Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

Exercise – Variety with a low sun

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Take a series of photographs when the sun is low, for example early morning or early evening. Select four that demonstrate:

  • Frontal lighting
  • Side lighting
  • Back lighting
  • Edge lighting


As recommended, all of these were taken in the same shooting session, over the space of about an hour. The sun in this part of the world (south of France) is usually very reliable in the ‘golden hour’ but this week’s been uncharacteristically rainy… this was the only fine day we’ve seen so far so I had to get out and make the most of it (the ‘light through the day’ series is from the same day).


This beautiful yellow building, a former home of painter Henri Matisse, catches the straight-on early evening light beautifully, it really glows at this time. I imagine it must have been positioned there for this very reason. Over the years I’ve captured it even more golden and glowing than this, but this is what I got when I shot for this exercise…

Frontal lighting

Frontal lighting

Side lighting

The left-right split on this palm tree trunk was achieved by shooting at 90° to the direction of the clearly evident shadows, as this is how I knew I’d get side-lighting. As expected, the detail in the shaded half is lost to almost black, while the half still enjoying the sun is showing off its texture.

Side lighting

Side lighting

(interesting note: well, interesting to me anyway… I’ve recently recognised this side-lighting technique in TV and films, particularly to imply that a character is morally ambiguous… spotted it again the other night in a tense dialogue scene in Breaking Bad, with the close-ups of the two protagonists faces being shot in precisely this ‘two-faced’ fashion)

Back lighting

This kind of lighting can render the subject to be almost entirely dark and so suits strong, recognisable shapes that can be identified by their silhouettes. I felt that this capture of a group of friends in a row enjoying the setting sun fell into this category. I love the warm orangey-brown tones of the image, almost sepia in style but straight out of the camera.

Back lighting

Back lighting

Edge lighting

I found this one the hardest to achieve by far. In the end I think I kind of got it with this shot, albeit the effect isn’t particularly strong. If you look carefully you can see a distinct edge to the right of the people, as I was shooting into the sun but keeping the sun itself out of the frame.

Edge lighting

Edge lighting

What I’ve learned:

I already knew about the ‘golden hour’ and like to think that I have had many good images over the years using this kind of light. However, looking back at my archive of old images, it’s evident that I’ve mostly used this time of day and this type of light for the frontal lighting technique. This is perhaps the most obvious use of the low light, to directly illuminate the subject (especially if the colour, shape or texture of the subject lends itself to this kind of direct illumination, like the yellow of the Matisse house). Sometimes I’ve taken a nice sunset shot but that’s seeing the sun as the subject itself, not the light source.

What this exercise has taught me is that there are other ways you can use a low sun; what you can do with side lighting and back lighting in particular appealed to me. Edge lighting I found a bit harder to achieve, so maybe I’ll keep trying with that.


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