Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: using technology to pre-visualise images

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.

Google Earth pre-visualisation 'Hidden valley'

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.

'Hidden valley'

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’

12 Responses to “Musings on: using technology to pre-visualise images”

  1. Scott Bacon

    Excellent article. FWIW, I follow the exact same process, especially for my local photography in the western U.S. The fact that some label this cheating is just silly. And, in my experience, such notions are often rooted in jealousy (of your expertise and the resulting beautiful image). Keep up the good work!

  2. Dan

    Hi Mike, thanks for this article, having only discovered the TPE in December I was already familiar with Google Earth, but had not used the ground level zoom in v6. I do most of my shooting at the coast in the summer months (Southern Hemisphere) whereas I live inland for most of the rest of the year. I see no problem with scouting out future shoots during the winter months using tools like this.

    At the end of the day if you are looking to make a notable exposure then this technique merely serves as a really useful tool in the planning and execution of a successful shoot. I think all artists have a preconceived idea of how they want the final product to look. The difference being that the masters are able to translate what is in their minds-eye into a finished product. If using this tool helps me with exploring how to get to the finished product in my own work then I give it a big thumbs up!

  3. Mike Green - http://www.mikegreenimages.co.uk

    Thanks, Scott. I don’t think many people are very serious in criticising using technology in this way; it was just a comment a couple of people had made and provided me with a nice excuse to write about these things, since I think they’re great tools for planning and making the best use of time.

  4. Mike Green - http://www.mikegreenimages.co.uk

    Thank you, Dan. I only discovered the new ‘ground level view’ feature a couple of months ago – I think it appeared in about November last year. Great to hear that several people are doing this sort of thing. I have no compunction at all in using both tools and shall do so whenever appropriate. Certainly, when travelling somewhere distant for a few days, it makes a lot of sense to be efficient when ‘on location’.

  5. David Barrett

    A very useful piece, Mike.

    I’ve been using and showing people TPE for about a year now. Strangely, many of my students seem reluctant to use it. Combining it with Google Earth is clearly something I need to explore since I’ve been using some mapping software (Memory Map) in “3D” which is very clunky. Having said that I just fired up Google Earth 6 on my mac—which has been happily updating itself through several major versions since I last used it—and everything ground to a halt. Probably more to do with not quitting Lightroom and Photoshop which had both filled my still insufficient RAM while processing too many consecutive images for a waiting client.

    So I am looking forward to joining these geographic dots.

    By the way if you need somewhere to park next time you are in the Howgills. I live in Howgill and have a parking space for you. Perhaps we could plan a joint expedition one day, especially since you live within walking distance of those two trees!


  6. Mike Green - http://www.mikegreenimages.co.uk

    Glad it was useful, David! And thanks for your comments. I think Google Earth 6 does start demanding rather a lot of memory once you get down to ground level; I’ve noticed that on my machine, so that’s probably it. I’m sure it’ll work when you don’t have other memory-hungry programme – if not, Google will have really shot themselves in the foot a bit…

    Out of interest, do your students specify /why/ they are reluctant to use TPE? It’s saved me lots of time in the past, through knowing when to arrive at places, and it’s certainly elegantly easy to use. Is it reticence to ‘be bothered’, or what?

    Thanks for the parking space offer – I may well take you up on that one and reciprocate on the trees. I’ll get in touch by email to discuss.


  7. Tim Smalley

    Hi Mike,

    I enjoyed the read and agree with you – there’s no harm using the technology available. You still have to be able to put your work behind a computer into a cohesive composition when you do get out in the field behind the camera – that’s the part people think is the easy bit… and to some degree they’re right, but in many respects they’re very wrong.


    • Mike Green - http://www.mikegreenimages.co.uk

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, I think I’d argue that there’s a fair bit of ‘not easy’ stuff involved in getting it right once you’re in the field, or in this case ‘on the steep slope’; not to mention then making the raw capture into something which supports the original vision! Very much an holistic process where all the parts are important, I feel.



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