Planning Your Landscape Photos with TPE

One balmy Saturday evening, long before I got into photography, my wife and I joined a group to view a full moon over the San Francisco Bay from the Marin Headlands. After a one mile hike we reached the spot selected by the guide who then made a broad sweep over the Bay in the general direction of the Oakland Hills and said “the moon will come up over there in about 30 minutes.” He then opened the wine, cheese and crackers and we had a very pleasant wait for what turned out to be a spectacular full moon over San Francisco Bay.


Figure 1. Pigeon Point Lighthouse off Route 1 in California.

As photographers, we have a different agenda and generally require a little more precision with regard to the where and when of an event, so we can plan for it. That is where The Photographer’s Ephemeris® (TPE) comes into play.

This article will give you some tools to get started, provide an introduction to uses for, and navigation around TPE. It will also provide a source for additional information, so you will know how to get yourself to the right location at the right time to get a shot like this.

So what is TPE and how might you use it? To paraphrase the words of its author, Stephen Trainor: “The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a program to assist in the planning of outdoor photography. Landscape photographers typically plan their shoots around the times of sunrise/sunset or twilight. Night photographers may plan their shoots when the moon is in a particular place in a particular phase. While times of sun and moon activity are readily available on various sites on the internet and on smart phones, there are fewer programs available which combine such information with a selection of topographical maps allowing the photographer to match the astronomical event to the selected location of the shoot.”

About TPE: TPE for Desktop is available for Microsoft® Windows® and Mac and is free. TPE for iOS is available on the App Store and TPE for Android is available on Google Play at a cost of $8.99. Visit photoephemeris.com to download all of the applications, a quick start guide, tutorials and a wealth of information.

TPE helps you plan outdoor photography shoots by enabling you to see how the light from the sun and the moon will fall on the land, be it day or night, at almost anywhere on earth. As a landscape, nature, travel and outdoor photographer, you may use TPE’s map-based approach to search for any place-name or location, and then position the map pin exactly where you want it to obtain the precise information you need. For instance, you can use TPE to determine:

  • When and from which direction a full moon will rise or set.
  • When it will pass over an iconic landmark or other scene that you want to use as foreground.
  • The best location and time to capture such photographs.
  • On what nights the sky will be dark enough, or at what time the moon sets so you may capture the Milky Way or star trails.
  • When the sun will set on a mountain or in a valley.

TPE Navigation: TPE is fairly simple to use, but like any application, it can take a while to get the hang of using the results to your best photographic advantage. When you enter TPE, you will be presented with a screen that has two panels as shown in Figure 2. The following views of the TPE user interface were obtained on a PC, and the appearance on a Mac is identical. The user interface on mobile devices is somewhat different but provides essentially the same content.


Figure 2. The Photographer’s Ephemeris user interface.

To get started, search for a location with which you are very familiar and from which you may want to take a photograph. You can do this by using the Search box at the bottom of the screen in TPE. You can choose any location in the world, but for the purpose of this article, we will use Marin Headlands, CA and a date on which the moon is full.

The left side map panel: Assuming you have some familiarity with navigating around a Google map the following will help you get familiar with TPE navigation.
1. Map Modes: There are four modes—Map, Satellite, Hybrid and Terrain. For instance, you may decide to use the Map mode if you’re looking for a map of a city, the Satellite/Hybrid mode to see details of particular building, or the Terrain mode for the topography of the landscape.
2. Red Map Position Marker: TPE displays a Google map with a red position marker indicating your selected location. You can click on the marker and drag it to get the exact location you wish. TPE will provide information, including feet above sea level as well as the longitude and latitude for your selected location (see Figure 2). This information changes as you move the red marker.
3. Colored lines and Legend: The colored lines indicate the orientation of sunset/sunrise and moonset/moonrise:


Figure 3. TPE map legend indicating sun and moon orientation.

