Chasing the Sun: Using Technology in Scouts
A scout is a crucial part of planning photography. There are apps that will supplement your in-person shoot and also apps that can help you plan a shoot even if you are not able to visit the location ahead of time.
Even if you can’t visit a location in person ahead of time, you can gain a lot of valuable information through apps. Let’s explore a number of the best photography location apps that can help with scouting both on location and remotely.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE)
Once you have chosen a potential location for a shoot, you can look up the location in Photographer’s Ephemeris. This app is integrated into Apple Maps or Google Maps and has a powerful set of tools to allow you to plan the best places for photography.
Track the Sun
This powerful app allows you to preview exactly where the sun will be positioned in the sky at any time of day for any location on earth. The exact sunrise and sunset (civil, nautical, and astronomical) is displayed in precise detail.
Track the Moon
For those planning night or astrophotos, it will also show you the exact track and position of the moon anywhere around the world. Moonrise and set times are displayed. In addition it will show you the phase of the moon and % illumination.
A simple slider allows you to scroll through the day from dusk to dawn showing how the angle of the sun changes throughout the day. If you plan to take your photos in 2 weeks it’s very simple to dial in the date and see exactly where the sun will be positioned in the sky on that date.
You can drag the pin on the map, similar to google maps. Once you have selected the desired location for your photography, many different map modes are available including Satellite, hybrid, terrain, and open street map. You can also save up to 50 pinned locations.
For those creating photos in more mountainous terrain, the Geodetics feature allows you to check the sightline between camera and subject, showing where the sun or moon will appear relative to a mountain peak or ridgeline. Shadow lengths are also displayed to scale on the map.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris or TPE is available for iOS, Android, and as a desktop app. The desktop version is free. However, the mobile app which I highly recommend costs $9.99 for the iOS version and $2.99 for the Android version.
One of the most incredible free photography apps you may ever use, Google Earth is an important part of a photographer’s toolkit for scouting and planning a shoot. An invaluable compendium of aerial photos, it can be an invaluable tool finding and examining photography locations near you or anywhere around the globe.
Google Earth started out as just 2-dimensional satellite images but quickly evolved into an extensive collection of 3d imagery from around the world. That being said, keep in mind that certain regions farther afield will have lower resolution imagery than more populated or developed areas.
There’s always a limit to how far you can zoom in on each location. Also if an object is less than 30 feet it may appear flat in the app. You can explore photos of a variety of perspectives and angles on Google Earth more efficiently than you would ever be able to in real life. You are a drone with the range of the whole earth.
Street view, 3D view, and the overall map view allow you to remotely explore potential locations. The ruler tool allows you to measure the distance between locations to get a sense of scale and plan your shooting day.
Many landmarks contain photos taken by app users at the location, allowing you to inspect potential photo sites seamlessly with a single click.
3rd Party Map Integration
In Google Earth you can integrate an existing map. For example trails in Yellowstone can be combined with your Google Earth map.
Really Great Spots (RGPS)
A library of user tagged photo locations. It’s easy to check and reference when on location with the “find near me now” function to see if there are photogenic spots nearby that you may have missed. The content and spots are totally crowdsourced. The app contains many unique places to photograph. The app is available for free on iOS only.
PlanIt! For Photographers (PIFP)
This app shares many features in common with TPE including showing the exact position of the sun and moon anywhere in the world. As you scroll through the time of day on the PlanIt! App the brightness and color temperature of the whole scene actually adjusts along the way.
The app allows you to note your scene location and camera location. When entering the subject height you can actually see the length of the shadow of the subject. If zoomed in close enough on the map you can see the preview of where the subject shadow will fall, like a long grey pencil line on the map.
The app also claims to be able to calculate whether, at a specific time of day, the sun is blocked by surrounding obstructions including buildings by calculating the clearance angle and elevation. This information is not always 100% accurate.
The app allows you to zoom in or out to a specific focal length which approaches but is not a full substitute for a professional telescoping director’s viewfinder. Some photographers prefer using a professional viewfinder such as this to previsualize their shots.
Log Scouting Data
PlanIt! also allows you to log more data about your locations such as custom naming, the difficulty of terrain, level of permitting required, parking available, even custom color labels. It’s like a complete notebook for a location scout where all of their notes and information for each of the spots you scouted can be recorded.
Augmented VR Mode
There’s also an augmented virtual reality mode called viewfinder AR which is for when you are physically at the location you are scouting. This mode adds to the view from your device’s camera allows you to preview where the sun is going to be in the sky as an overlay. The app warns this mode is not 100% accurate, rather it just gives you a rough idea of the direction of the light.
The complexity level of this application could be overwhelming for more beginner users who are not familiar with an application like The Photographer's Ephemeris already. But for more advanced users it has many useful resources when determining places to photograph. There’s a free version of PlanIt! and a pro version for $9.99.
Technology has completely transformed the location scout and a wealth of tools are available at your fingertips. Learn about locations ahead of time and come armed with information about both topography and light. Leave some time to fully practice and learn all the functionality of these photography apps before you are at a location scout.
Harness the power of satellite imagery and arm yourself with the ability to predict the movement of the sun and stars. Even the ancient Mayans would be jealous. Now if only we knew if it was going to be cloudy….
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