Thursday, December 12, 2013

The sunrise challenge

Here's a fun project which you you might like to try.  It can be very addictive.

The challenge is to capture the sunrise, sunset, moonrise or moonset over a famous landmark, with a nice big sun/moon alongside the landmark.  For example here's the sun rising over Windsor Castle on Thursday 5th December 2013:

What do you need to do this? Not much really:

  • A camera and a tripod.
  • A big lens.  (We know where you can get one of them!)  The photo above was taken with a Canon 500mm f/4 on a Canon 40D.
  • A copy of The Photographer's Ephemeris ("TPE"). This brilliant software is available as a FREE download for Windows/Apple desktops, and an inexpensive app for iOS/Android, here.
  • Imagination and patience.
  • A decent weather forecast and a bit of luck.

Researching the location

The first thing to do is to work out how far away you need to be. To do this, you need to visualise how big you want the sun/moon to be alongside your chosen landmark. In this case, I thought getting the sun to be about 1/3rd as big as the castle would provide a nice composition. Windsor Castle is about 300 metres long, so I'd want the sun to look as big as a 100-metre object would be if it was at the castle. With me so far? Now in reality the sun and moon are roughly 120 times as far away as they are big, so I'd need to take the photo from a range of 120 times 100 metres, which is 12 km. Roughly. This isn't an exact science.

Having decided on the range, the next task is to find a suitable location at roughly the correct range, from which you can see your landmark on the horizon. Google Maps is your friend here, and a bit of local knowledge does't hurt. If you don't know the location but you suspect it might be suitable, you can often find images on the internet which will help you decide without the need for a site visit. (We'll see an example of that later.)

When you're thinking about locations, you need to bear in mind the direction in which the sun/moon will rise and set.  This varies from day to day, and there's a little bit more variation in the north of the UK than in the south.  Sun/moon rise is at a compass bearing between about 050° and 130° (from north-east to south-east, roughly); sun/moon set is at a compass bearing between about 230° and 310° (from south-west to north-west, roughly).  So there's no point looking for locations which are too close to due north or south from your target.

Researching the opportunity

The Photographer's Ephemeris will show you the direction and time of sun/moon rise/set from any location on any date.  It's amazingly easy to use.  Here's an example.  I know a good spot in Cookham Dean from where Windsor Castle is visible across the fields in the distance to the south-east.  Measuring it on Google Maps showed that it is about 12km away, which is just what I wanted.  TPE showed that, from this location, the sun rises directly over the castle (on a compass bearing of 126.5°) in early December and again in early January.  Here's a screen shot from TPE showing the sunrise on 5th December (I've added the inset for clarity):

Here's where you might need a bit of patience.  Sunrise and sunset drift around the compass over the course of a year: in the north-east and north-west at midsummer, in the east and west at the equinoxes, and in the south-east and south-west in midwinter.  So you might have to wait several months before your opportunity arises.  The patterns of moonrise and moonset are harder to describe and the best thing to do is experiment with TPE.

For the Windsor Castle shot, the ideal date to see the sun rise directly behind the castle would have been around Tuesday 3rd December. But the weather was consistently rubbish that week, and the first time we had decently clear skies in the morning was Thursday 5th.  If the weather hadn't played ball at all, the next window of opportunity would be around 4th-11th January; and after that, the next opportunity would be in December next year!  Like I said, you might need a bit of patience.

How big a lens?

I've blogged about this sort of thing before: see "How big a lens do I need?"

In general, the sun/moon will fill the frame of your camera if your full-frame equivalent focal length is about 2400mm.  Obviously you don't need or want to fill the frame with the sun/moon though: it tends to restrict the compositional possibilities.  You can see from the first picture above that a focal length of 500mm on a crop-sensor DSLR, which is about 800mm in full-frame equivalent terms, gives a reasonable result.  But that's pretty much the minimum, I think.  A bit longer lens probably wouldn't hurt.

Our suggestions for lenses for this sort of project would be along the following lines:

  • Full-frame camera: 800mm lens (maybe with extender /teleconverter), 600mm lens with extender/teleconverter, 500mm lens with extender/teleconverter
  • Crop-sensor camera: 600mm lens, 500mm lens (maybe with extender/teleconverter), 400mm lens with extender/teleconverter

You can see all the long lenses which we stock here.

Getting the shot

Arrive on site. Set up camera and lens on tripod. Point towards chosen landmark. Wait.  Press shutter button.

It's almost that easy. Getting the exposure right can be a bit tricky, so bracketing is probably a good idea.  You might also want to think about shooting a timelapse, if you have an interval timer.  But it's really not hard.

It's also worth remembering that, if it's the sun rather than the moon you're chasing, the best colours in the sky are before sunrise and after sunset. If you've brought a wide-angle lens with you as well - and it would be a waste not to - then you should aim to arrive on site half an hour before sunrise, or stay on site until half an hour after sunset.

Enjoying the results of your efforts

To whet your appetite, here are a few more pictures from the Windsor castle session on 5th December.  Sunrise on that date was going to be at 07:52, according to TPE.  I was on site around 07:30.

07:43 - Waiting for the sun to rise

07:44 - 180° panoramic view of the sky - glad I brought the wide-angle lens!

07:45 - Sky brightening over the castle

07:49 - Sky is still beautiful
07:51:40 - First glimpse of the sun.

07:53 - The sun is half way above the horizon now and already the colours in the sky
are beginning to wash out. Show over, time to go home and thaw out.

Another potential opportunity

Remember I said earlier that you could research potential locations on the internet? Well, here's an example.

I think it would be fun to catch the moon rising or setting over the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf, especially if we can time it when the lights are all on and there'a a little bit of light in the sky.

A bit of research on Google Maps and TPE suggests that Shooters Hill in Greenwich might be a suitable site. From there, Canary Wharf is about 7km away on a bearing of roughly 300°.  It's very easy to find photos on the internet which confirm that the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf are visible from there.  It's south-east of Canary Wharf, so we'll be looking for the moon setting rather than rising. And TPE shows that this will be happening in only a few days time!  Here's a screen shot for Sunday 15th December:

The only snag is that on that date the moon will be setting at 05:51. Hmm.  Maybe a couple of days later would be better: on Tuesday 17th the moon sets in virtually the same position, at a much more civilised time of 07:37, and it's a full moon too.

Maybe I'll see you there?

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