Be There! With GPS And TOPO Maps

Scout locations from home to find your best vistas

In our hectic day-to-day lives, we carve out the time to pursue our common passion: nature photography. It’s not always easy to be in the right place at the right time to get the shot we want because just finding the right place seldom happens at exactly the right time. How often have you shown photographs to friends and family and heard yourself saying something like, “I wish I had been here when the sun was a little lower,” or “The sky was so intense I just had to take a picture, but I was in a mall parking lot and this was the best I could do.” It happens to all of us, and it can be frustrating.

Google Earth
Google Earth is incredible ( One of the recent improvements to it has been the incorporation of shadow information. You can set your date and time, and Google Earth will project the shadows across your landscape. In the 3D view, you can get a very good idea of how things will set up in your landscape. It’s a remarkable feature and one that landscape photographers are sure to use often. Using this feature, you can substitute Google Earth for your TOPO maps to do your virtual scouting. With your mouse, you can pinpoint the exact coordinates for your GPS, and you’ll know how to get to the perfect spot.

If you could scout locations in advance, you can imagine that you would know just where to be set up as the sun moved to the horizon. Alas, when it’s hard enough to make time to shoot, it’s nearly impossible to make time to scout, take notes, make a plan and then go back and shoot. Using your GPS and a topographic map can let you do some virtual scouting from home, dramatically improving your chances of being right where you want to be when you want to be there. Here’s how you do it.

A TOPO map uses contour lines to show elevation changes. Like all maps, they’re available in different scales. For this kind of scouting, you don’t need to see super-fine elevation changes. What you’re really looking for is some idea of where shadows will fall, and where the sun will come up or descend below the horizon. You can find almanac information from several websites to get a good idea of where the sun will be on any given day. A little trick to help you visualize where the sun will be and how it will illuminate the landscape is to use a flashlight. When you get the latitude from your software, set up your flashlight to shine across the map from that latitude. Even though it’s not a relief map, you can see the contour lines and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how the shadows will fall.

Now you have a sense of the chiaroscuro of the scene and how the dramatic mountains or canyons will look as the sun rises, traces its arc through the sky and sets. In your mind’s eye, you can see the shot and you’ll know where you need to be, more or less, to get the right composition. You can find the exact spot where you think it will be best to set up your camera and tripod. On the TOPO map, just find those coordinates and program them into your GPS. With the preprogrammed GPS, you can move quickly from one location to another and shoot efficiently.

This method isn’t perfect, and nothing beats making multiple trips to a landscape so you can really get to know it, but for anyone with limited time, this GPS and TOPO combination can help you make the most of your shooting time.

Of course, we can’t say enough about safety when your trekking to remote on- or off-trail locations. We’re proponents of the DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w GPS with SPOT built in ( In the event you do have trouble, the SPOT feature can be a lifesaver. It also can let your family know that you’ll just be late for dinner. If you already have a GPS, you can buy a standalone SPOT as well (

Almanac Software
While there are a lot of options, a few that many nature shooters find to be particularly useful are the Sun & Moon Angle Calculator by Douglas Software (Windows only, and Heavenly-Opportunity, a Windows-based program by Fossil Creek Software (

For Mac users, we find The Photographer’s Ephemeris to be a good option (

You can learn more about software options in Glenn Randall’s article “X Marks The Spot” in the November issue of OP. It’s also available on our website.