A Photographer’s Treasure Map

Discover your best outdoor photographs when you learn to use topographic maps
Old Faithful
Topography: Old Faithful

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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 4×5 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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Next, try to pair those prominent features with potential foregrounds like lakes, rivers, interesting rock formations or open meadows. Then figure out where the sun will be at different times of the year based on latitude and mentally overlay it on the map. It’s possible, with practice, to visualize which season, time of day and location are right for the quality of light that works best for potential compositions found on a map.

Little River Gorge
Topography: Little River Gorg

“I always have a compass clipped to my photo vest to help me calculate where the sun will be rising and setting on any day of the year,” Larry says. “You have to know that to be ready when the right light arrives. Being aware of the arc the sun makes across the sky each day is fundamental to knowing where your light source will be and whether potential foregrounds will work and at what time of the day. This is one of the hardest concepts to teach because it’s an interwoven mixture of science and chance.

“Years ago, I came up with a loose formula that helps me keep track of the sun,” Larry continues. “The equinoxes are on or around March 21 and September 21. At both equinoxes, the sun rises due east and sets due west over the entire planet—day and night are equal at 12 hours each. If the day is longer than 12 hours, the sun rises and sets north of east and west. If the days are shorter than 12 hours, the sun rises and sets south of east and west. For every hour of sunlight that the day is either longer or shorter than 12 hours, the sun will be an additional 7.5 degrees north or south of due east and west. This holds true anywhere on the planet. If it’s winter and the day is 10 hours long, it’s two hours shorter than 12. Multiply 7.5 by two to get 15. On that day, the sun will rise and set 15 degrees south of due east and west.”

It’s a handy formula, but if this is too complicated, Larry points out you can get sunrise and sunset charts for your location off the Internet or in the newspaper. “The important thing is not to guess,” he says, “but to know where the sun is going to be at any time during your photographic day.”

For the photograph of El Capitan and Half Dome, Larry knew the needed sunset angle would be approximately seven degrees south of west. That’s why he knew there were two windows when that would occur: late October (one month after the autumnal equinox) or late February (one month before the vernal equinox).

Creative Visualization

Larry had envisioned a shot of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak a month earlier when looking at a topo map of the Sierra Nevada. He picked July to backpack into the Ansel Adams Wilderness to get the shot. He explains how he came up with that time of year to shoot.

“The topo map showed me that there were several small tarns on Island Pass, and they were surrounded by open country, indicating there could be meadows and potential wildflowers,” he recalls. “No ridges blocked the light to the west for many miles, and I knew that Island Pass would catch late-evening light. I determined what angle of the setting sun would work best and settled on mid-July. I knew that both peaks would catch the last light on their northern faces and the composition would be at the perfect polarization angle. If there were no clouds on the western horizon when the sun was setting, we’d get the shot.”

The important thing is not to guess, but to know where the sun is going to be at any time during your photographic day.

It had taken us a hard day of hiking to reach Thousand Island Lake, where we set up camp because we wanted to spend the morning shooting there. The three tarns, though off the trail, were easy to find. As predicted, the angles lined up perfectly. As an added bonus, we discovered something we couldn’t have seen on the map: lupine and paintbrush adorned a very green and lush meadow along the shoreline of one of them, and the western horizon was clear. Tripod locked, camera focused—the last evening light flushed across the foreground, lit up the peaks and the film was exposed. Photo paradise!

To see Larry Ulrich’s photography, visit www.larryulrich.com.