Working Right on Sun Angle « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Working Right on Sun Angle

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I photographed this winter plumage Herring Gull from the car at Shinnecock Inlet, Long Island, NY with the Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, the 1.4X II TC, and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3 stop: 1/1250 sec. at f/8 (in Av Mode). My rig was supported by a BLUBB filled with bird seed. (That worked out quite well as the bird seed was lighter than the same volume of pinto beans.)

Working Right on Sun Angle

When I was positioning the car to make the image above, I remember moving it as little as an inch or two forward or back to make sure that my shadow was pointed directly at the subject. Working right on sun angle is so important to me and I have been doing it for so long that today I do it almost without thinking.

The January 13th post, My Thoughts on “Bright Ideas: You be the Photo Editor” did not elicit a firestorm of comments but there was one controversial one in addition to some great comments and suggestions.

Roger Williams (January 15, 2011 at 11:00 am) wrote, “Please say a bit more about, “working right on sun angle”.

I responded, “Thanks for your question. You must be new here and new to the wide array of BAA educational materials as this is a topic that I have written reams on. Please see this morning’s (Sunday, January 16, 2011’s) blog post.”

One of my rare but consistent rant topics is that folks with expensive camera gear simply do not take advantage of the fabulous educational resources available today and in addition, many if not most are not willing to study, practice, and do the work that is needed to improve their photography. Though several years old, The Art of Bird Photography II (916 pages on CD) is a tremendous resource. It took me four years to write and includes everything that I learned about nature photography from 1998 (when the original The Art of Bird Photography was released) until late 2006.

In addition, probably 3/4 of my current 17,095 comments on Bird Photographers.Net deal with folks having problems with either the proper light angle or the proper head angle. Those two flaws are rampant in images posted for critiquing.

Here is an excerpt from The Art of Bird Photography II (page 177) adapted for this blog post:


I am a huge (one could pretty much say “obsessed”) fan of direct frontal lighting. And surely all IPT participants would tell you that I am—among all natural history photography instructors—its biggest proponent. Except when creating silhouettes or when working in other backlit situations, I want my shadow pointed directly at the bird in almost all cases. I simply do not like side-lit images of birds—expose for the highlight side and the shadowed side loses all detail. The concept is a simple one: I want the bird in front of me with the sun coming right over the top of my head. It bears repeating: I want my shadow pointed right at the subject.

In extreme lowlight situations, you do not—of course—want your shadow to fall either partially or completely on the subject. In these instances, work off-angle to the light just enough so that your shadow does not appear anywhere in the image. Ideally, connecting the dots between the light source (the sun), the photographer, and the subject will yield a straight line. With birds, and many other natural history subjects as well, utilizing direct frontal lighting will yield images of subjects that are evenly and pleasingly lit. No shadows cast by any parts of the bird will fall on the bird itself. Realize also that when making backlit or silhouetted images, the most
dramatic results are created when the subject is on a line drawn from the photographer to the light source: it is best to position yourself so that the subject is precisely between you and the sun as doing so will ensure the most dramatic lighting and the richest colors.

The above is just one of hundreds of similar lessons in the CD book. The very next one covered in the book is Subject-to-Imaging Sensor or Film-Plane Orientation…. If your everyday gear costs thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and you are not familiar with every topic covered in ABP II you are not fulfilling your potential as a photographer….

Yeah, if I get you to buy a copy of the CD I will make a few bucks, but your photography will improve by leaps and bounds if you study and practice 🙂 How much is that worth?

I gotta get outta here and head to La Jolla. See you here again soon.

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear that I used to create the images above. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins.

Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon 1.4X II teleconverter This is my most used accessory; I would be lost without it
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body And this is the very best professional digital camera body that I have even used.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Gitzo 3530 LS Tripod This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
Double Bubble Level You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card Fast and dependable.

If you are considering the purchase of a major piece of photographic gear be it a new camera, a long lens, a tripod or a head, or some accessories be sure to check out our complete Shopper’s Guide.

