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Planning Your Next Trip - Devil's Tower Case Study

A few tools and some advance planing can greatly increase your chances of getting some great shots.

It is amazing how technology has improved our chances of capturing great photos. Often times we thing about advances in cameras and editing software. Some of these have truly been game changers. One area of technology people often overlook is planning applications.

Early in my career, there was a sign hanging in the conference room that said "failure to plan is planning to fail." I think when it comes to travel photography, this can certainly ring true. This is especially true when we are traveling on our own to unfamiliar places.

Early in December, I decided to spend a day at Devil's Tower in Wyoming. The plan was to arrive the evening before, and then spend the entire day at Devil's Tower National Monument. Since I only had one day, I needed to have a good plan in place to make sure I was in the right place at the right time of day. I always start my planing using the Photographer's Ephemeris on my computer. This tool runs in a browser and shows things like the path of the moon, sun and Milky Way. It also provides the timing of things like sunrise, sunset, etc.

Planning Sunrise

For sunrise, I wanted to get the morning light on the tower as opposed to getting the actual sunrise. I needed to know where the sun would be early morning, being careful not to have it directly over my shoulder.

To access the Photographer's Ephemeris, open a browser and go to There is a free version that is pretty limited, and a paid "pro" version that provides all of the tools that one would need. After logging in, I can use the search tool to search for Devil's Tower National Monument, and then select GO. This results in a map view of the area:

In the upper left, I can enter a specific date, and the slider on the bottom allows me to select the time of day. As I do that, the lines showing the direction of the sun and moon from the pin move. In this screenshot, I have 8:15AM selected. This is about 20 minutes after sunrise. I can see that the sun will be half way between the entrance station and the staff housing area.

I can get a better sense by using the sphere. To access the sphere, click on the work SPHERE in the upper right. This puts the ephemeris into sphere mode. By enabling the 3D Topography (the triangle symbol on the top center), I can get a 3D rendering showing where the sun is hitting the monument.

Notice the line from the sun to the monument. It shows where the sun will be hitting. The other thing that is nice about this view is that it does give an indication as to how high the sun will be in the air. Another pretty handy feature is that it shows where the shadows are going to fall. This will also help give a sense as to how the shot will look.

Based on these two views, there seems to be two spots that look like they will work. The first spot is outside the entrance station. The other spot is over by the camping area near the staff housing. What I don't have a sense of is what objects might be around those spots. After all, I will want something in the foreground that helps the image, and at the same time not have any distractions. For this part of my planning, I turn to Google Earth. With Google Earth, I can see what photos others have taken from these spots.

Clicking on each of the photo circles will show the photo. I can see that people have taken photos in the same location, so that seems to validate my plan.

Planning Sunset

I follow the same approach for sunset to come up with some locations.

At first glance, the Red Beds Trailhead looks like a good spot. Unfortunately, having been there before, I know that there are trees and buildings in the way. The Joyner Ridge Trailhead looks promising. It is almost 90 degrees to the tower, so the lighting should be quite dramatic. Switching to the sphere validates my assumption.

Now that I have the two parts of my day planned out, I can work on the time in between. That included some hiking as well as shooting from some other angles.

The Results

The above shot was taken just outside the gate. I was surprised to find the building since this did not show up on any of the photos on Google Earth, nor did it show up when I did a Flickr search. I thought this made a fantastic foreground for the tower.

This shot was taken from behind the trading post about 20 minutes after the previous shot. The sun did peek out a little for this shot which gave me some of that golden glow.

This shot was taken from an area over by the staff housing. It is a sculpture that is representing a smoke ring. I saw several similar shots on Google Earth and thought it would be fun to see what I could capture.

After my hike, I decided to drive around outside the park to an area I saw marked on the map as a viewpoint. The angle of the sun was perfect for this image. It also looked like sunset was going to be nice since the clouds were clearing out.

Nope, the clouds came right back. This shot was taken just before sunset at 4:07 from the Joyner's Ridge Trailhead. I walked out into the field to minimize the amount of bare ground.

After sunset, the sky really lit up. I walked across the street from the trailhead to get this shot.


With a little planning, using just a couple of tools, I was able to plan out my trip. This allowed me to not only get into position at the proper time, but also get in a nice hike around the monument.

If you would like to learn more about travel photography and trip planning join me on February 10th at the Travel Photography Essentials class being offered through Centennial School District's Community Education Program. You can register using the following link:


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