Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: Google Earth visualisation (and the need to pay more attention!)

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.

CautleySpout: detail 1

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

Google Earth capture

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.

Crinkled land

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.

Cautley Spout

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.

Cautley Spout

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.

Cautley Spout

Cautley Spout

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 :-)

Cautley Spout

A wee bit damp

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.

6 Responses to “Musings on: Google Earth visualisation (and the need to pay more attention!)”

  1. Padraig

    Hi Mike, thanks for the interesting article. I routinely use TPE, Google Earth / aerial images (and Streetview!) to research a new (or old!) area prior to a visit. In fact, Streetview was influential in deciding / confirming the precise location of our recent holiday in the west of Ireland!

    I also use Where’s the Path -> http://wtp2.appspot.com/wheresthepath.htm
    and geograph – http://www.geograph.org.uk/

    An example from Streetview -> http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Wincle,+Macclesfield,+United+Kingdom&hl=en&ll=53.203701,-2.070647&spn=0.000184,0.000687&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=31.564064,56.513672&vpsrc=6&t=h&z=21&layer=c&cbll=53.203701,-2.070647&panoid=EsZq8NXyZve03sexe8J65w&cbp=12,215.19,,0,-5.45

    inspired this -> http://www.flickr.com/photos/purefinder/5311986019/

    • Mike Green

      Hi Padraig,

      Thanks for those pointers. I’ve not used Streetview for planning images before – mainly since I don’t often make photographs near where the Streetview cameras have been, though. That example you provided is excellent: I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that an actual photograph from a Streetview vehicle would be so close, but it’s somehow still very impressive!

      ‘Where’s the path’ looks rather good – I’ve bookmarked that. I use ‘Quo’, which is a client application involving local OS maps and [recently] a similar ability to overlay/inset a Google Earth view. ‘Where’s the path’ appears to offer similar functionality in a browser, so I’m sure that’ll come in handy at some point. Useful to know about :-)

      Thanks very much for reading and commenting.


  2. Lizzie Shepherd

    A very interesting piece, Mike – particularly as I’ve finally paid a visit to the wonderful Howgill Fells, My husband and I had a fabulous walk there on Sunday – Circular from Cross Keys walking past Cautley Spout, up and round to the Calf and along the ridge for a good while, down to the outskirts of Sedberg and back round to the inn. Super walk and loved the scenery – was lucky to get some good light and shade with the clouds early on, though it wasn’t a photo trip as such ;)

    One of the things that occurred to me was that, on the walk we did, you didn’t get a good angle that really showed the Falls to their maximum. I wondered whether one would get something from the distance but wasn’t sure – you’ve proved you very much do. It also brings into play the lovely stripey bands to the right of the falls. I took a few shots including these but, from the path, they are a little separate from the falls and the balance is not quite so good.

    Anyway, hope to make it for a proper photography session there soon – having discovered it at last ;)

    • Mike Green

      Thanks! Glad you found it worth reading, Lizzie :-)

      That’s a really nice circular walk, and Sunday was a remarkably fine day (I was about 20 miles West of there, in the Lakes, and it was actively hot!).

      To get the angles I have on the spout, with those sweeping, colourful curves, you have to head a fair way up to the right of the path from the pub, quite soon after leaving the road really. Perhaps a few hundred metres to the right after about 5-700m is about it; it gives a little height and the right angle. Very much worth the small detour, especially when you’re specifically on a photography outing next time. My images are almost certainly geo-tagged on Flickr.

      Best of luck with your next visit and very pleased that you enjoyed the bizarrely little-known gem of the Howgills.

      • Lizzie Shepherd

        Thanks for getting back Mike! and for the heads up on the view of the Spout ;) We both thought it was a fabulous place – loved the shapes of the fells – bleak in a beautiful way – and then the contrast of those green valleys below. The weather was a wee bit too good in the afternoon but I was pleasantly surprised how much cloud was there to start – hence I was able to get a few worthwhile images. Funnily enough Rob wanted to do Scafell Pike but I felt too far for a day’s drive – so it was down to my suggestion of Howgills or Whernside and he chose the former. Good move! ;)

        Anyway, it was good to remind myself of your superb images of the place today – and interesting to note I’d stumbled across some of the same places. I’d remembered the Zip one you had in OL but hadn’t gone back to look at it for a while. Never like to look at other work just before I go somewhere as I ‘try’ not to be influenced by anything other than my reactions but not always possible ;)


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