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Photographer's Compass

Original article:  Photographer's Compass

Updated: October 2009

Photographer's Compass
As I dig through my backpack, my hiking mate pointing to my trusty compass asks 'what is that?' I pull the sighting compass out, open it, - the needle bouncing around trying to find north with the azimuth set to 290 – and hand it to him. 'What is it for?' To help in navigation or to get a bearing of the direction we are traveling in. As a hiker, I thought that was fairly clear yet nothing resembling comprehension in his eyes. I continue, with a map you can take bearings on prominent features of land and get a position of where you are via triangulation. Why I thought that little bit of insight would help is beyond me.

The truth is I've only used triangulation while hiking a handful of times. In all but one case it was a matter of, I have a compass, I have a map; I should put them to use. While lost using a compass for navigation could be life saving; but it's not why I carry it along during photo shoots. The more practical reason for a compass in the photographer’s bag is to mark the location of the setting sun. I make a habit of taking a bearing on the setting sun. The following day, if I find myself coming across some scenery, I can use that bearing to visualize where the setting sun will be. Having this information allows me more time in planning the sunset picture. Even if I have not taken the bearing in advance, the compass can still point you in the general direction of the sunset or sunrise. This technique can be used equally effectively for the rising and setting sun and moon.
Sighting Compass
The compass that is pictured to the right is commonly called a sighting compass. It contains a sighting mirror that allows you to point the compass at the subject and get an accurate bearing by looking at the mirror. A precise bearing is not critical but I think it looks cool in a geeky Boy Scoutish way. For those interested in buying a compass I recommend getting one with a rotating bearing dial called the azimuth. Instead of relying on memory the azimuth can be rotated to mark the bearing of sunset. Keep in mind as days get longer or shorter times vary. And if you are traveling from place to place times will also vary. Try to get a new reading as much as possible.

A good compromise on a basic compass can be found on some watches. These range in sophistication from a small mechanical compass attached to the strap to electronic devices. Sophisticated surfer and mariner watch models have the ability to track the phases of the moon. This information can come in handy in planning a moonrise picture. Personal style and the pocketbook will dictate which model to choose.

Old School
There is a way to find north with an analog watch and the sun. If you have a watch with hands (non-digital) and can see the sun, you can get a general idea which direction north is. Once you know where north is located you can figure out east and west - for a general direction of the sunrise and sunset.

Hold the watch face level and point the hour hand to the sun. To make it easier and so you won't blind yourself - hold a twig or blade of grass so it casts a shadow across the face of the watch and line up the hour hand with the shadow. The point half way between the hour hand and 12 o'clock (daylight savings time use 1 o'clock) points north.

Global Position System
For those fully devoted to the digital age (and willing to carry the associated batteries and chargers) GPS (Global Positioning System) maybe the ultimate in geeky cool. GPS units are electronic devices that use orbiting satellites to pinpoint position, overlay maps allow for turn by turn navigation. GPS manufacturers make versions for the outdoors, these can serve as electronic compass and depending on the pocketbook even altimeter, barometer, and of particular interest are the features to predict sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset time and compass bearing based on where the unit is positioned in the world.

Personal Digital Assistant
PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) devices are small handheld computers. Like your home computer they run software to do specialized tasks. Software can be downloaded for the PDA that can calculate the sunset and sunrise times. The PDA can also be used to record your journal and notes about the photograph and your time spent in the field.

Update: January 30, 2009 - 'Orientation of the map' is one of the most basic skills in using a map and compass for navigation. Travelers, arriving to an unfamiliar foreign city after hours in transport are usually disorientated - I know I am. Which way is north? Even if they are well prepared with a map they may not be able to make sense of where to go. By lining up the map's north to the actual north, confusion can be avoided. I was asked to write a very simple article on this topic - Map Orientation - and have included it here with the permission of the publisher. By being more adept at navigating in a foriegn city, it helps to make the most of your trips.

Please keep in mind, the above article is very simple and basic. For those of you wanting more information - I aplaud you - here is a link to some detailed information on using a compass for navigation from the USGS (Finding Your Way with Map and Compass).

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Scott (Admin)
(Tuesday, 08 Sep 2009)  Here are a few more examples where I used a compass in photography:

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