This tutorial applies to Photo Ephemeris Web.
Update, April 2021: the 3D Sphere now includes maps and 3D terrain! We've added a new tutorial (Part 9) describing all the new functionality. But you should read this, Part 7, first!
The "3D Celestial Sphere" is a reinterpretation of the Armillary Sphere that was invented by the Greeks and has been in use for over two thousand years. It is a simple way to get a sense of the position and orientation of objects in the sky - particularly, the night sky.
Viewing the Sphere
You can access the 3D Celestial Sphere by clicking on the Sphere link in the navigation bar:
What can I use it for?
The 3D sphere is perhaps most useful for visualising the orientation of the band of the Milky Way and Galactic Centre. It can also be used to visualise relative positions of the sun, moon, and meteor shower radiant points. And you can do all this relative to the secondary geodetics pin, making it easy to see if the moon is below the mountain summit or not.
Let's dive into the details.
If we switch off the Sun, Moon, Galactic Centre and Meteors in Settings, you can see a 'bare bones' sphere, as shown below:
The sphere always displays data for the primary (red) map pin location. The pin is shown at the centre of the ground plane disc. Azimuth and altitude are indicated by the labels and helper lines. Altitudes are marked for +6°, +0°, -6°, -12°, and -18°, corresponding to "golden hour" (whatever that is 😉), rise/set (approximately) and civil, nautical, and astronomical twilights respectively.
Re-enabling the sun in Settings, let's look at how the path and position are shown:
As you adjust the time of day slider or date, you will observe the sun moving to its correct position. When adjusting the time of day, the sun will move along the indicated path. On changing the date, the path itself is recalculated.
The azimuth indicator - the orange triangle pointing to around 100° from north in the screenshot above - indicates the direction to the sun from the primary pin. When the sun is very high in sky, such as in the tropics, the azimuth can be hard to perceive visually. If you've ever been confused as to why the azimuth changes so rapidly as time of day is adjusted in places such as Timbuktu, the 3D Celestial Sphere can make it clear what's actually going on.
The primary map pin is modelled as a 3D object, and will cast a shadow from the virtual sunlight. Nothing in this model is to a real-world scale, however, so absolute shadow lengths cannot be determined from the pin. However, relative shadow lengths quickly become apparent.
The sunlight is adjusted for both colour temperature and intensity based on altitude - you'll see the light turn redder towards sunset.
Important note: the sun and moon are displayed at an exaggerated scale. They would be hard to see at their true apparent size of ~0.5°. Therefore, at rise and set times, the body of the sun (or moon) will still be visible above the ground plane. However, rise and set remain defined as being the time when the upper limb of the body becomes visible or disappears from the apparent (unobstructed) horizon. See What is sunrise? for more details on the definitions.
Adjusting the view
You can adjust the camera position freely to get a better sense of things line up. Here's another view of the sun:
You can 'orbit' the red map pin using the mouse or trackpad. Here, the view is rotated to look from around 225° and a lower altitude, and the camera has been zoomed in.
Here are the various gestures you can try out:
Left click + drag: rotate around centre point
Trackpad pinch gesture / mouse scroll wheel: zoom in/out
Trackpad Shift-left click + drag / mouse right click + drag: pan
Note: If you find the whole browser page is zoomed in/out when trying the trackpad pinch gesture, instead try dragging up or down with two fingers. I find this is necessary in Safari on macOS.
Adding the moon back in Settings, it is shown in the familiar blue colour that you see in the map page:
Note: viewing the moon, galactic centre, milky way and meteor showers in the 3D Sphere requires a PRO subscription.
The moon is shown similarly to the sun, with current position, path for the selected 24 hour period, azimuth indicator and a pointer originating from the primary pin.
Note that there is a break in the path: this is because over a 24 hour period, the moon does not return to the same position, as expected given its 29.53 day cycle. (You can see the same discontinuity for the sun, particularly around the equinoxes when the rate of change of the position of the sun is at its greatest.)
The phase of the moon is not indicated in the 3D representation, but you can check the illuminated fraction in the timeline below. The moon shines its own light and will cast shadows as with sunlight - you'll only see them when the sun is set. The intensity of the moonlight is adjusted for phase.
Milky Way and the Galactic Centre
Finally, upon enabling the Galactic Centre in Settings, we can see the band of the Milky Way and related information:
The Solar System lies in the arm of a spiral galaxy, the Milky Way. As a result, it appears from Earth that the stars of the Milky Way surround us in a ring. However, we're far from the centre of the galaxy, and so there is a higher density of stars and interstellar dust towards the galactic centre. This is typically the most photogenic part of the Milky Way, and so photographers find it useful to know its location in the sky.
