In the work of photographers, light is a fundamental component, it even makes up part of the name of our profession: photo means ‘light’ in Greek. Studio photographers have a broad range of technical possibilities for lighting at their disposal, such as light shapers and various lighting sources, which they can precisely implement to suit their purposes. Armed with these options, they are always able to apply, influence and adjust lighting for their work.
The situation is different, however, for travel photographers and other photographers who work without applying artificial light sources (available light photography). They mostly have to rely on how the largest light source, the sun, is shining (or not) at the moment. They can only partially control this light source, perhaps by using light reflectors, and have to adjust to each lighting situation accordingly. This can potentially factor in expenses for the production, for instance, if the sun isn’t shining from where you’d like to have it while taking the shot.
So you can bury yourself in astronomical textbooks and delve into studying the science of the sun’s path, or you can learn how to use a sextant, or…you might turn your attention to a modern technology, which almost all of us are carrying around right in our pockets: apps.
There are significant changes in the sun’s position according to season, especially in countries located further away from the equator. Sometimes the sun is high above the horizon, sometimes lower. What would be better than to be able to know in advance when and where the sun will be? Travel costs and time are important issues for travel photographers, and these could be optimized with planning. Answers to questions like “When will the sun be behind the tower?” or “Is it bright here at all at this time?” would make the organization of a trip much easier.
There are many helpful ‘travelling companions’ out there, for instance, the “Sun Surveyor” app (www.sunsurveyor.com), which I’ve thoroughly tested out and would like to present here.
Available for IOS and Android, this app offers a simplified visualisation of the paths for both the sun and the moon according to your location. Aided by GPS, a compass, an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a camera, you can precisely measure when and where the sun and moon will be positioned, and in which direction they are moving.
The navigation is actually quite intuitive, featuring the following main menu items:
- 3D Compass
- Interactive Map
- Live View
- Street View
along with the usual settings and sharing options.
The 3D Compass
This mode features a digital compass, which provides orientation assistance by utilising the sensors in your mobile phone. Of course we all know that the sun sets in the west, but often we find ourselves somewhere, not quite knowing for sure which direction west is. If you then hold your phone vertically, you’ll see on the display the sun’s path for each hour and you can find out when the sun is at its highest point or at what angle the light will be cast. For the times you want to photograph certain shadow patterns, you’ll be able to know when they are most intense and in which direction they are being cast.
The Interactive Map
The interactive map view is one of the most important and most useful modes of this app. By moving the map (which you can also scale up or down in size), you can determine your position and are then able to know from which direction the sun and moon will be shining. You can find out at what time during the day the sun will be shining behind a certain building or, in the evening, where the moon will appear in your image. The picture below demonstrates a practical use for this feature:
For this image I knew in advance by using the app when the moon would be in this position (and which phase the moon would be in), sparing me a lot of effort and saving time. Additionally, you can reposition the crosshair cursor to test various locations, which helps you find the best position for your production. Here you can see another example:
You can only capture this image at a very specific time of year, at which the sun sets at this spot.
The Live View
The live view enables you to see on-site how the sun is moving and in which direction by way of “augmented reality”: you see through the smartphone’s camera the normal live view, and you are shown the sun (and the moon) plus their paths. That allows us as photographers to be out and about in a city or the countryside and find out on location where the sun and the moon will be at a certain time. This feature also allows you to flexibly test whether the sun or the moon can ever be seen at a specific site at all. By doing so, this app also “exposes” those images which feature an astronomically impossible position of the moon. When I want to know if the sun ever shines through a certain window of a tower or when it will be directly located behind a building, this app can tell me.
The Details View
The details view provides plenty of astronomical figures and information. Of particular interest to photographers are the listed times for the golden and blue hours. With this information, it’s easy to determine when those legendary times occur which provide twilight and night photography with its particularly charming light, a hallmark feature of commercially successful stock photography images.
In addition, there is also information about sunrise and sunset times, moon phases (full moon, new moon, quarter moon, etc.) and even the Milky Way.
Street View Mode
This mode is a special goodie from the app’s developers. Using the live view, you can see on-site when and where the sun will be located. But how about when you can’t be on-site? Here’s where the street view comes into play. By using data from Google’s street view, you can ‘teletransport’ or beam yourself to anywhere you’d like in the world, to virtually simulate being there. Then, as shown above, you can see where the sun and the moon will be positioned at a certain time at that location.
This is especially helpful for planning trips in cities.
What’s more, in every mode you can change the timeline as you wish, plus you’re able to select past times as well as future times.
So the bottom line for me is: There are also other apps out there which present the path of the sun, such as Sun Seeker, Sunpath or The Photographers Ephemeris, but all in all, I feel that this app combines the best features of the others in one single app.
It revealed itself to be a very efficient little helper which can save a photographer a lot of time and money. There’s just one thing it can’t do: it can’t predict whether there’ll be rain or a blue sky with fleecy clouds. Well, there always has to be a little residual risk, otherwise you could just send a programmed drone to your location and let it take the pictures. On this note, I’ll leave you with a little wish: may you have the best light at all times!