Posts tagged ‘Google Earth’
If you’ve been reading this web journal in the last couple of months, you may have seen my previous item on using a combination of Google Earth’s ground level view and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to visualise compositions prior to going to a location. This is another recommendation for playing around with the former, even when you know a location relatively well, or think you do.
The following is a shot planned purely with my recollection of having been to this spot before, without a camera. Returning to make it did, however, create the opportunity for the others in this post.
I’m planning a trip up to Glencoe and Rannoch Moor at the moment, a place I know relatively well, but only from the perspective of climbing there in winter a few times on routes like Curved Ridge, on Buachaille Etive Mor, and the Aonach Eagach ridge. So, having a scan around with Google Earth and using TPE to plot some times for possible capture sites seemed like a good idea. Whilst doing so, I noticed a few views that, whilst I must have been in a position to see them before, I’d not recognised as having photographic potential. In my defence, I’d not looked for possible images before….. even so, I was surprised at just how little I knew the area visually. Perhaps I spend a lot more time looking at my crampon and ice axe placements than I imagine I do (and, quite possibly, that’s not at all a bad thing!).
The Howgills again
This recognition led me to wonder whether I’d been equally lacking in observational acuity in other, supposedly familiar, areas. In short: yes, I had.
I’ve been intending to make the image at the top of this item for several months now, as part of my project to photograph the Howgill Fells; what I hadn’t been intending was to make the other images shown here. That was essentially since I didn’t know – more correctly, I had never noticed – that they might exist. Fortunately, I spent ten minutes with Google Earth before I set off and found that the unexciting valley up which I intended to walk, at the head of which lies the waterfall, does have some vantage points with ‘big picture’ potential.
Some crinkly land
This Google Earth screen capture is of a crinkled area on the south side of the valley. Yes, I could have seen this (just about!) by looking more attentively whilst walking up the path to the falls, but I hadn’t – not in several visits. This area is only five minutes from the parking spot, and I’ve been focussed, previously, on the head of the valley and the cascade itself. Also, and importantly, it doesn’t look like this from the path; it looks like this from a point a few hundred metres up the hillside to the north, over very wet ground on this occasion. I only went up there because I knew it had potential, from ‘technological visualisation’; otherwise, I’d have stayed on the considerably easier ground of the well-hardened path.
Once again, I’m impressed with the degree of accuracy of the ground level view representation of the terrain. It’s not identical, but it’s remarkably close – note the tree and wall at the bottom right of the frame in the computer-generated image and the actual one! Yes, the runnels are not perfect, but the general cross shape is pretty clear in the Google graphic; more than enough to see that there was ‘something there’. I’m very pleased with this since it’s a microcosm of how the whole Howgill Fells range looks from the air; uncannily so, in fact.
The crinkled area was the first thing I noticed in my brief planning period at home. The second was more significant. No doubt there are many fine images of Cautley Spout from a distance; however, I’d not seen any and had assumed that the watercourse must be difficult to ‘use’ well in a composition. Rotating the Google Earth view around 90 degrees at the same, elevated point the previous visualisation was made from, I saw the following.
Not terribly exciting perhaps, but I like graphic patterns in landscapes, and I thought I could see potential for an image. The waterfall is the vertical part of the sweeping crease running from the top left. The dark area to the left is some black, craggy rock, and I knew that I would find the concave hillside on the right striped with assorted heather, bracken and rocks. Knowing this, I thought I could make a worthwhile composition from this point, or somewhere nearby. The result was the following two images.
Now, I’m not claiming that any of these shots are especially good, but I’m happy with them. I’m particularly pleased since I’d more or less written off the idea of including any images of ‘Cautley Spout from a distance’ in the project. At the very least, these provide some context to the more intimate landscape shots I’d initially gone to the valley to capture.
