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The 4 Angles of Success

by Steven Blandin | June 22, 2015

When teaching photography workshops, I often get asked to discuss the most impactful techniques needed to create excellent wildlife photography. I often tell them about the four angles of success: a triangulation of the sun angle, height angle, head angle and background angle.

To produce an artistic piece, a photographer works to achieve just the right balance of these four angles. Creating art is different from capturing an image for documentary purposes. An artist works on creations that bring an eye-to-eye encounter with the subject in the midst of a spectacular action.

Roseate spoonbill landing in water

Sun Angle

The sun angle is the angle at which the sun is in relation to the subject and the photographer. Being at perfect sun angle is often when your shadow is pointing straight at your subject. Being positioned a bit off sun angle is often not too much of a problem, but a brighter sun will push you to follow that rule more closely. That way when shadows become harsher, you will create better photographs with few to no shadows on your subject. This concept is especially true in bird photography when you want the plumage to be well lit. The Roseate Spoonbill with breeding colors banking in flight below displays full wing-span details with direct lighting from the sun straight behind me.

Roseate spoonbill with breeding colors

Mammal photography can be very good with angles up to 45 degrees, provided you are not losing detail on the shaded area. This approach has the advantage to give a more three-dimensional look to your subject. However, wildlife photography is not portrait photography in a studio by any means. That’s why being at sun angle is a basic guideline that works for wildlife photography.

Mother and Young African Elephant

Height Angle

There is no stronger impact than the intimate eye-to-eye encounter with the subject. This is how you enter the same field plane and you are really part of the action of the moment. Too often, I see photographers shooting from too high of a vantage point. Granted, it is more comfortable to stand behind a tripod than to be on your belly in the mud… The latter is part of the fun though!

Roseate spoonbill flapping its wings

The multiple award-winning Roseate Spoonbill photograph above was created while kneeling in the water to be at eye level.

Also, if you want to create intimate interactions with shorebirds you would be much better off lying flat on your belly.

Head Angle

What is the best head angle of your subject to go for? In bird photography, the ideal head angle will often be three to four degrees toward you. Full profile will work as well, but anything in between just does not render the same impact. Bird heads are long with a pointy beak, which is difficult to properly admire from a 45 degree angle. The Roseate Spoonbill image below shows a parallel head angle.

Roseate spoonbill with head parallel to author

The young Roseate Spoonbill preening below displays a head angle a few degrees toward me. One can easily admire the full spectrum of the bird’s head this way.

Young roseate spoonbill in Florida

Among birds, the flat-faced subjects such as owls can appear quite stunning when they are looking straight at you.

In mammal photography, you want to follow a bit closer what applies to humans. Photos looking straight at you or slightly to the side can be good. So can profiles.

Background Angle

Though an afterthought for many photographers, background angle is the one I am starting to value more and more. You’re striving very hard to create pleasing backgrounds with little clutter so that the viewer’s eyes are drawn straight to the subject, without distractions. This angle is the wild card that may throw off the other angles and yet provide the most impactful results. For instance, the landing Roseate Spoonbill below, photographed during a spoonbill workshop I lead in the Tampa Bay, was created while standing instead of kneeling. Kneeling would have brought me to the actual eye-to-eye level, but I would not have achieved a perfectly blue background as the sky would have shown and the horizon line might have crossed the bird.

Roseate spoonbill landing in water

A good exercise to practice is to press the shutter only when you consciously feel you have achieved a good balance between the four angles of success. Though you might find it difficult at first, it will soon become second nature and your photography will improve.

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About the Author

Steven Blandin is an award-winning photographer leading bird photography workshops in Florida and Alaska. He was born in the French Caribbean and now lives in Florida with his family. Though he started his career in corporate finance, his wife made him discover the beauty of wildlife photography through an epic African safari in Botswana. Since then, his appetite for nature photography has grown exponentially! Now an accomplished bird photographer, Steven strives to share his passion through the photographic education of other nature enthusiasts. To see more of Steven’s work or to learn more about his bird photography tours, visit www.stevenbirdphotography.com. Follow his blog for more tips and top-notch photography or his work on Instagram @stevenbirdphotography.

2 thoughts on “The 4 Angles of Success

  1. Superb work with the [nightmare inducing] Roseate Spoonbill image, Steven. Quite distinctive to these eyes with the expectation of good dreams to all.

    The attempt to achieve perfection with a wildlife image certainly detracts from the enjoyment of observation of the beasts. It’s a delicate balance where hopefully one always has a great wildlife experience.

  2. Respectfully, the first image (touchdown Spoonbill) could give nightmares to small children, and the second paragraph is cumbersome and unclear.
    I’ve been to your web site and enjoy much of your work there and here.
    Thank You

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