Apart from the glaringly obvious, (camera, lenses, tripod), what is the one piece of equipment that you can’t do without in photography? Now, I realise that there will be a variety of answers to that question depending on your photography niche. Some landscape photographers for example might say they can’t manage without their panoramic gimbal. (No, that’s not something to see the doctor about)! Studio photographers would probably wax lyrical about their flash and lighting systems, while wedding photographers may well extol the virtues of their ‘nifty fifty’!
These are all great pieces of kit, and let’s be honest, who among us doesn’t relish the prospect of something else to play with?
But there is a particular piece of kit that I have found to be indispensable in my work as a photographer across several disciplines, and I think it is something that you should consider using if you’re serious about photography. I’ll tell you the 'what, why and how' in a moment, but first, a disclaimer. I am not receiving any sponsorship to write this blog, either from the company that makes this equipment, or from any of the suppliers you can find online after you have read this and been convinced you need it! I am writing this solely because I want to help other photographers to improve in our craft, and to get as much pleasure and practicality out of this equipment as I have. So here goes ….
First, a few questions.
Landscape photographers – you know your East from your West and that the sun rises in one and sets in the other, but how do you work out exactly where that is in any given location at various times of the year?
Outdoor portrait/wedding photographers – how do you decide on the best spots at the venue well in advance of a family portrait session or a wedding to ensure that there is enough sunlight to avoid cranking up the ISO too much? (British weather permitting, obviously)! How do you know where to position that family to avoid blinding them all, or producing images that have shadows across all their faces?
Workshop leaders – when planning the day with a group of clients or a 1-2-1, how do you factor in the angle of light, the height of the sun and how it is affected by the height and angle of geographical features?
Here is what I use – a sun compass
Yes. That’s it. A compass! But this isn’t any old compass (Now I sound like an advert for a certain chain store)! No, the sun compass is different from an ordinary compass, and it is an absolute must for me. It has helped me to plan my own landscape shoots, and not just for sunrise or sunset. It helped me when I did a family portrait session for a friend last November in Moss Bank Park in Bolton. A park I know very well, but the sun
compass was needed in the planning stage so that I just knew where to go at what time at each stage of the shoot. As you will see from this photo, getting all the humans and the dogs to look at the camera at the same time was quite a challenge!I The sun compass has helped when planning workshops in a variety of locations. It is helping me plan for a wedding in Bolton that should have been taking place next week but has been put back to next year due to the current crisis.
So why go to the trouble of using this every time I plan a shoot? I mean, it’s not hard to work out roughly where the sun will be is it? That’s the point! Having a ‘rough’ idea is not enough. The sun compass demonstrates that very clearly, as there is an obvious difference in the arc of the sun and it’s trajectory each month. You also need to consider the latitude of your location, and my compass came with handy chart for working out these aspects.
Think about your next planned photo session, whether it be your own walk by a reservoir, an outdoor family portrait shoot, a wedding, a landscape workshop, or even woodland photography when you're hoping to achieve a starburst effect with sun behind a tree. How will you make the most of the available light? When is the best time of day to be there for the ‘right’ sunlight? Do you want to be there at blue hour or golden hour? Is there a time to avoid for portraits because the sun could be too direct and therefore unflattering on a model’s face. One of my clients photographs models in beautiful locations as a backdrop, and he needs to think about these things. A model does not want her portfolio ruined because the photographer only captured her squinting into the sun in every shot!
I would overcome these obstacles in the planning stage by using a sun compass alongside apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris. (Link below). By doing this, you can eliminate potential problems before they arise. Of course, you can't always be sure of the weather doing what the forecast or weather apps tell you. You need a couple of those as well, by the way. Get some weather apps. But at least you will be prepared if the sun does make a showing, and you will know what to shoot, where to shoot it, and what time of the day, month and year will yield the result you want to achieve. Oh, and if you are planning a sunrise shoot at a specific location, be there an hour before sunrise. That means being in place by 0330hrs in mid June in the North West of England.
I hope you have found this helpful. Let me know in the comments, and feel free to share your experiences of gear and what you can't do without in your photography.
Thanks for reading this and visiting my website. If you liked this and want more tips on photography or photo editing, then maybe you would like to come on one of my courses. https://www.nigelnewtonphotography.co.uk/landscape-photography-workshops