The Photographer's Ephemeris 3D
July 22, 2017
All of my students know that I’m a huge fan of the Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE), a map-based photo-planning application that I find invaluable. Now Stephen Trainor, the developer of the Photographer’s Ephemeris, has launched a companion app he calls the Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D (TPE 3D, iOS only). Unlike TPE 2D, which requires the ability to visualize terrain by reading a topographic map, TPE 3D offers a three-dimensional model of the terrain, realistically lit by either the sun or the moon, anywhere in the world, at any time of day or night. In essence, TPE 3D lets you pilot a virtual camera flying over the landscape. Your camera can look straight down, out toward the horizon in any direction, or at any angle in between. You can control the height of your camera above the ground with a simple slider. As you adjust the time of day, the shadows lengthen and shorten and the color of the virtual sunlight changes from the golden glow of sunrise to the white of midday. Want to visualize how your subject will look when lit by the moon? The model can handle that as well.
The app would be quite helpful if its only feature was the ability to fly a virtual camera over the landscape, but TPE 3D offers more. You can also land your virtual camera anywhere you choose and look around in any direction. Again, adjusting the time gives you an accurate picture of how sunlight and moonlight will play out across the land. Planning a Milky Way shoot? You’ll want to know where to look to see the galactic center, the most photogenic part of the Milky Way. TPE 3D shows you precisely where the galactic center will rise, how it will look when it transits (reaches its highest point in the sky), and where it will set.
Here’s an example of how TPE 3D can help you plan a sunrise shoot. Let’s say you want to shoot the east face of Longs Peak from Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. With TPE 3D, you can land your virtual camera on the shore of Chasm Lake and watch how the sunrise light illuminates Longs Peak at different times of year. Immediately it’s obvious that in midsummer the entire 2,000-foot east face of Longs Peak lights up at sunrise. In mid-winter, only the tip of the east face gets moment-of-sunrise light. Sure, you could figure this out in TPE by calculating the elevation of the ridge on Mt. Meeker that will shadow Longs Peak at sunrise at different times of year, taking into account the fact that the angle of sunrise varies by 60 degrees from summer solstice to winter solstice at the latitude of the peak. It’s a lot easier, however, just to watch the way sunrise light strikes the peak at different times of year.
You control the flight path of your virtual camera with a variety of one- and two-finger gestures. These gestures differ somewhat once you’ve landed somewhere and are looking around. You set the date and time by dragging the timeline left or right, by tapping an icon on the timeline representing sunrise, sunset, etc., or by directly entering the date you’re interested in. The topographic model is fairly detailed, but don’t expect photographic quality as you look around from ground level. (The screenshots above come from an iPad Air; newer devices will exhibit slightly better resolution.) If you’re already a fan of TPE 2D, and you’ve used that app to sync your list of favorite locations to the cloud, you’ll find them already loaded into TPE 3D.
I’m the son of a civil engineer, and I’ve often been accused of applying an engineer’s perspective to my landscape photography. (I plead guilty.) I’m sure TPE 2D, with its maps and data, will continue to be an essential part of my planning process. If you want a non-engineering, visual way to plan your shoots, however, TPE 3D is a great tool.
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