[Guide & astuces OSINT #5] Using Suncalc to timestamp an image

Since the start of the war between Ukraine and Russia, the multitude of photos and videos published on social networks has made it possible to follow the progress of the fighting almost in real time. Thanks to this quantity of accessible content, many neophytes have learned about OSINT, and more specifically GEOINT (Geospatial Intelligence), which consists of using data from images (notably satellite or geospatial). Some experts have been able to provide the general public with precise analyzes of the progress and progress of the troops during this war.

To precisely date and locate a photo or video, the investigation through the EXIFs (Exchangeable image file format, exchangeable image file format) is sometimes possible. These are metadata that are automatically recorded when taking photos or videos. Metadata are for example: geolocation (GPS coordinates), time, date, device used and many other information. They are difficult to use, because the majority of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook Where instagram now automatically delete this data when publishing content, further complicating the GEOINT process.

As a result, it is now necessary to resort to more technical investigations, by identifying specific elements on the shots, to then pivot on software or websites that will make it possible to draw the most accurate analysis possible.

Identification of image elements important for geolocation

For this demonstration, the example used is a tweet accompanied by a photo, published on April 16, 2022 on Twitterby account @Steven_DFS.

Source : Twitter account of Steven_DFS

First of all, it is a question of highlighting the elements present on the photo useful for locating its location, then of making an estimate of the time at which the shot was taken.

A picture containing text, sky, flat, outdoor Description automatically generated

Here, the photo provides three particularly interesting pieces of information:

  • The plane’s shadow (framed in blue);

  • The edge of a forest (framed in green);

  • Aircraft registration (framed in orange).

Image geotagging

Thanks to the registration of the aircraft, a unique identification number for each aircraft, it is possible to consult its flight history using the tool FlightAware. By taking the date of publication of the photo on Twitteron April 16, 2022, it appears that the plane took off and landed at Maubeuge-Elesmes for its five flights of the day.


An aerial view of the area from Google Maps identifies a forest near the airport (green box) with, facing it, the possible sector in which the aircraft would be located (red box). Indeed, if the latter was located further on the road or on the take-off runway (blue boxes), it would not have been possible to observe the wooded area in the photograph published on Twitter.

In order to more accurately determine the position of the aircraft, it is possible, using Google Street Viewto cross-check the information to obtain a plan close to the original snapshot:

Image observed on Google Street View

Zoomed original image

Thanks to the highlighting of the tree (purple), the forest (green) and the difference in tar (blue), visible in the image taken from Google Street Viewit is now possible to locate the aircraft with even more accuracy and obtain the following GPS coordinates: 50.31569783568291, 4.030008001316812.

Once the photo has been precisely geolocated by cross-checking information, the use of open source tools makes it possible to find the time at which it was taken.

The use of Suncalc to timestamp the photo

Suncalc is a free and fully accessible website that allows you to geolocate or timestamp images and videos using the position of the sun and shadows…:

  • Framed in blue, the orange point represents the sun and its position at the time indicated in the upper part of the screen. The yellow line from this point illustrates the direction of the sun’s rays. By moving the yellow point on the graduated scale located above, the position of the sun thus adapts to the time indicated.

  • In the two green boxes are the representations, in the East, of the time at which the sun rises and, in the West, of the time when the sun sets. These indications make it possible to visualize the trajectory of the star over a day, simulated by the curve in yellow in the crescent of the same color.

  • The purple box is used to indicate information relating to the address, date and time in order to provide the most accurate representation of the situation possible.

  • Finally, in the red area, it is possible to enter the height of the object (in meters) to view its shadow later.

After indicating all the information found (location, date of shooting, height) and placing the cursor on the precise position of the object sought, Suncalc will thus timestamp the image. It is now a question of varying the position of the sun in order to find a shadow angle similar to that of the original photo. In this specific case, the registration of the plane allows us to find its model thanks to the database jetphotos.com. It is a 3M Short SC-7 Skyvan with a height of 4.60 meters.

Thus, as shown in the photo above, the blue arrow therefore represents the direction in which the plane is pointing, the red circle its position and the black line the orientation of its shadow. This information allows Suncalc to precisely determine the date the photo was taken, around 09:00 UTC+2.

Other alternatives exist

However, it should be clarified that Suncalc is not the only online software that allows you to estimate the time an image was taken using the shadows present on the shot.

3D Sun Path

The tool 3D Sun Path also makes it possible to observe the action of the sun on the shadows according to the place, date, time and buildings by generating the path of the sun over a day.

Shadow Calculator

Shadow Calculator allows you to delimit the area of ​​the object whose shadow you want to have and thus calculate its extent according to the date and time.

SunSeeker (Google Play App / App Store)

The tool SunSeeker helps us to determine the position of the sun according to the hours and thus the position of the shadows. A tool often used by photographers to plan their shots in natural light, it can also be useful for Osint investigations.

As often in OSINT, there are several tools that can be used during an investigation. Each has its specificities that must be appropriated in order to be able to fully exploit them, recover a great deal of information and carry out the investigations.

Pierre Antonin Rousseau for the OSINT & Eve clubAEGE

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