Planning a Photograph


© Richard Cox

Great light is essential to capturing a shot that is outstanding among other well composed and executed photographs. Once in a while you may get lucky, but learning to plan your photography will really improve your results.

For example, I was lookin for “a portrait of a tree”, when he stumbled upon this tree in a park on the bank of Lake Massabesic in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was a cloudy day, so he took a quick shot to document the place and to plan how to best capture this tree on film. The composition is good, but the photograph is dull and uninteresting.

Further inspection of the area revealed that this park is well traveled, and grass was patchy. Since the shot was was facing east, this eliminated a sunset shot where the tree would be illuminated by the setting sun.


© Richard Cox

I determined that a sunrise shot would be best where the tree was silhouetted against an array of pre-dawn colors. He watched for a weather report for a clear morning sunrise and returned for the shot.

I has recently developed a more “scientific” technique for planning a shot. This technique considers the precise angle of the sun at sunrise or sunset in order to predict the best time to return to capture the subject lit the way you want.

These instructions tell you how to determine when the sun will be low in the sky and the direction of light with respect to your subject. Ideally, you would take your photo during the magic hour — either a half hour before and after sunrise or sunset, but which? The answer depends on the direction in which your subject is facing and the angle of light that you seek. Further, The angle of the sun at a given location will change throughout the year.

Here are the steps to determine which days of the year will best meet your lighting specifications:

Use a compass to determine your subject’s direction

  • Align the colored end of the needle with “N”
  • Find the direction on the dial that points to your subject and note its location in degrees (usually written around the outside edge of the dial)
  • Make a note of the location.
  • For our tree example, we will assume that the compass shows its direction as 75 degrees.
  • Note that unless you have a compass that automatically adjusts for “True North”, this location is expressed in terms of “Magnetic North”.


If necessary, adjust your location for “True North”

  • This requires that you obtain the “declination” value for the area in which your subject resides
  • Click here to calculate declination. Enter a zipcode and then press “Compute!”. The declination is the first value in the table, marked with a “D”
  • Declination varies by date, which is why printed maps may show different values than you obtain with the online calculator.
  • A negative declination indicates that magnetic north is west of true north, positive values are east
  • To align your compass, you need to add the opposite of the declination value to your compass reading. Using our example in Manchester, NH, we get a declination of -15, so we add 15 to 75 and are now using 90 degrees (East) as our location.

Select the angle for the sun.

Do you want back lighting (like our tree at sunrise), direct lighting, or some angle in between?

  • Find the location where you would like the sun
  • For backlighting, its compass position will be the same as your subject (75 degrees in our example)
  • For direct lighting, add 180 degrees to the adjusted position of your subject (if the result is not between 0 and 360, then subtract 180 degrees). In the tree example, the result is 270 degrees (90 + 180)

Check sunrise/sunset forecasts

  • Be sure that the data includes the angle of rise and set with respect to “True North” (Azimuth)
  • Click here for data for the New England area. (Please send us links to data you find for other areas)
  • Check the sunrise and sunset Azimuth data for each month until you find the values that are near 90 degrees (for backlight) and 270 degrees (for direct light). Using the Manchester data, we learn that sunrise or sunset on September 24, 2003, will be “perfect” for our subject. For backlight, we would plan to arrive for sunrise (6:35 AM), or we would choose sunset (6:40 PM) for direct light.

Avoid getting too controlled by the science

  • Days immediately before and after the target will also work well
  • Check weather reports (The boating forecasts are useful for photographers) and other factors (like your personal schedule!) to refine your plan.
  • Consider tide information if your subject is at the seashore

The perfect light is very fleeting

Be sure to arrive well in advance of the “magic time” in order to be set up and ready to shoot.



Maine Fingers Photo Trip

My friend Michael and I went on a weekend trip to the Maine Fingers, a coastal section between Brunswick and Rockland where finger-like peninsulas beg for photographic exploration. The area is rich with landscapes, geology, architecture, and culture. The locals definitely have the advantage here, but for those who love exploration, this place is for you.

From Brunswick to Rockland the coast changes abruptly, and a network of long narrow peninsulas and islands make up an estuary coast. Although heavily populated and overgrown with trees, this section of Maine has huge potential for those photographers willing to make the effort to explore the area and hunt down the imagery in the thousands of inlets, islands, peninsulas, ponds, lakes, and coves that make up this unique ocean front.

Most main roads in this area run north/south down the center of the finger with not much to see. A heavy cover of trees on both sides creates a tunnel-like experience. At the end, everything opens up to reveal gems of photographing possibilities. Another big advantage to the north/south orientation is that you will have plenty of opportunities for both sunrise and sunset photography.

There are five main sections for exploration; each should take a good part of a day. I would plan my explorations for the middle part of the day, giving myself time to get back to the optimal “Magic Hour” spots for sunset and plan an early wakeup for sunrise photography.

  • Brunswick
  • Bath
  • Wiscasset
  • Damariscotta
  • Waldoboro
  • Thomaston

Our weekend trip allowed time for exploration of only the first three sections. We were able to make a quick trip through the Damariscotta area to Pemaquid Point to photograph Pemaquid Light.