The right side Ephemeris panel: The Ephemeris panel contains the substance. The other four tabs are self-explanatory and you can click on them at your leisure.
For the purpose of this discussion, we select a date with a full moon, which appears in red (see Figures 2 and 4). There are two ways to select dates:
1. Use the upward and downward pointing fingers to scroll up and down by day.
2. Select a date from the standard date dialog box.

This panel contains a lot of valuable information for the selected day, including the time and compass direction for sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset as well as the phase of the moon. However, there is one more piece of practical information—learned from hard experience in the field—that may benefit you: in practice, the moon does not become visible at the exact spot and the exact time TPE predicts. This is because TPE:

  • Assumes your view extends out on a level plane from your elevation.
  • Calculates moonrise time based on the appearance of the very top of the moon—when the first photons of moonlight pop over the horizon. This is clearly not something you are going to see.

The moon is 0.5 degrees wide and is racing across the sky, moving its own diameter every 2 minutes or so. This means that you will experience the moonrise a few minutes later and somewhat to the south of where TPE predicts the first photons will be. You can make these adjustments using TPE or on the fly, but TPE will get you pointing in the right direction.
As valuable as this information is, there is much more. At the bottom of this Ephemeris panel, next to the date dialog box are two buttons labeled Twilight and Details (see Figure 2, 5. Buttons).

Twilight: If you click on Twilight at the bottom of the right panel, you will see the time of sunrise and sunset as well as two other times that are important to know. These times will tell you exactly how dark it will be at a certain time if you want to shoot the moon, or how long that great sunset will last. These are Civil and Nautical Twilight. According to Wikipedia:

  • Civil Twilight: Morning civil twilight begins when the geometric center of the sun is 6 ° below the horizon (civil dawn) and ends at sunrise. Evening civil twilight begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun reaches 6 ° below the horizon (civil dusk). Civil twilight can also be described as the limit at which twilight illumination is sufficient, under clear weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished.
  • Nautical Twilight: Nautical twilight is defined to begin in the morning, and to end in the evening, when the center of the sun is geometrically 12 degrees below the horizon. In general, nautical twilight ends when navigation via the horizon at sea is no longer possible.

Details: Now click on the Sun/Moon button to go back to the main panel and click on Details. This brings up another panel which contains even more detailed information as shown in Figure 4.


Figure 4. TPE left panel shows orientation of the sun and moon for the selected location. The right panel shows detailed information.

Take a minute to look at the information in this panel. Going from top to bottom, it summarizes all of the information we have seen before, but now for a particular day. In addition, it provides a Time slider, (see Figure 4) that you can move from left to right to show, using thinner orange and blue lines on the map, not only the change in the bearing of the sun and moon over the course of the day, but also their elevation in the sky. This information will become more useful with experience, and as you get the hang of TPE the payoff is enormous; you can precisely plan your night shooting events and frame the moon over a specific landmark. (Note: You can move the Time Slider in one minute increments by clicking on the white slider arrow head shown on Figure 4 and then use the right and left arrow keys on your keyboard to move the slider).

Geodetics: Last, but not least, the map also now shows a smaller black Geodetics position marker, (see Figure 4). You can move the marker, for instance, to a location you may want to use in your foreground, and the Geodetics panel will show the change in elevation, the distance and bearing of the location at which you placed the grey marker relative to your red position marker.

Putting it all together: Figures 6 and 7 show the settings used to obtain the photographs in Figures 1 and 5. This shows where I was standing on Thursday, March 8th 2012, at what time I was standing there and in which direction I was pointing to get these photographs.


Figure 5. Lighthouse off Route 1, Pigeon Point, California.



Figure 6. TPE Ephemeris Panel used to capture images in Figure 1 and Figure 5.



Figure 7. TPE Details Panel used to capture images in Figure 1 and Figure 5.