Incidentally, for some context, the very top photograph, and the one immediately below this text, were taken in the bowl just above the obvious, large, vertical drop in the centre of the image above; somewhat alarmingly close to the lip, in fact. I wasn’t entirely happy with the light in the valley that evening, so I may well go back and make similar compositions for the final images to be included in the project. If I don’t, however, these are effectively ‘bonus’ shots which I only discovered through technological experimentation. Clearly, I’d like to think that I’d have noticed them without technical assistance, but who knows!
The very last shot had no technical help though; I made it largely to demonstrate just how wet it’s been around here recently, as can be seen from the standing water amongst the bracken. It also illustrates that my camera does do colour other than earth tones :-)
In conclusion: once again, I do unreservedly recommend examining what can be done with Google Earth and, in particular, ground level view, but my main, personal learning point from this is that I need to:
- be aware of possibilities all the time;
- look around and envision scenes as photographs;
- and yomp up hillsides to change the perspective, and to see if an otherwise insignificant feature presents something more enticing from a higher vantage point.
Seems to be moderately hard work, this landscape photography game…. !
If you’ve used Google Earth to plan shots, I’d be very interested to hear comments on your experience, and any tips!
Note: Google Earth screenshots are copyright Google, unsurprisingly.
I am now, or so I’m told by certain non-photographer friends, not only ‘fiddling with images’ in post-processing, but also ‘cheating’ by pre-visualising them with the aid of technology. Shocking! I refuted, or made a serious attempt to refute, the former charge in a previous post on the ethics of digital manipulation. I shall now refute the latter.
The charge goes something like the following:
“Using tools such as Google Earth and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is cheating; you should just find places to photograph by wandering around.”
That is, of course, a paraphrase of what a non-photographer would say, but it’s what I’ve done for a couple of images, making it a reasonable one. In fact, I’ve been using TPE for well over a year now, it’s invaluable in working out where the Sun and Moon will be at a given point in time, at a specific location, and in determining both whether they will be visible and whether they’ll be lighting the landscape in the way that I would like them to. TPE, however, presupposes that I know where I’m going to be, whereas Google Earth, and in particular the relatively new ‘ground level view’ introduced in Google Earth 6, enables me to get a remarkably good idea of what things will look like when I’m standing at my chosen location. By combining the two it’s possible to go a long way to composing an image without even leaving the house. I don’t think that’s ‘cheating’, as such; I’d characterise it as taking advantage of technology to get a good result when it’s not practical to scout a location on foot and in a variety of lighting conditions
A real-world example using Google Earth ‘ground level view’
By way of example, I used both tools in creating the image below, which is of a valley in the centre of the Howgill Fells, in Cumbria, England, an area I’ve described in a post on its photographic potential. I’d noticed the interesting, interlocking spurs of hills on a previous walk in the area, but didn’t have a camera with me, and in any case the Sun was high in a clear, blue sky – less than ideal (and that’s why I didn’t have a camera…..). At the time, I just noted the location and then later, at home, investigated what could be done with it. It’s a non-trivial drive to the Howgills, followed by a walk-in of a few kilometres horizontally and about half a kilometre upwards, so I wasn’t keen on going up there at random and hoping it was worthwhile. To be honest, I probably would have done, but I felt much more confident that I was not about to waste my time, having planned it in some detail in advance.
The first thing I did was find the area in Google Earth, then I zoomed down to ground level, at which point the view shifts to the cunningly-named ‘ground level view’. This isn’t a tutorial on how to use the software, so suffice it to say that you can move around as if you’re walking and that the view you’d see is represented topographically. From my two ‘serious’ uses of this excellent facility, I can say that it’s sufficiently accurate to plan from – at least for the areas I’ve looked at. The following images are, on the left, a screen shot from the precise location I eventually stood to take the photo and, on the right, the image itself. The photo is zoomed a fair bit, so it’s of the top half of the Google Earth representation. No, they’re not identical, but they’re remarkably close if you look at the degree of overlap of the spurs and the shape of the river in the valley. Certainly, they’re close enough that relying on the software to aid visualisation saved me a good deal of hunting around on awkward terrain for a point to set up the tripod.
