We’ve all seen the stunning photos. A full moon framed by the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. The red orb of the sun, setting precisely at the end of an ocean pier. El Capitan awash with the golden light of sunrise. I have always thought of how lucky those photographers were to be at that precise spot at just the right time. Discovering the Photographer’s Ephemeris has caused me to rethink my perception of their “luck.”
Rachel Callahan took the picture below. Rachel is a Birmingham photographer and blogger who has a passion for capturing beautiful pictures of the sun setting. She sells her work at PictureBirmingham.com and donates all of the profits to Birmingham’s WellHouse Ministries. Her portfolio is amazing and it has inspired me to get out and take more pictures. I appreciate her letting me post it.
When I first saw this image, I thought of how lucky she was to get a shot of the sun setting at the end of the railroad tracks. You cannot get a leading line in a composition much stronger than that! Therefore, I set off to Google University in search of knowledge about where exactly the sun sets and I stumbled across The Photographer’s Ephemeris. That is when I came to the realization that great landscape photography was not the result of luck (although luck with the weather does play a role), but the result of meticulous planning.
In the “good old days,” photographers relied on maps, a protractor, and moon or sun altitude/azimuth tables to calculate when and where these celestial bodies would be at a given place and time. Now there’s an app for that! The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a tool that uses Google Maps to allow you to determine the location of the sun and moon at any date and time, at any place in the world. TPE is available for free here as a desktop browser app and is available for iOS and Android devices for around $10.
The picture below shows The Photographer’s Ephemeris set up for Birmingham, AL on June 9th, 2015 at noon. The lines on the map represent where the sun rose, where it is at noon, and where it will set. It shows the same information for the moon. The bar below the map shows the times for moonrise and moonset, as well as the phase of the moon. It also shows the times for sunrise and sunset, as well as the times for the phases of sunrise and sunset. The graph at the bottom shows the azimuth and the angle above or below the horizon for the sun and moon at any given time during the day.
So how does this help me plan for the “sunset on the tracks” shot? I place the pin marker on the bridge over the railroad tracks and use the “rewind” button to scroll back in time until the sunset line aligns with the railroad tracks. As you can see, the ideal day would have been December 21st, 2014 which just happened to be the Winter Solstice. That means that was the only day of the year where that shot is possible because the Winter Solstice marks the end of the sunset’s journey to the south before turning northward for the summer. Now I will have to wait until December 22nd, 2015 to try again.
Unfortunately, I was out of town for Christmas vacation on that day. However, I was able to take the featured photo on January 21st, 2015. The important thing to remember is that great shots require planning and there are some wonderful tools available to help you do just that. The Photographer’s Ephemeris will help you determine when the light is exactly where you need it for the picture that you want. What day and time will the sun rise over Red Mountain and illuminate the buildings in downtown Birmingham for a perfect shot from the Vulcan? There is an app for that!