Tips:

  • If you think TPE is a tool that fits the kind of photography you would like to do, then as with any application, the best way to become familiar with it is just to play with it and impress your friends with what you can now do.
  • Check the weather.
  • Take a compass and the location’s TPE pages with you when you shoot.

About Mike Watson: Mike Watson has an extensive and varied background in consulting, business, operations and technology. He is an active workshop Facilitator working with the Point Reyes Field Institute in California, and at popular workshops conducted by the acclaimed professional photographer and author Harold Davis. He’s most likely to be found these days behind a camera, or processing his photos in Lightroom and Photoshop and he shows his work on Flickr.

About CJ Glynn: A Silicon Valley veteran, CJ Glynn is currently Chief Marketing Officer at Fusion, the world’s first smartphone-controlled, LED-based smartband that responds to music and motion. When not hawking wearable technology, CJ is likely to be capturing natural light landscapes or travel and commercial photographs, which you can see here.

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    • Great article Mike! Congratulations!

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    • This tool looks very nice. The only negative is that on location in the mountains you will not have network connectivity and be able to load the Google Map data and the altitude database, unless perhaps you can cache it by scanning over it while you are connected. This works for ordinary google map data when traveling out of the country and you have Wi-fi back at the hotel. I think I should get the android tablet app. Another thing that would be nice is an angular size calculator built in so you can estimate the height of buildings. Its an easy calculation anyway.

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    • Hi David - thanks for reading it.  I have been to some very remote locations and a cellular signal can be illusive.  For my part I often print out a copy of the TPE pages to take with me when I have a known destination in mind.

      You may want also to take a look at an application which was recently introduced called Photopills at http://www.photopills.com.  You mention Android and it my understanding Photopills is currently only available for iOS 5.0 or later via the App Store with no date for delivery of a version for Android.

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    • It's a great tool for planning, I've been using it for 2-3 years now. Yet not all of its features and functionalities are equally obvious, so well done putting together this introduction.

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    • Hi Slawek - thank you for reading it and thank you for your comment.

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    • I like the Photographer's Ephemeris for planning the times and directions for the full moon near the horizon and for sunrise/sunset.

       

      Thanks to the comment on PhotoPills…  this also looks good.

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    • Technology is an excellent companion when used properly. Along with mobile devices with a GPS and being able to connect to internet, a new platform shows up for new things. So digital photography has new companions. Modern photographers have more tools. I think this is a challenge to upgrade our photographic work.

      Mike, thanks for sharing this with us.

      Jorge A Perez

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    • Hi Jorge:

      Thank you for your comments, I'm pleased you found it useful.

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    • I, too, use TPE (on a Google Nexus 7).  I learned about it from Alison Shaw.  It's extremely handy for planning, and I recommend it.  Well worth the price.

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    • Hi Peter:  Thank you for reading the article and for your comments.

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    • Love this tool, and it's also good for outdoor portraits! While I was shooting senior portraits over the summer I would do my best to get to my location during the golden hour, but sometimes found the background wasn't quite what I wanted (houses) this app helped me figure out the best location and time to get the best light!

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    • Great article Mike! I've been using TPE for a couple of years on the field and can't imagine planning a landscape photo without it. I just wished it had better support for night photography, but now I have that thanks to your recommendation to use PhotoPills, great Augmented Reality aid for photography!

       

      Aleks, you may want to give Photo Transit a try to plan your on-location photo sessions. Is a continuation to TPE which let's you plan for locations considering the field of view of a specific camera-lens combination, and simulating the result when a Street View is available in Google Maps, letting you prevent to arrive to the wrong location because there will be a house on your planned background. You can even open TPE from Photo Transit to plan for the right time, and send the location to your preferred GPS for easy location of the right spot.

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    • Thank you Ruben - and thank you for your additional comments - I'll check out that app.

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    • In August 2014 the developer announced that TPE for Desktop was being replaced by a brand new web app version.  Details of this new version are available at http://photoephemeris.com/about/.

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