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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Aspen and Capitol Peak at sunset, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado.

Switch from the default Multiday view to Details view, and the program gets even more interesting. Now you have a gray Secondary Marker to play with. Drag the Secondary Marker to a new location and check the info panel. The panel shows the distance between the Primary and Secondary markers, the bearing from the Primary to the Secondary marker and the Secondary Marker’s altitude (the angle, measured up or down from horizontal, from the Primary Marker to the Secondary Marker, expressed in degrees). Why would you want to know all this? Let’s plan a Twin Sisters shoot with The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Heavenly-Opportunity to see how all this fits together.

Let’s say you want to know the best day in 2011 to shoot the full-moon setting over Longs Peak, at the moment of sunrise, from the summit of Twin Sisters. Start by opening The Photographer’s Ephemeris and searching for Longs Peak, Colorado (Twin Sisters isn’t in the database). Drag the Primary Marker northeast across the map and drop it on the summit of Twin Sisters. Right now, the date doesn’t matter. Switch to Details view, and drop the Secondary Marker on the summit of Longs Peak. Jot down the azimuth shown in the info panel— the compass bearing from Twin Sisters to Longs Peak. I got 246 degrees. You’ll want the moon, at sunrise, to have a similar bearing. Twin Sisters is about 2,800 feet lower than Longs Peak, so you have to look up slightly to see Longs’ summit. That angle, the altitude, is also shown in the info panel. I get 4.7 degrees. The moon must be higher than that angle for you to see it; any lower, and it would be hidden behind Longs Peak.

The moon doesn’t have to be precisely over the summit of Longs to get a good photo; there’s actually a range of acceptable angles. Drag the Secondary Marker a bit left of Longs and note the azimuth. Drag it a bit right and do the same. Let’s say the acceptable range of moon positions is from 235 to 256 degrees.

Now open Heavenly-Opportunity. On the home page, press the Search For button. A dialog opens that lets you enter the desired range of moonset positions—235 to 256 degrees—and the desired time of moonset, expressed in terms of minutes before or after sunrise. In this case, we want the moon still to be above the horizon at the moment of sunrise, so the acceptable range of moonset times is from 0 minutes before sunrise until, let’s say, 60 minutes after. Sixty minutes is merely a rough guess to narrow the range of dates the program returns.

Press Display Results, and Heavenly-Opportunity provides a list of dates when the moon will set between 235 and 256 degrees, sometime between the moment of sunrise and one hour later.

So far, so good—but there’s another wrinkle to consider. We actually don’t want to know the bearing to the moon when it sets. We want to know where it will be at the moment of sunrise, which in this example could be as much as 60 minutes earlier. Let’s go back to The Photographer’s Ephemeris.


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Monument Basin along the White Rim, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Enter the first date that matched our search criteria, March 21, 2011. In Details view, drag the time-of-day marker along the timeline to the moment of sunrise. You also can click the forward and backward arrows below the timeline to jump from one celestial event (sunrise, moonset, etc.) to the next. Stop when the panel displays “sunrise.” A black line now extends from the Primary Marker—your position atop Twin Sisters—toward the moon at the moment of sunrise (not the position the moon will have when it sets 41 minutes later).

Bingo! At the moment of sunrise, the moon will be directly over the saddle between Longs Peak and nearby Mount Meeker—close enough to Longs that you can use a telephoto lens to magnify the moon, yet still have Longs and Meeker in the frame.

But wait—you have to check one more thing. Drop the Secondary Marker where the black line indicating moon direction crosses the saddle between Longs and Meeker. In the info panel, you can see that the altitude of that saddle, measured from the summit of Twin Sisters, is 4.3 degrees. Now look at the altitude of the moon at sunrise—6.7 degrees. Perfect! The moon will be 2.4 degrees above the saddle at the moment of sunrise. Since the moon subtends an angle of 0.5 degrees, that means it will be five moon diameters above the horizon at sunrise. If the sky is clear to the east at sunrise, you should be able to make a strong “triangular” composition with three main points of interest: the moon, the summit of Longs and the summit of Meeker. Add some warm sunrise light on the peaks, and you have a winner. Checking the other four dates provided by Heavenly-Opportunity shows March 21 to be the best day in 2011 for shooting moonset over Longs Peak.


The Photographer’s Ephemeris does have some limitations. The elevation information comes primarily from a grid with a data point every 90 meters horizontally. If the jagged summit you’re planning to shoot from falls in between data points, the program may give an inaccurate elevation. In extreme cases (Longs Peak, for example), the summit elevation may be off by 500 vertical feet. If your shot has very tight tolerances, use a USGS 7.5-minute quad and a little old-fashioned trigonometry to calculate the best day and time to make the trip. Another limitation: You need an Internet connection to make the program work. And you can’t print tables of sun and moon data. Heavenly-Opportunity can, however. I usually start my planning with The Photographer’s Ephemeris, then make Heavenly-Opportunity printouts for the dates of my trip. Using these two tools together makes it much easier to be in the right place at the right time.

To see more of Glenn Randall’s work, visit www.glennrandall.com.


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Other Scouting Tools

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.

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