Understanding compass headings for sunrise and sunset can help you plan for location photoshoots

When photographing architectural exteriors, it's helpful to know where the sun will rise and set in relation to your subject. Everyone knows it rises in the east and sets in the west, but depending on where you are on the globe and what time of year it is, the sun moves quite a bit. Luckily, it moves predictably and you can look up the sun's position online. This is incredibly helpful when you're shooting a building and want to know if it will be backlit or lit from the front or side.

I like to look up the subject's location online with Google maps, take a screenshot and overlay it with a compass circle with lines at 15-degree intervals.

North = 0 degrees
East = 90 degrees
South = 180 degrees
West = 270 degrees

Then I look up the sun's compass heading. I type in the zip code of the location, and look up the scheduled shoot date on the chart. Now I know exactly where to expect the light in the morning, and evening, and it also allows me to visualize the sun's course throughout the day and anticipate obstacles like other buildings. It's a lot easier than it sounds. It's really fun actually. 

Here's a compass overlay I created for a shoot of a Twice Daily gas station last year. 69-degrees was the sunrise heading and 291-degrees was the sunset heading on shoot day.

Using this technique allowed us to choose the best store location to plan for a backlit photo with lens flare, knowing exactly where the sun would appear.

Some sun trivia

At the Spring and Fall Equinox the sun will rise at 90 degrees and set at 270, and day and night are of equal lengths. These are the only two days of the year when the sun actually rises and sets at due east and due west. This is because the equinox marks the point where the sun passes the celestial equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, in summer, the sun will rise and set north of 90/270, and in the winter it rises and sets south of 90/270. 

The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year and gets longer as you go further north. Working on a shoot in Minnesota once, on the Summer Solstice, we started at 4:00 AM and the sun didn't set until about 9:30 PM.

Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and has been historically celebrated as a time of rebirth, because the days start to get longer after the Winter Solstice. Lots of ancient cultures built sacred sites to be illuminated by the sun's position only on the Winter Solstice. Here are some examples. 

Our Winter Solstice is the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.