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Beyond the Blue Horizon

Biel Servera recently shared this image with me from the Balearic Islands of the Mediterranean. He and fellow photographer Marcos Molina set out into the hills of northwest Mallorca to catch the rising sun behind the dramatic sea cliffs of the Cap de Formentor.

beyond blue.jpg

Is it the famous green flash? A misaligned lens element causing reflections? A double exposure? No, none of the above.

In a previous DPS article (It’s all about the light) we discussed how to use The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to plan photographs to capture the very best light of the sun and moon. For outdoor photographers, understanding the direction and quality of natural light is a critical part of a successful shoot.

Biel planned his shoot using TPE. The location, in the hills above the 13th century Santuari de Lluc, was some 15 miles (24km) away from the cliffs and so a telephoto lens was to be used to capture the image.

Morning was broken

But there was a problem: on the day, the sun didn’t rise where TPE predicted. That’s what’s illustrated in the photo. The green sun (right) was added in Photoshop to indicate where TPE predicted it to rise, alongside where it actually appeared on the day (left). Here’s a screen shot of what TPE predicts by default:-2.png
With a powerful telephoto (the shot was captured using a 400mm lens), accuracy of position and alignment become important – much more so than with a wide-angle or standard focal length lenses.

But most importantly, the shooting location was 3,500ft (1,060m) above sea level. Just as during an aircraft flight, when you’re raised above the ground, you can see farther. And when you can see farther, the distance to the visible horizon increases, meaning that the sun or moon is seen to rise sooner and the azimuth (bearing) will be changed. This explains the discrepancy Biel observed.

No Line on the Horizon

For these tricky situations, TPE can adjust for height above the horizon. Rather than having to do the mental arithmetic, you can either simply enter the elevation at the horizon, or drop TPE’s grey map marker (visible when Details is clicked) at an approximate position and TPE will find the elevation for you.

In this case, the horizon is out to sea, so it’s as simple as entering ‘0’ as the value. As soon as we do that, TPE adjusts the time and azimuth of sunrise accordingly:


The field at the lower right of the screen (1) shows where to specify the elevation at the horizon (zero, in this case). The yellow sunrise line now matches accurately what was observed on that late June dawn in Mallorca. And finally, the time and azimuth of sunrise is adjusted (2) – the sun rose seven minutes earlier! (The green line shows what TPE calculated without the adjustment for height above the horizon.)

3 tips for when to adjust your horizon

Here are three situations when you should make sure you set the elevation at the horizon in TPE to ensure you don’t miss the critical moment:

  1. When you’re shooting mountains, sunrise can easily strike the peaks as much as 10 minutes sooner than it rises at lower elevations. Don’t arrive late and miss the best light!
  2. When shooting sunrise from a high point using a telephoto lens, accuracy may be critical, so work out your height above the horizon.
  3. If the alignment of the sun or moon with other features is critical, double check height above the horizon – if you don’t, the sun or moon could rise elsewhere than you expected.

Remember: most sunrise/sunset calculators won’t allow you to adjust for height above the horizon, but for some images, it’s an important factor in your pre-planning. Check out the tutorials at http://photoephemeris.com/support for more information on using this feature in TPE.
Get The Photographer’s Ephemeris

TPE for Desktop is a free download for Windows/Mac/Linux, available at http://photoephemeris.com

TPE for iPhone is available for purchase in the App Store

Stephen Trainor has spent the last three years photographing around the southwest US, learning the importance of planning your shots along the way. More at http://stephentrainor.com.

Photograph is copyright © Biel Servera and is reproduced with permission.

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