Planning a Photograph


© Richard Cox

Great light is essential to capturing a shot that is outstanding among other well composed and executed photographs. Once in a while you may get lucky, but learning to plan your photography will really improve your results.

For example, I was lookin for “a portrait of a tree”, when he stumbled upon this tree in a park on the bank of Lake Massabesic in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was a cloudy day, so he took a quick shot to document the place and to plan how to best capture this tree on film. The composition is good, but the photograph is dull and uninteresting.

Further inspection of the area revealed that this park is well traveled, and grass was patchy. Since the shot was was facing east, this eliminated a sunset shot where the tree would be illuminated by the setting sun.


© Richard Cox

I determined that a sunrise shot would be best where the tree was silhouetted against an array of pre-dawn colors. He watched for a weather report for a clear morning sunrise and returned for the shot.

I has recently developed a more “scientific” technique for planning a shot. This technique considers the precise angle of the sun at sunrise or sunset in order to predict the best time to return to capture the subject lit the way you want.

These instructions tell you how to determine when the sun will be low in the sky and the direction of light with respect to your subject. Ideally, you would take your photo during the magic hour — either a half hour before and after sunrise or sunset, but which? The answer depends on the direction in which your subject is facing and the angle of light that you seek. Further, The angle of the sun at a given location will change throughout the year.

Here are the steps to determine which days of the year will best meet your lighting specifications:

Use a compass to determine your subject’s direction

  • Align the colored end of the needle with “N”
  • Find the direction on the dial that points to your subject and note its location in degrees (usually written around the outside edge of the dial)
  • Make a note of the location.
  • For our tree example, we will assume that the compass shows its direction as 75 degrees.
  • Note that unless you have a compass that automatically adjusts for “True North”, this location is expressed in terms of “Magnetic North”.


If necessary, adjust your location for “True North”

  • This requires that you obtain the “declination” value for the area in which your subject resides
  • Click here to calculate declination. Enter a zipcode and then press “Compute!”. The declination is the first value in the table, marked with a “D”
  • Declination varies by date, which is why printed maps may show different values than you obtain with the online calculator.
  • A negative declination indicates that magnetic north is west of true north, positive values are east
  • To align your compass, you need to add the opposite of the declination value to your compass reading. Using our example in Manchester, NH, we get a declination of -15, so we add 15 to 75 and are now using 90 degrees (East) as our location.

Select the angle for the sun.

Do you want back lighting (like our tree at sunrise), direct lighting, or some angle in between?

  • Find the location where you would like the sun
  • For backlighting, its compass position will be the same as your subject (75 degrees in our example)
  • For direct lighting, add 180 degrees to the adjusted position of your subject (if the result is not between 0 and 360, then subtract 180 degrees). In the tree example, the result is 270 degrees (90 + 180)

Check sunrise/sunset forecasts

  • Be sure that the data includes the angle of rise and set with respect to “True North” (Azimuth)
  • Click here for data for the New England area. (Please send us links to data you find for other areas)
  • Check the sunrise and sunset Azimuth data for each month until you find the values that are near 90 degrees (for backlight) and 270 degrees (for direct light). Using the Manchester data, we learn that sunrise or sunset on September 24, 2003, will be “perfect” for our subject. For backlight, we would plan to arrive for sunrise (6:35 AM), or we would choose sunset (6:40 PM) for direct light.

Avoid getting too controlled by the science

  • Days immediately before and after the target will also work well
  • Check weather reports (The boating forecasts are useful for photographers) and other factors (like your personal schedule!) to refine your plan.
  • Consider tide information if your subject is at the seashore

The perfect light is very fleeting

Be sure to arrive well in advance of the “magic time” in order to be set up and ready to shoot.



About Richard Cox