As you follow our route through the fingers remember that nothing is a pure destination. We are simply providing a route that will get you close to many of the wonderful locations in this region of Maine. If you stop only at the places we identify, you are definitely missing many beautiful locations. You should take your time and explore any of the side-roads or towns/villages that interest you. Discover your own secret locations (there are certainly plenty of places to explore) and take photographs that are uniquely you.


Brunswick is located on the coast of Maine approximately 25 miles northeast of Portland, Maine’s largest city. Brunswick is the home of a naval air station, Brunswick Community College and Bowdoin College. The area is rich with history. The town ‘mall’ is another point of interest to many. It is a park-like area that runs along the middle of the street. In the winter the town maintains an ice skating area about the size of a small pond. The Bowden Collage campus is a good spot for fall color photography.

From Brunswick head south on rout 123 down Harpswell Neck to Potts Harbor where you will find a number of photographic opportunities. On the east side you will find Basin Cove, Peter Cove, and Basin Cove Falls. On the west side you will find Stover cove, and South Harpswell.

Head back up route 123 to Mountain Rd and then follow route 24 south to Long Cove, Reed Cove, and Lowell Cove . Continuing south you will cross over the unique Cribstone Bridge connecting Orrs and Bailey Islands. It is the only bridge of its kind built of granite blocks crisscrossed on the ledges. This allows the tide to flow freely through the bridge.

On the southern-most point on Route 24, you will find Bailey Island Mackerel Cove and Jaquish Gut.

Continue on route 24 past Mountain road and turn right onto Cundys Harbor Road and down to Hen Cove and Cundys Harbor. You are actually on Sebascodegan Island, which offers several great places for exploration. When finished here, continue north on route 24 to route 1 east to Bath.


Bath has been a shipbuilding center since colonial times, and is located upriver on the Kennebec River. It is rich with a seafaring history. Bath was listed as one of the “Best Small Cities in America” and was deemed a “Distinctive Destination” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. At one point there were over 200 shipbuilding firms in the area that has launched over 5,000 vessels. Bath is still the birthplace to many of United States Navy destroyers.

Head south from Bath on route 209 to Drummore Bay. Continue south on 209 and take a right onto Basin Road, where you will find many places to explore around the Basin. Back on 209 head south and explore the various vistas on routes 217 and 216.

Head North on 209 and take a right to continue south on 209 to Popham Beach State Park. There you will find Fort Baldwin and Fort Popham. Fort Baldwin is the older of the two and offers fewer photographic opportunities. Nearby Fort Popham, offers great architecture shots of its fort and stonework. Also in this area is the Popham Colony Site (1607), which is the first attempted English settlement on the northeast coast. Despite its failure, colonists produced the first ship built in the new world, the Virginia (1608).

Heading back up to Bath, you can now travel down Route 127 and onto Arrowsic and Georgetown Islands. There you will find Five Islands, Reid State Park, and Half Mile Beach.

The Town of Wiscasset is the Gateway to Mid-coast Maine. It’s a place where a rich maritime history and a bright technological future converge in “Maine’s Prettiest Village.”

From Wiscasset take route 1 south and then a left onto route 144 which will take you to Westport Island; where you will find Greenleaf Cove, Jewett Cove and many other places to explore on the southern tip and eastern side of the island.

After exploring Westport Island, head back to Wiscasset and south on route 27 where you are sure to find many photographs. We spent most of our time on in the coves on West Southport and Linekin Neck. The more tourist-oriented Boothbay Harbor does offer some photographic potential.


Damariscotta is an old Abenaki word for “river of many fishes”. Known for its spectacular natural landscapes.

From Damariscotta head south on 130/129 and then continue on 129 to South Bristol. As always on the way you will find many places to explore. There are some interesting places at Christmas Cove.

Once finished with South Bristol, head north on 129 until the road joins with route130. Head south on route 130 to New Harbor and Pemaquid point. Along the way you will find, on the west side of New Harbor, the Colonial Pemaquid Restoration. This is the site of an archaeological dig that has uncovered foundations of 16th and 17th-century settlements. Just south of there you will find Fort William Henry.

At the southern most point you will find the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse and the Fishermen’s Museum. This lighthouse is probably the most photographed lighthouse in the area. Most photographs are taken from the east side where one can catch the lighthouse reflections in the many pools of water left behind from high tide.

From Pemaquid Point head north on route 32, making a stop at Round Pond (actually an inlet) and another at Greenland Cove. On Keene Neck you will find the Hockomok Nature Trails.

Continue north on 32 and then south on 120 to the town of Friendship and Hatchet Cove. From there continue on 97 north to Thomaston.


Thomaston is located on the banks of the inlet that drains the Saint George River. Its first European presence was a trading post in 1630 that remained continuously open despite Indian raids.

From Thomaston, head south on route 131 to St. George where you will find Fort St. Georges. After exploring the fort, head south to Cutler Cove. You my want to take the western shore back roads so that you can also explore the various inlets and coves such as Cutler Cove, Otis Cove, Turkey Cove and Deep Cove. Continue north on 131 to explore the eastern side of the peninsula.

