For most folks trip planning is not a sought after task, but pouring over maps and thinking through all the logistics can make a backpack trip much more enjoyable. The same can be said for photography. Knowing sunrise and sunset times are a must, finding scenic campsites allows you to sleep longer and lets you wake up your (potentially non enthusiastic) partner that much later. This article will discuss one particular tool that can do wonders for your photographic planning needs, but can also be used to find the best views for your non-camera enjoyment.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a free program that overlays solar and lunar data on top of the google terrain view. Not only can you see where and when the sun or moon will rise and set, but you can judge what objects will receive light during any hour of the day, and what peaks are visible from a particular location.

OK- no more laundry list of features, I promise. Let’s run through one quick example of a location that most Seattle-ites are familiar with. Kerry Park is an overlook on Queen Anne that showcases the downtown skyline and Mt Rainier. When I first moved to Seattle I heard about this lookout, but was curious what time of year might yield the best images of sunrise. I sought the time of year when the sun would rise close enough to the downtown buildings that the sunrise would showcase a colorful sky behind the city.

Seattle ©Erik Turner

My old methods involved looking up sunrise calculations online and whipping out a topographic map with a protractor, but using TPE is much easier! The user can simply plop down the familiar google map pin at your location, and play with the dates on the right panel until the sunrise line (yellow) is pointed generally down towards the city.

Easy! (Now wait for a morning where there are only thin clouds over the Cascades, but some decent ones behind the city to catch that light- TPE can’t help you with that one :).

Let’s go over a more practical case for someone hiking out in our local mountains. This example doesn’t even require a camera, it answers the age old question of, “Can you see Rainier from there?” Let’s say your goal is to see Mt. Rainier and its reflection in a lake, but want to steer clear of Reflection Lake, because that is just too predictable (it is, but it’s beautiful). How about Mowich Lake in the Northwest corner of the park? Let’s find out if you can see the mountain from there. Place a marker right on the Northwest shore of the lake, and hit the detail button (lower right- it has changed to ‘Multi-day’ in the attached images). You’ll notice another small gray pin pop up, which corresponds to the object you want to “see” once you are in the field. Naturally then, let’s put the gray marker on the top of Rainier.

The pertinent information we are after is the apparent altitude, listed near the bottom of the right hand panel. In technical terms, this number is the angle at which you need to creak your neck back at in order to see the top of Rainier. 12.4 degrees. Now the cool part- follow that gray line back, and inspect for any ridges that might get in the way of your view. Turns out that nearest ridge is the biggest view robbing culprit- its apparent altitude is 9.8 degrees, which can be seen by placing the gray marker on that ridge.

That means when you’re at this location you’ll see the lake, and as you look up, you’ll see mostly the nearby ridge, and only a portion of Rainier. Not the great view we were after! Luckily there is something better nearby, but it will require some scrambling. (Note I have not yet journeyed up to Eunice Lake- only planned it in TPE- so be careful if you go up there! Above Lake Mowich is Lake Eunice. Might we have a better view of Rainier if we were up there looking down on those ridges that had formerly blocked our view? Let’s find out. Putting the large orange pin up by the lake’s Northwest shore and the gray pin back on Rainier, we can see the altitude is now about 10.3 degrees.

A little lower than before because we don’t need to creek our neck back as much now that we’ve climbed a little over 600’. The big payoff, however, comes when you check the ridges that had blocked our view- they are now at 4.0 degrees.

We went from a 2.6 degree view of the mountain to over 6 degrees! (I apologize for any nightmares of geometry that this article has brought back).

I’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do with this powerful program. If you are curious about any of the topics I brought up above, check out these great tutorials on Youtube (part1 and part 2). I’ve also used the program to plan a number of shots of the moon, which can be done using the same tools and strategies outlined above. The image below was taken from my high bivy in the Sierra Nevada range. I woke hours before the sunrise in order to capture the moon when it was still within the same field of view of the nearby ridgeline.

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