Improve Your Panoramas by Improving Your Timing

By M. Denis Hill

“In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared minds.”
Louis Pasteur’s comment is as applicable to art as science. The art of panoramic photography benefits mightily from the preparation that puts us in the right place at the right time.

We inevitably prepare by being aware of the seasons and time-of-day and how they impact our work at a given location at a given hour, on a given day. You just can’t photograph snow in July at most locations! I know that I’ve never had luck shooting sunsets at noon.

So a little preparation can enhance the chances of getting the dramatic shots we crave. In particular, I’m talking about astronomical preparation.

Consulting readily available data sources, we can incorporate knowledge of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, and related information into our travel plans. Here are some astrological data points worth considering when you sketch out your next photo trip:

  • Sunrise/sunset - If you want to shoot a sunrise or capitalize on predawn twilight, shoot in the winter, when night is longer and it’s easier to get up and to the target area ahead of the sun. Knowing the time of sunset allows you to plan your work, conclude other business, and be on the spot ready to shoot when you need to be there.
  • Phase of the moon - Often the difference between a good shot and a great one is a full or new moon, rather than some intermediate phase.
  • Moonrise/moonset - When and where these happen can make or break a shot. Coordinate moonrise and set relative to twilight (predawn or post sunset).
  • Latitude - You can’t change the latitude of most landscape subjects, but knowing in advance the angle at which the sun and moon will travel can put you in a position to precisely plan your shooting. When your planned composition includes two fixed landmarks and the sun or moon, there may only be a few days a year when a shot is possible.

Thanks to computers and the Internet, it’s now easy to calculate the precise information we need to plot out panoramic shoots. We can enter data like city and state, latitude and longitude, date, and generate tables with all the information we need. Following is a summary of software, services, books, and a magazine that provide relevant sun and moon information.

Published Information

Outdoor Photographer magazine has a regular department called “Almanac”, which includes sunrise/sunset for latitudes 25 degrees north through 70 degrees north in 5 degree increments for the month of each issue’s cover date. Full moonrise and moonset data are also included. These are published for five dates during the month. The magazine includes moon phases with dates for first quarter, full, last quarter, and new moon.

Two books germane to this topic are joint publications of the Astronomical Applications Department, U.S. Naval Observatory, and Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office, Royal Greenwich Observatory. The Astronomical Almanac and the Nautical Almanac are published annually, with each edition containing the data for one year. They are available from The Stationery Office in the U.K. ( ) and Government Printing Office bookstores in 21 major U.S. cities as well as Pueblo, Colo., and Laurel, Md. The GPO order desk can be reached at 1-202-512-1800.

The Astronomical Almanac contains precise ephemerides of the sun, moon, planets, and satellites, data for eclipses, and other astronomical phenomena for a given year. Most data are tabulated at one-day intervals. The Nautical Almanac contains the astronomical data required for marine navigation. Most data on the main pages are tabulated at hourly intervals to a precision of 0.1 arcminute. Main pages contain the Greenwich hour angle and declination of the sun, moon, and navigational planets; the Greenwich hour angle of Aries; positions of the navigational stars; rise and set times of the sun and moon for a range of latitudes; and other data.

Online Information

The easiest way to tap into sun and moon data is through a variety of sites on the World Wide Web. Many of these actually refer back to the same source of information: the Naval Observatory. Here’s a quick rundown on some good sites, as well as some novel ones.

New England photographer Leslie O’Shaughnessy provides the ability to compute sunrise, sunset and twilight for cities with airports worldwide ( ). This will get you closer to your destination than many of the other online calculators. I tested for Moab and it found Canyonlands Field and gave me data for that site.

Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office touts its astronomical data ( m ) for “a wide range of users, including professional and amateur astronomers, mariners, aviators, surveyors, the armed forces, lawyers, religious groups, architects, schools, diary and calendar publishers, photographers and film crews.” What I found there is a set of precalculated tables you can download.

WORLDTIME® comes to us from Germany, featuring an interactive world atlas, information on local time as well as sunrise and sunset times in several hundred cities, and a database of public holidays worldwide ( ). The developer provides a pleasing graphical interface ” graphic of the globe showing current areas in darkness and light ” that distinguishes this site. We Yanks have a choice of 38 U.S. cities. claims “Now you can calculate the sunrise, sunset, twilight, moonrise, moon set and phase times for any date in almost every city before any shoot.” I think the “almost every city” part is hyperbole. I didn’t see Salt Lake City or Los Angeles on the list! is the Naval Observatory site. Some of the online data available are Sunrise, Sunset, Moonrise, Moonset, and Twilight Data for One Day, a Table of Sunrise/Sunset, Moonrise/Moonset, or Twilight Times for an Entire Year, Moon Illumination, Phases of the Moon 1990-2005, and Table of Moon Illumination for an Entire Year. It works from a file with over 22,000 places in the U.S.

The Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission provides approximate time of sunrise and sunsets for the Colorado Plateau ( ), though I couldn’t find a photo credit for the panoramic shot at the top of this page. There’s also a sunrise/sunset table for the Moab area at .

We can thank Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre (sic.) & Broadcasting for the New York City Sunrise & Sunset Times provided at

Out here on the left coast, Griffith Observatory ( ) offers info such as sky report, eclipses, moon phases, moonrise/set, sunrise/set, sun’s path, tide tables, astronomical zodiac, and planetary alignments in the year 2000.

For those further west, the Australian Surveying & Land Information Group, Department of Industry, Science and Tourism provides sunrise, sunset and twilight times computation at . For lunar info, go to http://


Software solutions have several advantages over print and Internet sources of information. Software offers more selective data than books, and better graphical representation than most Web sites. Some software offers representations of data that are elsewhere unavailable. And your laptop computer brings infinite stores of information with you on location.

Stock photographer Charles Krebs (425-644-0077) has tailored his program, Suntracker, to the specific needs of photographers. An example of this approach is a report showing the position of the moon in 15-minute increments for two hours before and after sunset and sunrise. Since Krebs wrote Suntracker as an MS-DOS program, it runs under DOS, Windows 3.1, or Windows 95. His product, which is priced at $49, is the source of information published in Outdoor Photographer .

The Naval Observatory Multiyear Interactive Computer Almanac, (MICA) is touted as an easy-to-use program that provides much of the information printed in the annual Astronomical Almanac . It covers a 16-year period (1990-2005) and allows the user to tailor computations for a specific location and accepts input catalogs of celestial objects prepared by the user. Version 1.5 of MICA for both PCs and Macs is about to be released and orders for it are now being taken.

SunTimes for Windows ( ) generates sunrise and sunset tables for any year and for any location on Earth. Get monthly reference tables as output to the screen, printer, or to ASCII text files. There is a built-in database of thousands of cities worldwide. A color graphical display of the position of the sun shown across the local sky plots the sun at rise and set, and for every half-hour between. For those who plan their photos in excruciating detail, it’s possible to add the features of the local horizon like mountains, buildings, etc., by specifying the altitude and azimuth points. This program also calculates times of twilight and the maximum altitude of the sun, time of maximum altitude (local Noon) and hours of sunshine for each day. Besides rise and set times, get the horizon location, or azimuth, for where the sun rises and sets. The effects of refraction are even included for precise sunrise/sunset times. For high latitude locations, program indicates if the sun never rises or sets (midnight sun effect). This program for Windows 3.1 or 95 is priced at $59.95.

Moonrise version 3.2 ( ) advertised as a simple-to-use, yet accurate program designed to run on Windows 95 or Windows NT 3.51 or later. Moonrise for Windows 3.1 is available to download. Moonrise is a shareware program offered for free trial usage. If you keep it, you are expected to register it for $20.00 U.S.

Sunrise Sunset Calculator ( ) is a shareware program that calculates sunrise, sunset and twilight times for locations worldwide. Results are said to be accurate to within five minutes in Alaska, and more so elsewhere.

EarthWatch ( ) graphically presents in real-time a dynamic Mercator projection map of the world. Features include: day and night areas of the earth, sunrise and sunset times for a specified location and date, comparison of sunrise and sunset times with those of the previous day, tracking and display of latitude/longitude coordinates and major cities as you move the cursor over the map, position, age, and phase of the moon. Three map types are offered: elevation, natural features, or national boundaries.


As you can now see, there is no excuse for failing to consider celestial bodies in your next photographic itinerary. When the question is, “Where will the sun and moon be,” the answer is as close as the Internet, a book, or your computer. In fact, who among us is satisfied with a single camera? I say, we all need several of these sources.

One caveat: remember that your compass does not point to true north. To make your readings match the tables you’ll have to adjust your directions to true (map) bearings using the magnetic declination (variation) for each area you visit. You’ll find this information in USGS topographic maps or other sources.

Information published on the IAPP website at: http://
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