Can A Compass Help You Get Better Photos?

OK, I know what you’re thinking, but no, this isn’t some article about heroically bushwhacking your way to a remote location for a once-in-a-lifetime photograph. (One of those will probably be coming in the future!)


So, how can a compass help you snare better images? Simple – by helping you to precisely predetermine sun and moon position. It may seem a little basic, but you’d be amazed at how easy this makes it to get better images. I sometimes feel like I’m cheating

Now, I have to admit, up to about 5 or 6 years ago I really didn’t worry too much about keeping a compass handy – you know, unless I was using it for navigation or the afore mentioned bushwhacking. Well, that’s when I discovered how amazingly handy it can be for a nature photographer to know exactly where the sun and moon are going to rise and set (not just East-ish and West-ish).

I know, it seems painfully obvious now and I think I actually heard a few of you say “Duh!”

However back in the day when photos came 36 at a time and the internet was still trickling through modems at 9600 baud, it wasn’t so simple. Figuring out exact positions of the sun and moon was still the purview of astronomers. The average photographer could only get it in the celestial ballpark.

Today of course it’s actually very simple for anyone to determine sun and moon positions with amazing accuracy. And heck, the software is usually somewhere between free and cheap!

For me, it started when I stumbled upon a few handy apps back when the original iPhone was still rocking the wireless world. The first app was FocalWare and then later on I started using The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Each app told me not only what time the sun and moon were going to rise and set, but they also told me precisely where it was going to happen.

My initial thought was simply, “Hmm, that’s kind of handy,” but at the time I didn’t realize just how instrumental this little discovery was going to be for both my landscape and wildlife photography. Over the years I’ve learned that this information can be as essential to capturing a wall hanger as having a memory card in my camera.

As I started using these tools, I quickly discovered there was no more guesswork involved when capturing images featuring the sun or moon. I could easily plan ahead and come up with a good composition long before the photo was going to be snapped. Trust me, this beats the heck out of frantically running around and trying to come up with something as the sun touches the horizon.

Just take a look at the images on this site. If you see one with the sun or moon in it, there’s an incredibly good chance that photo was planned hours, days, or in some cases even months in advance.

Take this image for instance. I wandered down at lunchtime and had my compass in hand. I checked out where sunset was going to be and I discovered it was going to happen right at the tip of the little peninsula in the photo. Yup, I knew just where I wanted to be at sunset.


For this image, I knew just when the moon was going to rise and just where it was going to be in the photo. I figured out my composition hours beforehand and went back a bit before moonrise. Funny thing is, I almost missed it because I thought the moon was going to be obscured by clouds. I had actually started heading back to the car when it began to peek through. Since I already know my exact composition, I just went back, set up and shot the image before it was gone.  No guessing, no trying to find the perfect composition once I saw the moon. (Plus, this photo went on to grace the cover of Lake Superior Magazine last year.)
For this image, I was looking for something new. Most photographers shoot this location from about 20 yards downstream. However, I really liked the little arch created by the tree branches and it occurred to me that it would be cool if I could put the sun in there. A little compass time and I discovered a spot that would work. I setup and sure enough, the sun landed just where I wanted it.
And you can head over to for a lot more great photography tutorials and some amazing nature shots.
~ Steve

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