The path of the galactic centre through the sky is typically insufficient to plan a Milky Way photograph. In addition to knowing where the centre lies, it is often preferable to know the orientation of the band of the Milky Way. This is represented as a circle of spheres. The larger, brighter spheres occur towards the galactic centre, with the centre itself being the largest and brightest.
For wide angle night photography, sometimes it is useful to use the band of the Milky Way as a framing device for a building, structure or landscape feature, where the stars appear to arch over the top of the subject. To frame your subject this way, you need to shoot 'through' the arch. For this reason, an additional azimuth indicator is included showing the direction towards the highest point in the band of the Milky Way, shown as the "top" of the Milky Way in the screenshot above.
Standard Mill Under Milky Way Arch, July 13, 2020, © Jeff Sullivan, courtesy of www.JeffSullivanPhotography.com
At low northern and southern hemisphere latitudes, the Galactic Centre can be the highest point above the horizon in the band of the Milky Way. In the following example, for a location in Namibia in August, the two azimuth indicators almost coincide (and would overlap with a few minutes time adjustment).
Note that the Galactic Centre is not visible at northerly latitudes. For example, even in the height of summer, it transits below the horizon in Reykjavik, Iceland (link):
And of course, even if it did rise, the sky would be too bright to see it, as the sun is only just set.
When enabled in Settings, the 3D Celestial Sphere will show the apparent radiant point for major meteor showers, for example, the Perseids, shown here just after moonrise shortly after midnight on Aug 12 at Stonehenge (link):
Each meteor shower is shown during its active dates. The name and peak active date are displayed next to the icon:
You can click the link icon next the peak date of any meteor shower to view further information (typically, this is a link to the corresponding Wikipedia page).
If you are planning to spend a night photographing meteors, it is typical to make multiple exposures over several hours, find the frames containing meteors and then to combine the images. Collectively, the meteors will typically appear to be emerging from the radiant point. It can therefore be useful to ensure you have included the radiant point in your composition, bearing in mind that for some meteor showers and locations, the radiant will move significantly in the sky across the course of several hours.
For example, while the Perseids' radiant point remains relatively static in the northeast sky in the hours after astronomical twilight ends, the Geminids', in contrast, moves significantly farther in the same space of time.
What lies beneath
By default, the sphere cuts off at -18°, which is the limit of astronomical twilight. After the end of astronomical twilight the sky is truly dark. Any remaining light will be likely due to artificial light pollution or airglow. Once the sun is below -18°, you generally don't care any more for the purposes of night photography.
However, if you wish to see beyond the -18° altitude limit, simply rotate the view lower, and the full sphere is revealed:
Use with Geodetics
If you are unfamiliar with geodetics, please refer to Using Photo Ephemeris Web, Part 3: Geodetics.
When geodetics is enabled, the secondary grey map pin is also displayed on the sphere. Generally, this is only useful if the elevation angle from primary to secondary pin is positive, e.g. primary pin is in a valley and the secondary pin on a hilltop.
Here's an example from Boulder, Colorado. Let's imagine we wish to photograph the morning moon over Green Mountain from Chautauqua Park meadows (link):
The 3D Celestial Sphere can be used to check relative position of the summit of Green Mountain and the moon. The moon is seen to lie higher than the secondary pin:
This can be a convenient way to visually check relative az/alt (azimuth / altitude) positions.
Note: remember that the sizes of the sun and moon are exaggerated in the 3D model: always check the numerical values for high precision work.
Use with Elevation above the Horizon
If you are unfamiliar with adjustment for elevation above the horizon, please refer to Using Photo Ephemeris Web, Part 4: Horizon.
If adjustments for elevation above the horizon are enabled, the dip of the horizon is reflected in the 3D Celestial Sphere.
For example, standing on the summit of Everest looking south to the plains of northern India (link), there is significant elevation above the horizon:
The dip of the horizon is also visible in the 3D Celestial Sphere:
The apparent horizon is shown at an altitude of -3.29°. The ground plane is displayed as a cone instead of a flat plane. With this adjustment, it becomes much clearer that the timing of rise/set events is altered for the observer standing on top of Everest:
We hope you find the visualisation tools provided by the 3D Celestial Sphere useful in your photo planning. Please send us your feedback and questions.