To show how close the representation is, I’ve deliberately done this backwards for the sake of this article, using the location data from the photograph to return to Google Earth and make the above screen shot. The on-line investigation I’d done in advance enabled me to mark a point which looked promising, and then drive / walk to it and be within fifty metres of where I ended up. More importantly, it let me play with compositions in advance. I was standing on what might be considered a steep slope which I had, of necessity, approached from above, and in inclement weather. Since I’d already determined, by ‘walking’ down the slope in Google Earth, the lowest level which improved the shot, I simply descended to that contour and then traversed the hillside until I found the composition I’d visualised on-screen as well as, more conventionally, in my head. Running up and down the hillside to see whether the composition would work better from lower down was something I was thoroughly happy to forego!
And what of TPE? Well, what I really wanted was sunlight on the right hand slopes, which means ‘sometime in the morning’ (the valley runs roughly north-south). More precisely, I wanted illumination, but not direct sunshine, so I’d used TPE to determine when the Sun would be low enough to not create harsh shadows anywhere – TPE showed me that this meant that I needed to be there within half an hour of sunrise. Unfortunately, the only place to park – the only sensible place to park anyway – is by an isolated house. Doing so at least an hour before dawn at any time of year might be considered anti-social; in late May, it really wasn’t an option. I settled for ‘any day with grey, high cloud’ instead. As it turned out the cloud was somewhat thicker than I wanted and it was decidedly dark in the valley, so the only thing which was still lacking precision was, as usual, the weather forecast! Oh, and it was raining and very windy too – a couple more things the weather forecast had assured me wouldn’t be the case…
TPE helped me work out what was best, I merely wasn’t able to follow its guidance on this occasion, though having now seen the way the various spurs in that valley lie, I’m sure the early option would be the best in terms of the end result – maybe I’ll return in winter.
That, then, is the combination of techniques, but I’ve not yet actually refuted the argument that using them is in some way ‘wrong’; all I’ve done is say that this sort of planning is very practical and effective, at least for ‘big vista’ type compositions where the overall shape of the land is important – Google has not as yet recorded sufficient detail to enable anyone to decide in advance which trees to include in an image – give it time though.
Would I feel in some way better about the image if I’d not worked out roughly where to stand before I got there? I think not. I might have lost some time in searching around, up and down the slope which, as I’ve mentioned, is verging on being very steep. I might even not have found the spot, or left insufficient time to find it and found the valley even darker than it was when I arrived. If either of those things were true, then I’d possibly have felt some aching of the legs afterwards too. More probably, not being confident of how good the composition would be in advance, I’d not even have left home at six in the evening, aiming for a vaguely-defined point two hours travel away, so I’d not actually have made the capture at all.
Yes, perhaps the process is marginally less Romantic than wandering the fells hopefully in search of surprise compositions, but I’d emphasise the ‘marginal’ aspect quite strongly. It was raining, cold, and windy up there, and getting dark; had I not been near-certain of a good composition, I suspect that I would have turned back. This refutation is perhaps a largely pragmatic one, but I think it’s also convincing. I’m certainly not advocating doing this for every image; that simply wouldn’t be possible. Using the technique for certain types of composition, however, at least as a means of getting an idea of whether it might ‘work’ and where to start, seems to me to be a very helpful addition to the set of methods for pre-visualising compositions.
I’d be interested in hearing your views, especially if you disapprove of using such technological techniques for pre-composition, or pre-visualisation.
Since I first published this article, Stephen Trainor, who wrote TPE, and Bruce Percy have jointly published an e-book in which Stephen describes all the facets of TPE and Bruce relates this to how he uses it in his work, in combination with Google Earth. i.e. exactly the same topic as this article, but with rather more ‘how to’ detail! I recommend it if you’re interested in taking this approach to planning images. ‘Understanding Light with The Photographer’s Ephemeris’