The Photographer's Ephemeris

Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia, Canada.

About 12 years ago when I was really starting to get into photography, I set out to Long Island in Digby county Nova Scotia to get a shot of the famous “Balancing Rock”. If you have never been there before, it’s a little bit of a trek. I headed up to Digby, then took the car ferry to Long Island. After that I made a long hike in to get to the rock, which is a fair distance from the road, schlepping my camera, lens, tripod and film (I’m dating myself here). I arrived at the rock just before sunset, and climbed down the hill to the base of the balancing rock before us. Problem was: it was in complete shadow from nearby cliff face. All of the wonderful pictures I had seen before of the rock bathed in beautiful golden light had obviously been taken at sunrise.

It’s then that I realized: planning is everything in landscape photography.

In other branches of photography like commercial, studio, portrait and even some wedding work – you have complete control over the light. Not so with landscape photography. You have to work with the light that is available, which is one of the reasons I love shooting landscapes in the first place.

The optimal light more most landscape are the “magic hours” which surround both sunrise and sunset. If you are planning a trip to England and you are going to be in London for one day and you want to get a shot of Buckingham Palace – you better know what time of day it gets the best light.

The best landscape photographers would even scope out some locations a year in advance and then make plans to return. Even with the internet this type of research is time consuming – until recently.

There is a great program for planning your shoot for the best light called The Photographers Ephemeris (or TPE for short). An ephemeris is a table that records where things are in the sky (like the sun and the moon) at certain times of the day and year. Of course the location and time of sunrise varies greatly depending on the time and location.

The TPE is an indispensible resource for the outdoor photographer or any one planning either a photo or video shoot, and you want to make best use of the light.

Using Google Maps as an interface, users can search for desired location and then get the exact angle and time of sunrise and sunset as well as moonrise and moonset. You can also switch the date if you are looking ahead to planning spring shoots. It also takes into account elevation, so that you don’t travel halfway across the earth to have your light blocked out by a nearby hill.

The TPE is completely free for Windows, Mac and Linux. For $8.99 your can purchase the TPE for iOS, which works great on iPhone and iPad, so you can plan your shoots on the go. The interface for the mobile apps is amazing.

I recently used the TPE to plan a short shoot in Lunenburg and Blue Rocks and it worked perfectly. Of course, it can’t tell you a thing about the weather, which you’ll have to leave up to Mother Nature.