where is the sun ?




For photographers, and landscape photographers especially, it pays to plan your shoot knowing where the sun will be in relation to your subject. To do that you need a map of your location and some knowledge of the movements of the sun - not just the times of sunrise and sunset. The path of the sun around the sky depends on our latitude and on the time of year. I find the diagram below is the easiest way to visualise what is going on. There are three colored parts to this diagram :

red - shows our horizon and the directions north, south, east and west

white - shows the sky and stars which appear to rotate around the celestial north pole ( of course it's actually the earth that rotates ), anyone who has done long-exposure photography of the night sky will have seen this effect as the stars draw circles. The angle of the celestial north pole above our horizon is the same as our geographical latitude on the earth. On the diagram I have shown this as about 60 degrees - equivalent to the far north of Scotland.

yellow - shows the path of the sun in summer, and in a dashed line the path in winter. In mid-summer the sun will be about 23 degrees to the celestial north ( this is the same wherever you are on the earth ), and in mid-winter the sun is 23 degrees to the celestial south.

We can see how in summer the sun rises in the north-east, and in winter in the south-east. At 6pm in summer the sun is slightly north of due west. The great thing about the summer at high latitudes is that you can always get some sunlight on a subject by shooting at the right time of day. Even a north-facing subject gets the sun in the early morning or late evening. In the shot below the unique cliffs at Hunstanton in Norfolk are facing north-west and getting direct sun on a summer evening.

hunstanton cliffs

The other side of this coin is that south-facing subjects get the summer sun at a high angle and this does not usually make for good pictures. Shoot them in winter. The great thing about winter is that the sun is always low. When you get a sunny mid-winter day in the far north the light is always dramatic, it's like a sunset that lasts about 6 hours. If you live in Canada or the Scandanavian countries your idea of 'far north' is probably inside the arctic circle, the region within 23 degrees of the north pole, and there the mid-summer sun is above the horizon at midnight.

The show is not over when the sun dips below the horizon. Provided you have a tripod it's possible to work with twilight. It reckoned that if the sun is less than 6 degrees below the horizon then there is enough illumination for people to find their way around - this is known as civilian twilight.

There is a brilliant calculator for the angles of the sun at any date and location at timeanddate.com.


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