I recently read in our local newspaper about a mural in the downtown area of a nearby town, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, that was going to be lost due to a fire that had gutted the building on which it was painted. The building had received severe fire damage from an apparent arsonist and was slated to be torn down in the very near future. The mural which the Union Pacific Railroad paid some $30,000 for in 1998 depicts a locomotive engine, “Engine 819″, which was built back in 1943. Union Pacific has operated a huge train repair and railway yard in Pine Bluff beginning in 1962. The recent article also published a photo of the mural which is what tweaked my interest… photographically speaking.
I was seriously considering getting my own photographs of this mural before it is destroyed but I was curious as to when it would be best to take a short trip to the town to get a photograph or two. I wanted to go when I knew the sun would be at the proper angle to illuminate the mural. Perhaps I could have made an educated guess but wanted to find out exactly, direction wise, where the mural was located and at what time would the sun be full on the mural so as not to have wasted a trip to the location since it was in another town. I needed a “sun direction calculator” for lack of a better term.
Well as it turns out, despite my best intentions, I was never able to get to Pine Bluff in ample time to secure my own photographs of the art work but I was fortunate in discovering a really great sun direction calculator. If you are a serious photographer, depending on the subjects you like to photograph, the sun can be a very important part of the photograph’s equation. Especially for those who enjoy photographing landscapes and architecture. The only ‘serious’ photography I do outdoors that is critical to sun is architectural in nature. But unlike many, I prefer to do my architectural photographing not on bright, sunny days but cloudy days so as to eliminate those harsh shadows that can often be created by the bright sun. But, this post is not about photography techniques but rather about a photography tool.
As to the discovered sun calculator mentioned earlier, as it turns out, and wouldn’t you know it, Mr. Google already had the exact tool available for use. Mr. Google made the calculator an add-on of sorts to its “Google Maps” program which of course made all the sense in the world. You just had to know how to access the calculator it and how it worked and you could easily project sun direction on any location you so desired.
Google’s sun calculator program is called “SunCalc” and can be accessed by clicking on the following link… Google Sun Calculator.
If you are familiar with Google Maps in general you will note when opening the SunCalc webpage that it looks identical to the google maps layout except for the geometric drawing appearing over the map which is in fact the “sun calculator indicator”. The map application itself works just the same as always except you now have the movable calculator appearing over the maps which you can move around as necessary to meet and/or determine your specific criteria. You also still have available the “Map” view as well as the “Satellite” view.
So for the purposes of this little ‘show & tell’ I have assumed that we are going to visit New York City and we want to go to Liberty Island and take a great photo of the Statue of Liberty. Hopefully the screen shots that follow along with my brief tutorial will be of some use in learning how to use the sun direction calculator.
We have decided that we want to take a photograph of the Statue of Liberty with a full frontal view. And we want full sun on the front so that no dark shadows are present to hide any portion of the statue. So we will need to know at around what time is the sun in a position to fully illuminate the front of the statue. We then open the “SunCalc” and type in the location we are looking for and in our case that would be Liberty Island in New York. We would then see on the Google’s Map page a graphic similar to the one below. Please note that you will need to click on the images I will be presenting and enlarge them so as the see the details we will be discussing….
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The circle shown in the middle of the map is the geometric part of the calculator. Also note that Liberty Island which is our subject matter is located near the center of the calculator circle. Now let’s look at a marked-up version of the graphic….
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On this graphic I have added a few notes. Note that the calculator can be moved around the map so that you can locate the center of the calculator at the specific point you desire. Now of most importance is to note the timeline bar and setting at the top of the graphic. The orange dot on the timeline indicator is currently sitting on about 4:30 AM. If you put your mouse cursor on that orange dot you can slide the dot along the timeline indicator. As you do that, the straight orange line on the inside of the calculator circle which goes from the center of the circle to the outer edge will begin to move around the outside edge of the circle. This orange line is the sun direction indicator and is how we will determine at what time we need to be at the Statue of Liberty to get our fully lit frontal photograph of the statue.
Now, using the ‘ZOOM” function of Google Maps we will zoom in on Liberty Island for a good close up view. We will also set Google Maps from the ‘map’ function to the ‘satellite’ function so we can determine the exact location and position of our subject, the Statue of Liberty. You should see that function setting in the upper right-had corner of the map. After doing that hopefully you will see a representation similar to the one below….
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Now we can clearly see Liberty Island and the precise location of the Statue of Liberty. As we note the direction that the statue is facing which is towards the bottom right-hand side of our graphic we will then want to move the ‘orange dot’ on the timeline bar at the top of the graphic. Again as previously noted, as you move the ‘orange dot’ along the timeline you will see the straight orange line rotate around the center of our sun calculator circle. The straight orange line is indicating the current sun direction based on where our orange dot is located on the timeline bar. As can be noted from my graphic, the current time setting is around 10:00 AM and the orange straight line is pointed directly at the front of the statue. Therefore, to get the photograph of the statue that we desire fully lit from the front we should be standing in front of the statue at around 10:00 AM in the morning.
Going to the sun calculator application, opening it and playing with it for a few minutes I think will show that this whole process is a lot less complicated than I may have made it look. But if precise sun direction is ever of any concern for any particular reason, hopefully this application will be of some use. I know with regards to some of my photography projects such as the one mentioned at the beginning of this post, it certainly can be of great help.