Photography with a Compass

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

Like many photographers, I live in the city. There are certainly many photographic opportunities in my area. For example, the beach is only a short drive from my home. However, sooner or later, I begin to long for other photographic options. When this happens, I grab my photographic gear and head out to new places. Since I am interested in landscape photography, I often head out to mountain or canyon areas.

Once at my location, I tend to follow a familiar pattern. During the day, I drive or hike to locate scenes that I would like to photograph. When I find a scene that I like, I make a mental note of it, but I continue on to locate other scenes. I later return to the most promising location in time to shoot during the magic hour (for more information see, The Magic Hour Times Two) either that evening or the next morning.

This procedure works very well for me. However, there is one challenge. When I first find a scene that I would like to photograph, I have to determine how the scene will look in the magic hour light. To do this, one of the factors that I need to consider is the direction from which the light will strike the scene during the magic hour or if the magic hour light will strike the scene at all. This is where a problem arises. Most of the time that I take these trips, I go to a location that I have not been to before. Thus, I am not familiar with the direction and characteristics of the magic hour light in the area. In addition, the roads or trails that I follow to find the scenes often follow a serpentine route through the mountains and mountain passes. By the time that I arrive at one of these scenes, I often have no sense of direction (i.e., where north, south, east, and west are). On the other hand, in order to predict how the scene will look during the magic hour, I need to know two pieces of information: where the sun will rise/set and the direction of the scene with respect to the rising/setting sun. Furthermore, I would like to know this information fairly accurately. For instance, we all know that, in general, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. However, even if I know where east and west are, this is not good enough. The sun doesn't always rise in exactly the east direction. In fact, it changes during the year.

This problem is easily resolved by the use of a compass. A compass has become part of my standard photographic gear, and it is always carried in my backpack. For instance, during a recent trip to Utah, I found my compass to be an indispensable tool. The compass prevented me from waiting around scenes only to find out that the light was not coming from the right direction. Conversely, the compass let me know when a scene would be hit by the magic hour light. Thus, I was able to spend my time at the scenes that had the best opportunity for the desired light.

The Compass

Figure 1: Compass

Figure 1 shows a basic compass. The red needle is magnetized and points to magnetic north. The black dial has the 3600 of the compass printed on its circumference and the red outline of an arrow on the inside of the dial. This dial can be rotated. The black cover (with the mirror on the inside) has a notch at the top that is used to line up objects.

The Procedure

Figure 2: Compass Used in Step One

Using the compass to determine the direction of the magic hour light is a two step procedure. In step one, the direction of the rising/setting sun is determined. In step two, the direction of the light from the rising/setting sun is determined relative to the object to be photographed.

Step One (direction of the rising/setting sun): Step one is performed during sunrise or sunset. The compass is held so that the sun is lined up in the notch at the top of the case. While holding the compass in this position, the dial is turned until the red arrow outline lines up with the magnetic needle (see Figure 2). The direction of the sun, in degrees, is read directly across from the white dot at the top of the compass. For instance, in Figure 2, the sun is at 1180.

Step Two (direction of the sun with respect to the object to be photographed): Step two is performed anytime that a photographer wishes to determine the direction from which the rising/setting sunlight will strike an object. The dial is rotated until the direction of the rising/setting sun (as determined in step one) is lined up under the white dot. The entire compass is rotated until the red arrow outline lines up with the magnetic needle. The notch in the case will point to the location where the sun will rise/set. It is now just a matter of comparing this direction to the direction of the object to be photographed.

Additional Considerations

A couple of additional considerations should be kept in mind when using a compass. First, make sure that the compass is kept level when taking readings. Second, make sure that the compass is kept at a distance from metal objects. Otherwise, the compass may react to the metal object rather than magnetic north. Thus, compass readings should not be taken while in a car. One may also wish to remove his watch and other objects before using a compass.