If you’re planning a shooting trip to a new location and want to maximise the time for taking pictures, a little pre-trip research can help you to locate the best vantage points beforehand. Two of the best tools for doing this are topographic maps and Google Earth. In this feature we’ll provide some tips on how to use them.


If you’re planning a shooting trip to a new location and want to maximise the time for taking pictures, a little pre-trip research can help you to locate the best vantage points beforehand. Two of the best tools for doing this are topographic maps and Google Earth. In this feature we’ll provide some tips on how to use them.

1. Topographic Maps
Topographic maps display landforms on a two-dimensional sheet of paper, showing prominent features like hills and mountains, lakes, roads, tracks, plains and rivers. Once you can ‘read’ the code for these maps, it’s relatively easy to visualise the landscape each one depicts. With the ready availability of GPS devices, it is now easy to navigate to precise locations. The combination of a topographic map and a GPS can be a great time-saver for photographers.

One key feature of a topographic map is contour lines. These represent points on the map that are the same height above or below a known reference point (normally sea level). Contour lines will show you how high a hill is and allow you to work out how steep the incline is that leads to the summit. The closer they are together, the steeper the slope.

Use contour lines to locate vantage points that provide an overview of a landscape. Check to see whether there are mountain peaks that will light up at sunset or cliffs that provide a panoramic view over an area of water or land. You can also check the direction of the slope against the compass directions printed on the map. This helps you to find out whether a particular area will be illuminated better by the rising or setting sun.

All this information helps you to be in a position where you are ready to shoot when the right lighting conditions appear. But that’s not all; because it shows you where north is (and, therefore, all the other cardinal points), a topographic map can also give you some idea of the best season of the year to visit a particular place.

Geoscience Australia produces a topographic map series of the entire country at varying scales. You can view them at http://www.ga.gov.au/nmd/products/maps/raster250k/. An excellent guide to interpreting topographic maps can be downloaded free of charge from http://www.ga.gov.au/image_cache/GA7194.pdf.

Some small scale maps are available as free downloads from the site but if you want maps at a larger scale (1:250 000, which covers 2.5km in one centimetre, is recommended for navigation), you usually have to purchase them. A complete set of Australian maps is available on DVD for $99.

Once you have the maps, you can determine the best vantage points for taking photos. Look for high vantage points and prominent features like headlands, mountain peaks and beaches. Then check to see whether features like streams, lakes, rocks or open woodlands exist in the vicinity.

The example below shows one of the most photogenic areas in Tasmania, the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, which is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The region is an alpine wilderness dominated by dolerite peaks, highland tarns, and lakes and alpine vegetation. At least two hours of bushwalking is required to reach the interesting parts, so it’s a prime example of a situation where prior research is advantageous.


The screen shot above shows part of a topographic map of the heart of the area. Using this map it is easy to identify a potential vantage point for taking panoramic shots. The red circle outlines a bluff that rises roughly 200 metres above the valley floor.


A photograph taken from the top of the bluff identified in the topographic map.

2. Google Earth
Google Earth (http://earth.google.com/index.html) is a free online tool that lets you ‘fly’ to almost anywhere on Earth and view satellite images, maps, landforms and buildings. You can save details of the places you ‘explore’ and use the information for planning trips. Many of the views simulate a 3D effect and you can change viewing angles to see topographic features. The user interface is straightforward and easy to use. Essentially, you start with a view of the entire world and progressively narrow it until you find the place you want.


The Google Earth user interface showing Australia and surrounding islands. The tools in the upper right corner enable you to zoom in and out, rotate and re-orientate the view. To locate a place quickly, simply type its name into the “Fly to” search bar in the upper left corner.


Keying in ‘Simpson Desert’ produced the view shown above with the sand dune ridges that characterise the area.


Zooming out allows you to view the surrounding area. (The thin white lines show state boundaries.)


Selecting ‘Map’ produces a map of the area.


The topographic map from Geoscience Australia provides more information than Google Maps for most isolated areas.


Selecting ‘Terrain’ shows landforms in graphical format. If you click on the ‘More’ tab you can locate places where people have posted photos of a particular area and locations that have entries in Wikipedia.


Choosing the ‘Satellite’ view allows you to see images of the area photographed from space.


Zooming in lets you examine the area more closely. (The small blue and white squares mark places where photos have been posted.)


Clicking on a ‘photo’ square enlarges the image.


Some people have also posted stories (often with pictures) describing their experiences in the area.

All of this information is useful for planning trips. But there’s more.

A new Sunlight facility enables users to simulate different sun angles, notably sunrise and sunset. This can show you where the light reaches at different times of the year and can be helpful in deciding when to visit particular locations.


The toolbar near the top right edge allows you to change the time of day – and, therefore, the position of the sun – showing you which sides of landforms are illuminated. (Note: the blocky appearance of the image is due to the high degree of enlargement.)


With information like this, it’s easy to work out the ideal position for taking shots like the ones shown above and below.


This image of South Australia’s Lake Bonney is on display in Photo Review’s new gallery at www.gallery.photoreview.com.au, which uses Google Maps on each image to show the location.
Tracking the Sun
Knowing whether the sun will be high in the sky (as in summer and in the tropics) or low (as in winter and at high latitudes) can influence the time of year you choose to visit a particular place. And you don’t need special tools to work out roughly where the sun will breast the horizon.

As a simple guide, near the equinoxes (equal day and night length), which occur around March 21 and September 21, the sun rises due east and sets due west. When days are longer than 12 hours, the positions of sunrise and sunset are displaced towards the south. When the days are shorter than 12 hours, the rise and set positions shift towards the north. For every hour of sunlight that the day is either longer or shorter than 12 hours, the sun will be an additional 7.5 degrees north or south of due east and west.