Once back in St George, head north on Route 73 to Owls Head.

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Other Information

We stayed at the Shore Hills Campgrounds on the Cross River in Boothbay. This “Base Center of Operations” was where each our daily trips began and terminated.

For most of the trip, we relied on the Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx to guide our exploring. Although built for hiking, this GPS also allows one to download and overlay maps, of the area. The unit does provide turn-by-turn navigation, like many of the Car GPS units. We just wanted to see where roads lead, so we could strategically follow roads to potential photographic spots. We were also able to use the unit to quickly mark points of interest for return trips when the light is optimal for photography.

Our basic plan was to spend from 10am to 3pm scouting out locations for landscape photography. We carried the  Brunton Eclipse 8099 compass with us so that we could determine what time of day would be best for photography. At 3pm we would begin formulating a plan for locations to visit for sunset photography. After sunset, we would head back to camp, make dinner formulate a plan for sunrise photography.

Among all the landscapes, and a harbor scenes there are also are a number of quaint photographic compositions that can be found in and among community neighborhoods, For example I found a row of mail boxes on a back street that could be a spectacular photograph in the right light.

Many roads shown on maps turned out to be private ways, causing us to seek alternate routes.

Glossary Index

Young Voices Sing


© Richard Cox

When I first heard about the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School a while back, I knew that there was a story to be told. Initially, I thought of a photography book, but by the time we got the necessary access to our subjects, we were more interested in multimedia productions. The school needed candid photos for many purposes such as brochures, web sites, invitations, and the yearbook. We donated our time and resources to the school and convinced them that they would also like to be the subject of a multimedia slide show. The Boston Archdiocesan Choir School, in residence at St. Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is home of the world famous Boston Boy Choir. It is a unique institution in the United States, combining a rigorous academic and musical program for boys in grades 5 through 8. The school accepts only boys who are both academically and musically talented for a program that requires long school days coupled with regular Sunday commitments. The reward for this work is an outstanding professional choral group. The choir, directed by Headmaster and Music Director John Dunn, often performs with other well-known music organizations, such as the Boston Sympony Orchestra. Performances often fill the boys’ Saturday and evening hours. We geared up for the project in late August of 2002, just before the start of the school year. We wanted our finished production to be a part of the 40th Anniversary celebration of the school’s founding in 1963 by noted Gregorian Chant scholar, Dr. Theodore Marier. Unfortunately, this precluded having graduation photographs. We wrapped up the acquisition of photos and audio material in January, completing the program by late February.

Here is the process we used to conduct our research and to gather our audio-visual materials:

  1. Prepared a general outline of the topics we wanted to cover
    • History
    • Audition Process
    • Adjusting to the School
    • Typical Day
    • Performance
    • Graduation and Moving on
    • Parent Commitment
  1. From the outline, we created a questionaire that was distributed to all the boys in grades 6-8
  2. We made several trips to the school to photograph all of the grades and classes and to interview the faculty and students selected based on the questionaires.
  3. We also recorded background sounds in classrooms, masses, and other venues
  4. Based on information we learned in interviews, we visited the school to capture special events
  5. We obtained permission from the school to utilize their recordings in our production


Experiments in Digital Montage


© Richard Cox

Impressionism: Experiments in Digital Montage is a five minute, two projector slide show that features 28 digital photo montages in their “before and after” versions. In July of 2002, we attended the New England Camera Club Council Conference at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, MA. We were intrigued by the “Photo Impressionism” work of Canadian photographer Andre Gallant

Mr. Gallant suggests that photo impressionistic techniques can free photographers to express how they feel about a scene rather than to be always constrained by complete realism. Mr. Gallant described several film-based techniques for creating impressionistic effects. One of his techniques was “slide montage” in which he sandwiched two slides — one out of focus and another of the same scene in focus — to produce a single impressionistic image. The result was a rendition of the scene with a soft, ethereal glow. If you would like more information, Mr. Gallant has co-written (with Freeman Patterson) an excellent and reasonably priced book on his techniques.

We suspected that this technique could be simulated in Adobe Photoshop. I wasted no time in collecting 28 New England photographs and began his experiments.

Here is the process he used:

  1. Open a Photograph in Photoshop
  2. Make a new copy on a separate layer
  3. On the copy layer remove distracting elements such as telephone lines
  4. Make another copy of the corrected image
  5. Move back to the middle layer and use the Gaussian Blur filter, experimenting with various degrees of blur for each photo. In general, the more blurry, the more dreamy the image, but there are also more distracting halo effects.
  6. Moving to the top layer, select the layer blending list box and used the arrow keys to walk through each blending option to see which will produce the most pleasing effect.

© Richard Cox

In most cases, I chose the “Darken” option. Having completed his experiments, Richard concluded that a multimedia slide show set to music would be an excellent way to share his collection of impressionistic images. To prepare the slides for the show, I saved the original layer and then saved the combination of blurred and blended layers to TIFF files which were converted to film using a film recorder.

Ghost Towns of Texas

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Dinosaur Valley State Park

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Downtown Dallas

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Fort Worth Skyline

Dallas Skyline