14 comments to Working Right on Sun Angle

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Thanks Chas. I will give it a go as I have the program. I will see you at the St. Augustine event 🙂

  • Chas


    As you are a big proponent of frontal lighting may I suggest the use of NIK’s Tonal Contrast filter to extract more detail in such images. I can almost guarantee you will never post/print another image without its use. 😉

    Best Amigo, and see you in FL at the Expo.

  • I’ve only been following your site for a few months and have purchased only one of your instructional works. You are a good instructor and an interesting writer. I wouldn’t pretend to argue anything photographically with you so please understand what I say as personal opinion.
    This photo of the gull is very clear and clean, well lit as you say from the sun. But don’t you feel it lacks some personality? Wouldn’t a little shadow make it more interesting to look at? Not as technically good but aesthetically so?

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      At times I do not mind a bit of off-angled light to sculpt white feathers. It is largely a matter of personal style. There is no need for an image created with slight side light to be anything less than technically perfect. Each of us is free to develop and employ their very own style. I am not saying that mine is right or best; I just share my thoughts and what I do. That said I pretty much despise 15-90 degree side light for birds 🙂

  • Jay Gould

    YAW; he won’t be back!

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Roger, Thanks for your purchases and sorry that I did not recognize your name. “Working right on sun angle” is a phrase that I use often to indicate that I am working with direct frontal lighting.

    Jay, thanks for your kind words and the info. I wanted to ask Dan if he routinely gave 70% discounts to anyone who asked 🙂

  • Jay Gould

    Dan, both of Artie’s books are/can be made into iPad editions!! They are/can be made into PDF format; therefore they are iPad editions. You paid hundreds for your iPad; thousands for your camera gear (how much?). For a lousy $3 you can obtain the Good Reader App to read all of your PDF files.

    And for the best $70 you can ever spend you can get both Art of Bird Photography I and II; I in soft cover that can be removed, scanned and saved as a PDF, and II comes in a PDF on a disc.

    Dan, BTW, I did not post this comment for you! You would not understand what I am saying; you are worried about $25!

    I posted it for those that do not have an iPad as a great reason to get an iPad – I love my iPad!

    For others that do not have an iPad, photography books are the best reason to get an iPad. I have 16 photography books on my iPad: simple, if it isn’t in PDF, you go to Office Works, remove the binder, and SCAN the book saving as a PDF. I also have 6 Lightroom & Photoshop books.

    Finally, there is Kindle for iPad! Good for another six photo/photoshop books like Ellen Anon’s CS5 for Nature Photographers, Kelby’s books, and right now I am reading Moose Peterson’s Captured in between working through Kloskowski’s Layers.

    Having a book next to your computer on the iPad is a perfect way to work through teaching books on Lightroom and Photoshop!

    Dan, I am an SOB, just ask Artie; what planet are you from?

  • Roger Williams

    As a matter fact, I’m not new here or new to the wide array of BAA educational materials. I know of your obsession with “direct frontal lighting” – a term that makes sense to me, and the approach I use in my nature photography. The term, “working right with the sun”, was not clear to me and I simply wanted to know if I had missed something. Thank you for the explanation.

  • M. Bruce

    All the best for great weather in La Jolla – some of the best water and sky colors in the world!

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Mike, Everything looks quite sharp to these old eyes…

    Loren, Thanks a ton for your kind words. And good wishes 🙂

  • Mike Vanecek


    The eye is really sharp, but the bill and some of the feathers look a little soft to me (which may just be my old eyes). However, given your settings I would have thought that they would be as sharp of the eye. What am I missing?



  • La Jolla!!! Artie, you’re making me jealous. After I saw you speak at Photo Expo West, and you showed a few brown pelican images you had just taken the previous day, I caught La Jolla fever! I went back a week or so later, and my wife finally had to drag me away; what a spot! I’m hoping to get back out there in a couple of months.

    Thanks for all you teach us…and more importantly, your inspiration. Hope you have great conditions for the SD IPT, and a safe trip!


  • I’ve been wondering about the angle since I started bird photography last year and finally came up with the same conclusion. Thanks for the tip!

    If you put out an iPad addition of your book for about $15 i woul buy it today