Have you ever gone out to shoot expecting one lighting condition but getting another? Forgetting the boy scout motto is a sure fire way to come home empty handed, or with compromise photos that you know could have been better.
A couple of years ago I scheduled a bridal “Trash the Dress” shoot on the beach at Kirby Cove, just at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. My hope was to get some cool sunset shots, but because the sun set in a much more northerly position than I expected, I didn’t get the shots I wanted.
If I had done my homework, I would have instead shot a couple of miles north at Stinson Beach as it was facing in a much better direction for my purposes.
It turns out that you don’t have to leave this to chance, there are resources available that make it easy to anticipate not only the sun, but a variety of other conditions on location.
As usual, it’s the Internet to the rescue.
In today’s guest blog, sublime landscape photographer Rick Whitacre shares his secrets for taking some of the guess-work out of landscape and location photography.
Outdoor location photography includes landscape photography as well as outdoor portrait photography. Both require an intimate understanding of the location its expected natural light conditions to be successful.
Whether photographing a sunset or taking wedding pictures outside, knowing when and where the sun will be is critical. If you want to use the sun to illuminate your subject or as an element in your scene, you need to know where it will be and how it will interact with your subject. It’s also important to know what weather to expect and, if close to the ocean, what tides to expect. There’s nothing worse than placing your tripod or models close to the seashore only to find the tide coming in!
Luckily, there are several tools available that can make your job easier and more deterministic; both in pre-planning and on-site. In this post, I’ll review some of the tools that I use in order to be at the right place at the right time. These tools are just what I personally use on my desktop and iPhone. In many cases, there are other, equally good applications, but these are what I use and will give you a good start. If you are an Android user, you might be able to find the same version for Android. If not, just search for others. There are plenty out there.
Lastly, I am primarily a landscape photographer so my pictures rarely include people. For examples of these images, I have borrowed some of Robert’s photographs.
There are several tools that I use to pre-plan a shoot. One of the most valuable is a program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE for short). This amazing program is available for both your Mac/PC and for your smart phone. I use the desktop version to do my pre-planning and to determine when the sun or moon will be in a particular spot.
TPE allows you to navigate to any place on the planet and see where the sun and moon will be on the day and time of interest. It allows you to determine where to stand to get the sun or moon right where you want it in your shot, whether to illuminate your subject or to be a part of the scene. If you plan to have a wedding couple posing on a beach with the setting sun providing rim-lighting around their heads, you can determine which parts of the beach face toward the setting sun and exactly when to be there. If you want the sunset colors in the clouds and the setting sun illuminating the people from the side, you would want a location that is facing 90 degrees away from the sun.
Full details on how to use the program are available on-line, so I won’t go into it here. Just be aware that there is a “Details” button that allows you to compare where you are as the observer to a location you may want in your shot and compare it to the angle of the sun or moon. Once you get used to using it, it is amazing what you can do!
If you like to have the full moon appear next to a famous landmark or incredible foreground, this is the program for you.
Another part of pre-planning is weather. Needless to say, if it is cloudy and raining on the big day, you’re not going to get the outdoor shot you may have hoped for. If the date is fixed, then you need to plan to shoot indoors, or use the weather to your advantage. Either use the clouds as a giant white box, or use the rain as a background (or reflections on the pavement). If the date is flexible, then you can pick the day with the weather you are envisioning.
For weather, I use The Weather Channel and Clear Sky Chart, The Clear Sky Charts are especially useful for understanding the presence of clouds, humidity, and temperature. This is a great site if you are doing any night photography.
If you are going to be shooting near the ocean, knowing when high and low tides are is critical. I use the NOAA site for pre-planning.
Once on-site, you need to fine-tune your pre-planning efforts. By getting the lay of the land and knowing which way is north, south, etc, you can better plan where to put your tripod and/or your subjects.
To determine the directions on-site, I use Compass Go on my iPhone. There are other apps, but I find this one quite nice and easy to use. It’s fairly accurate, but I give it time to settle and point it around a bit to get an average reading to help with the accuracy.
To figure out where the sun will be rising or setting in relation to where I am standing, I use Sun Seeker. It has a 3D viewing option that allows me to hold it up in the direction I am facing and see the sun’s track overlaid onto the actual scene I am scouting. Moon Seeker does the same thing for the moon.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) also has a smart phone or pad version that can be used in the field. This can help to fine-tune a location once on site and looking around.
To know exactly when the sun or moon will rise or set at my location, I use the iPhone app called Darkness. It locates where I am standing and calculates the exact times for my location.
Tides is another program I use on my iPhone to see if the tide is coming in or going out if I forgot to check before leaving home. It really helps to know if the water’s edge is coming towards you or moving away while you plan your shoot!
When shooting outside, it is important to think about what Depth of Field (DOF) you want to achieve in your shot. Do you want the background landscape to be out of focus, or crisply in-focus? Most landscape work is done where both foreground and background are in sharp focus. To achieve this, you need to know what DOF you can obtain with your camera, lens and aperture combination. To help with this process, I use DOF Master on my iPhone. It allows for easy entry of my camera body, focal length, aperture, and subject distance to give me a nice table for which parts of the scene will be at an acceptable focus. It even tells me what the hyperfocal distance is for my selection. This allows me to get as much as possible in focus or make the best decisions to achieve it.
Once you read about The Photographer’s Ephemeris and play with it a little bit, check out these future occurrences as examples of what is possible with a little pre-planning:
For the full moon in May, two interesting opportunities exist if you are in the San Francisco area. First, on the night of May 5th, you can position yourself on Conzelman Road to the north-west of the Golden Gate Bridge and wait for the full moon to rise near the north tower. It will be just after sunset, so there should still be enough light in the sky to get a decent balance between the exposure for the moon and the exposure for the bridge. If in doubt (or if I calculated wrong), bracket your images so you can combine them with HDR software later. Take a look at this screen shot of TPE for this date and see if you can recreate it on your desktop. Remember to use the Details button to get the time slider shown!
The very next morning, there is an opportunity to capture the full moon setting over the Transamerica Building in San Francisco from Treasure Island. For this one, the sun is still just barely up, so the exposure between the moon and the city skyline should be very well balanced. If there are clouds in the sky, they should be a nice yellow. The shot shown earlier in this post was on a morning where the sun had not yet risen while the moon was low over the city, so I really had to boost the shadows to get the buildings to show up. May 6th should be a better balance. Review this screen shot to see if you can see how I arrived at all of this:
For the last one, Robert told me about a picture he had seen of Market Street in SF where the setting sun came straight down the street and lit it up in a nice glow. In looking at TPE, I found that the sun never truly sets at an angle that matches the direction of Market Street. So I picked the date where it is closest (winter solstace) and took a look at what time the sun would be visible straight down Market and at what angle it would be in the sky. Might be worth checking out…..
While terrific shots can be had by pure luck, you can improve your chances by learning how to predict when and where the best lighting will occur for your shoot. With a little bit of pre-planning before your shoot followed by fine-tuning at the location you can achieve some stunning results and use the natural lighting and weather to your advantage.
Hopefully, this has given you some ideas for how to master the sun and the moon for your own shots. Happy shooting!
Rick is a landscape photographer constantly in search of the best light and unique opportunities to capture the sun, moon, and stars. I asked him to write this entry for my blog.
Editors note: It turns out that not all of the tools I mentioned are free, sorry for the confusion. I should have said, “Free or inexpensive”. Sorry, my bad. Sun Seeker is $4.99, Moon Seeker is $1.99, and the DoF calculators are about $2