Using Google Earth To Plan A Photo Vacation

An easy way to reap the benefits of GPS in photography.

You don't need a pricey gizmo for your DSLR or a satellite receiver for your PC to reap the benefits of GPS in photography. All you need is an internet connection and free Google Earth software (download Version 5.0 in Beta from earth.google.com). Before investing in ways to add geographic data to your pictures, you can use this resourceladen program to plan a photo tour.

Google Earth combines satellite and aerial photography to let you see, often in 3D, pretty much any place in the world and interact with the terrain. Used alongside Google's geo-location photo application, Panoramio, it lets you trace the steps of other photographers, learning where and how to get great photos in places you've never seen before. And there are plenty of extra services to help you plan your trip.

How to put all this to use? Here's how I went step-by-step through using Google Earth to plan a recent photo vacation on the Hawaiian island of Maui (hosted by the Maui Visitors Bureau, www.visitmaui.com)-and how you can use it just about anywhere you want to go.

Map Your Destination

When you open up Google Earth's browser and type in a destination, it gives you a full aerial view, which you can zoom in and out of. Planning to travel around a fairly big area? This makes it easy for you to gain a visual perspective of the terrain, and it also lets you map it out.

One tool lets you hone your search down to street addresses, search by business name or category, and plot an itinerary. Street views, roads, and places of interest are visible on separate layers that you can turn on or off.

This helps you judge the convenience of hotels to your photo destinations. For instance, I could see that the Aston Kaanapali Shores (www.astonhotels.com) and Royal Lahaina Resort (www.royallahaina.net) would put me close to such sites as Iao Valley and Maui's rocky west coast. Hotel Hana-Maui (www.hotelhanamaui.com), one of the few in Hana, made it a good place to finish my drive down Highway 360.

Click on any business name, and up pop user reviews from www.tripadviser.com. Click on any state park or hotel, and the address and contact info will also appear.

A placemark tool lets you bookmark all the places you might want to visit, so you can save and come back to your research during the planning phase.

Explore The Sites:

Once you've checked out the places you know you want to visit, the real fun starts. Time to check out scenery that might not show up in any guide books. Google's Panoramio application allows users of this online photo community (www.panoramio.com) to upload geotagged photos-which, in Google Earth, will show up right where they were taken. With Geographic Web activated in your Layers box, snapshot icons pop up on your map-the closer you zoom in, the more you'll see. Click on an icon for a photo taken at that location. (This isn't always precise down to the exact geographic coordinates, though.)

When you run across a cluster of these icons close together, chances are there's something to see there. This is how I discovered the Nakalele Blowhole, a small eruption on the northwest coast of Maui. It can also show you the best time of day to visit-for example, I learned that Kihei Beach is a great place to catch the sunset.

A lone icon in an otherwise undotted location is also worth clicking on, as it often denotes a photo op that's off the beaten path. This led me to such photogenic villages as Makawao, on the interior of the island.

Once you have part of your itinerary planned-from, say, the airport to your hotel, or your hotel to a beach-Google Earth will not only give you directions, but allow you to take a tour. Click on the Play button in the lower right corner of your directions, and Google will "drive you," on street level, along the route. You can pause at any time if something catches your interest.

Besides businesses, such points of interest as small parks or notable memorials are marked on the terrain with Wikipedia icons. A side road or beach catch your eye? Click on the camera icon, and Google Earth will put you into Street View, which lets you view that terrain just as if you were actually standing there.

It also shows trails in some national parks. For instance, I'd read about the wonders of sunrise and sunset at Mt. Haleakala, but dragging my mouse over an image of the crater, I discovered a path leading through the rocky red terrain, called the Sliding Sands Trails. Panoramio snapshots showed me that late afternoon sunlight turns the rock path warm amber.

Another cool feature: the Daylight tool, which allows you to see how the landscape will be lit at any given time.

Hit The Road:

No matter how much research you do in advance, and even if you don't bring along a laptop, you'll always find more to shoot once you arrive. Maui natives are known for their Aloha and quick to share wonders of their beautiful island. I heard about the stunning Olivine Pools from a friendly beachcomber, and the concierge at Hotel Hana-Maui let me in on a few nearby red-sand beaches where you're sure to find surfers. Plotting these locations into Google Earth made it easy to hit several spots in one day. Google Earth contains up-to-date traffic and weather information, too. Maui's ecological diversity means that certain parts of the island (such as Lahaina) are sunny at the same time that it's raining in others (such as the north shore). With the weather app activated, you can check the weather wherever you're visiting-so I knew to pack a jacket to climb Mt. Haleakala, although it was warm outside my hotel room.

The business search can be handy on the road, as I learned when, after a 2-hour drive, I found that I'd left my camera battery charger in the hotel I'd checked out that morning; I stopped at a café that had Wi-Fi access, typed in "camera" near my location, and found an authorized Canon dealer, Lighthaus Camera, just 15 minutes out of my way.

Finally, Google Earth comes in especially handy on a long scenic drive. The Road to Hana, Highway 360, one of Maui's spectacular sights, stretches 34 miles with innumerable places to stop off and photograph waterfalls, blacksand beaches, and rocky cliffs. Driving to Hana, I stopped so many times on the first 15 miles of highway that had to hurry through the next 15. So on the morning of my return, I opened up Google Earth and prowled carefully down the miles I'd missed.

That was how, a few hours later and just past the legendary black sand beaches and caves of Wai'anapanapa Beach, I knew to stop over at Pua'a Ka'a State Wayside Park. Hidden behind a few picnic benches up on a hill was a small, secluded tidepool, wrapped in dense green foliage, with a waterfall spilling down from the small cliff above. The perfect final photo spot on my way home from Maui.

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