A Resolution You Can Keep! Plan Those Alignments!

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution you can easily complete in just an hour on New Years Day (or any day, for that matter). And it will pay photographic dividends all year. It’s easy! And free!

The sun setting at the end of a long bridge. The full moon rising in alignment with a pier. Lucky shots? Not at all! But with a little planning, you too can be there, fully prepared to make these photos as they happen.

Every New Years Day, I make a list of locations in my area where I have easy access, where an alignment with the rising or setting sun or full moon would make a dramatic image. I live near the beach, walking distance to a few piers, and an easy drive to several more. I imagine what it’ll look like with the sun rising from the ocean straight down these piers. In your area, you may find a long road off to the horizon, or a bridge, or from a high viewpoint of one building to a significant landmark like a skyscraper, or from a mountain vista to another mountain peak, or down a river, or along a canyon.

With this list in hand, determine when a sun or moon rise or set will align. And that’s the easy part! There’s a free web application called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE), found at https://app.photoephemeris.com. An ephemeris is an organized prediction of the position of heavenly bodies such as the sun and moon. TPE automates this interactively. TPE displays a Google Map, and overlays pointers to where the sun and moon will rise and set on the chosen day, which defaults to the current day. You simply click the map wherever you wish to investigate.

To get started, drag the map to your area, then select “satellite” view with the button in the upper left, so you can recognize landmarks. Use the “pin and vector” icon (upper right), and drag this pin to the spot where you plan to place your camera. (These items are circled in figure 1.) It will show sun and moon data for the current day and time.

Figure 1. An overview example of a pier in The Photographer’s Ephemeris, web version.

Let’s inspect my example, figure 1. I navigated to Kitty Hawk Pier in Kitty Hawk, NC, near my home. I dropped the pin and vectors to a spot just outside the pier building, where I can look down the length of the pier. Eight pointers are shown. Only four are important to us for this exercise. They show the direction to look for sun rise and set, moon rise and set. Since at the time I did this, both the moon and sun were “up” over the horizon, there’s pointers to their current position, and opposite pointers showing the shadows they cast. The current position lines are unimportant for this planning work. The yellow lines are always for the sun, the blue lines always for the moon. In this example, these lines are, clockwise around the screenshot, starting at the approximate 4 o’clock position, the thick light blue line pointing right and downward from the pin (roughly East Southeast) is the position of the moonrise on the day of this example. Next we find a thick light yellow line pointing toward the position of the sunrise. I made this screenshot at a time when the sun and moon were up, so we have vectors pointing to them – thin medium yellow for current sun direction, then thin medium blue for current moon direction. (If either the sun or moon were not “up,” their respective thin current position lines would not be shown.) Then we find the thick yellow line showing the direction of the day’s sunset, then the thick blue line showing the direction of the day’s moonset. Continuing around the top of the image, we find a a thin yellow line, then a thin blue line, indicating the direction of sun and moon shadows. Notice that in this example, none of the lines align with the pier. No interesting alignments happening on this day at Kitty Hawk Pier.

Figure 2. A sunrise alignment is found on May 18, 2019 at 5:54am.

Using the < and > buttons, I can advance or back up a day at a time. Each time I click one, I see the sunrise and sunset angles change a small amount. (The moon angles change dramatically each day.) With these buttons, or if I get impatient I can use the date field or calendar button directly, I can narrow in on when the sun aligns with my object, the pier. I find that on May 18, 2019, the sun will rise straight down Kitty Hawk Pier. I make a note of this on my electronic calendar, and set an appropriate reminder of the upcoming event. From the table at the bottom of this snip from TPE, I can see that the sunrise is at 5:54am. I will need to set an alarm so that I get myself dressed, caffeinated, transported, and set up to photograph the event.

If sunrise or sunset aligned once in the year before the summer solstice, it’ll align again after the solstice. Find and plan that too.

Not all landmarks will have a sunrise or sunset alignment because of their orientation, or lack of an accessible vantage point. If there’s not a clear view of the horizon, this isn’t a choice location for this type of work.

It doesn’t happen every year, if at all. But check for full moon alignments. I found one in 2018 for Kitty Hawk Pier. TPE makes it easy to get to the day of the full moon. See figure 3. The |< and >| icons will cycle thru the four moon phases.

  1. New Moon, in which the moon is not visible since the sun lights the side facing away from the earth.
  2. First Quarter, in which the moon is half lit and rises at mid day.
  3. Full Moon, where the moon rises at sunset and is fully lit.
  4. Third Quarter, where the moon half lit and sets at mid day.

Full Moon is most interesting, since the full face of the moon is lit, and the moon is rising as the sky is darkening. Every fourth click of the >| button is a full moon. We can recognize a Full Moon, since a Full Moon cell appears in the table, and the moon is at or very near 100% on the Moonrise cell. I found that on December 22, 2018, the full moon rise aligned with Kitty Hawk Pier, and got the image in figure 4. I was out there and shooting, due to the planning I did this time last year, and the entry and reminder I set on my electronic calendar. Often, the weather doesn’t cooperate, but this time it did, and I was ready!

Figure 3. A full moon alignment found on December 22, 2018. They do not happen every year!
Figure 4. On December 22, 2018, the full moon rose in a rare alignment with Kitty Hawk Pier, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Once you’ve investigated one location for the entire year, move to another location and repeat. Consider that the other end of the road or bridge or pier may be another of these locations!

Planning these alignments is an easy resolution to keep. You can complete it in an hour or so, with a laptop and your favorite refreshment, in front of the TV with a bowl game on. You’ll reap benefits all year! You’ll be out there making the images your photo buddies just wish for.

Happy New Year, and happy photographing!

Note that TPE on the web is free. There is a reasonable fee for TPE mobile apps. I find the web app easiest to use for this annual planning. The mobile apps are handy in the field, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

Figure 5. The setting sun, touching down at the end of Manns Harbor Bridge, as seen from the Roanoke Island end, Manteo, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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– Dan