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Photography

Morning, Noon, Night: Planning Photos Made Easy with SunCalc

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What You'll Be Creating

There is no photography without light. What kind of light you have and how you use it is what makes or breaks your photos.

The sun’s position in the sky plays a huge roll in the kind of light available to work with. If it’s just below the horizon everything will have a beautiful blue cast. If it’s at it’s zenith it will create harsh shadows. Knowing what the sun will do in advance makes planning a lot easier.

The earth tilts on its axis as it circles the sun. This is what creates the seasons. While the sun will always rise in the east and set in the west, how easterly it rises and westerly it sets depends on the time of year. Some images can only be captured at certain times of the year.

There is a lighthouse near me that I want to capture as the sun rising above it. During the summer, the sun rose too northerly for me to get the image I wanted. In November and December, however, it will rise exactly where I want it to. How do I know this? SunCalc.

Introducing SunCalc

SunCalc is a web app built on top of Google Maps by Vladimir Agafonkin. SunCalc shows the path of the sun throughout the day for any location on earth at any given time. SunCalc also calculates the times of sunrise, sunset and the various measure of twilight so you know how much and what kind of light you have to work with.

SunCalc is great for planning photo sessions at sunrise or sunset. Whether you want just want to take photos during the wonderful natural light of the blue hour or take a time-lapse of the sun setting into the sea, SunCalc can help you decide when and where to work.

1. Find Your Position

SunCalc is simple to use. On the map, zoom in to where ever you are planning on photographing. Drag and drop the pin to fine tune your location.

suncalc overview
The SunCalc overlay.

The yellow line represents the direction of sunrise, the red line the direction of sunset and the orange line represents the sun’s position at the specified time.

The closer the arc is to the the pin, the higher in the sky the sun is. The two grey lines represent the range over the course of the year.

To get a prediction for any time in the future, enter it in the dialogue box at the top. SunCalc will automatically update the display.

2. Plan Your Sunrise and Sunset Photos

SunCalc is most useful for planning sunrise and sunset photos. I hate getting up early unless it’s to take photos. Even then it can be a struggle. With SunCalc you can save yourself precious time on location—and get more time in bed—by planning your images in advance.

suncalc summer
It's impossible to photograph the lighthouse and the rising sun in July.

If there is a particular landmark you want to photograph at sunrise or sunset—in my case it’s the Baily Lighthouse—SunCalc is a great way to consider possible angles. Because I'm familiar with the area, I know I can get a clear view of the lighthouse from the cliffs to the west of it. During the summer, however, there was no way for me to get an angle that included both the lighthouse and the sun in the way I wanted. This month I can get just the picture I want from the cliffs. On the day of the Winter Solstice I’ll even be able to get a photo from the hill above the lighthouse.

suncalc winter
In winter, however, it's possible.

This kind of pre-shoot planning makes your job on location easier. If you are considering any shoot that involves a lot of additional gear—like time-lapse and long exposure—knowing that you’ll be able to get the images you want is important. There is nothing worse than dragging 20 kilos of gear and an assistant to a location only to find that the sun is 30 degrees away from where you need it to be.

3. Planning For Day Time Photos

SunCalc is also useful for planning day time sessions. If you are going to take photographs in a particular location, knowing what direction the sun will come from can help you prepare. It can be difficult to take great photos in the harsh shadows of midday sunlight but you can normally still get great shots in the shade. With SunCalc you can work out where it’ll be.

For landscape and architecture photographers it’s also great. They have a lot more flexibility when working in direct sunlight, especially when the sun is behind them. If you’re planning to capture a particular building, SunCalc can help you work out what angle will produce the most pleasing photograph even in the middle of the afternoon.

Conclusion

SunCalc is an awesome tool for all kinds of photographers. If I have a particular image I want to get—especially if it’s at sunrise or sunset—I use SunCalc to work out when and where I need to be to get it. SunCalc’s ability to look at future dates is one of its best features. During the summer I found I wasn’t able to get the photo I wanted but I was able to look ahead and see that I’d be able to get it during the winter.

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