Breaking Lighting Rules: Backlight and silhouettes

How to effectively shoot subjects against the light

Breaking Lighting Rules: Backlight and silhouettesWe've spent a lot of time talking about how to use light to achieve perfectly exposed photographs, and in general, the one rule we mention more than any other is to keep the sun at your back -- or, at the very least, to avoid shooting with the light directly in front of you. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this week we're going to discuss two techniques that intentionally break this rule: silhouette and backlighting.

kmg 300 silhouette beach flickr huipinghoEveryone's familiar with silhouettes -- a stark tree against a sunset sky or a person outlined against a bright window. The technique involves positioning your shot so that the light is directly behind your subject, creating a solid or mostly solid shape against a light background. 

Backlighting is a broader term for any image taken with the subject between the camera and the strongest light source, but not necessarily directly in front of it. In practice, backlighting generally refers to photographs where there is some light and definition on the front side of the subject, and it isn't simply a solid, black shape.

Good reasons to break the rules
Both techniques are a great way to add drama to your photos. Silhouettes have an inherent sense of mystery about them, since the details of the subject are completely obscured. You can use this technique to play with negative space or draw attention to a gorgeous sunset or striking sky.
kmg 630 backlit autumn dog
Backlight is sometimes called hair or shoulder light, because when photographing people in backlight, the light shining through their hair will create a halo effect. Backlighting is a little trickier to do than silhouettes, so we'll talk about the latter first.

kmg 300 silhouette bike flickr linfuchshuberSilhouette simplicity
The simplest explanation of silhouette technique is to place your subject between the camera and a bright light source, and then set your exposure based on the brightest part of the image. In other words, rather than choosing an exposure that will properly light your subject, expose for the background instead. Since the background is so much brighter, this means that your subject will be starkly underexposed, giving you a nice, solid silhouette.

Sometimes, that's all it takes to get your silhouette, but there are some more in-depth techniques to consider that will make it easier.
  • Find a good light source. To create a silhouette, there needs to be a distinct, directional light source. A sunset works great because not only is the sky a gorgeous color as a backdrop, but the sun is low on the horizon and provides an excellent light source.
  • Choose a good subject. Since there won't be any visible detail in your subject, make sure you choose something that's identifiable by its shape alone. It could be a person in an interesting pose, a building or tree, or even an animal, but make sure you account for the fact that your viewers will only be able to see the outline.
  • Turn off the flash. This might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to forget to turn it off!
  • Focus on the subject, but expose for the background. Manual settings might be best for this. Focus on your subject so that its edges are nice and sharp, but set your exposure for the background to get the silhouette.
kmg 300 backlit walking away flickr christiandecynerBeautiful backlight
Achieving a backlit image that is somewhere between silhouette and a "properly" exposed photo is very much an art, rather than a science. A lot depends on the end result you're looking for. You might want a picture of people where they are essentially in silhouette except for the light shining through their hair. You might prefer to be able to see more details in your subjects, with only a warm glow of backlight around them. Or you might be looking for something in between. 

Whatever the style you want, start with the same advice as for silhouettes, but adjust the exposure so that your subject receives more light. It's easiest to do this manually if your camera allows it so that you can try several different settings until you get the look you're going for. Using a fill flash or reflector to provide more light on the front of your subject can also be very helpful.

Unwanted flare
One of the dangers of backlighting and silhouette photography is lens flare -- the circles of light that appear to emanate from the sun (or other light source) and grow larger toward the camera. These can be used to intentional artistic effect, but you should do so sparingly. A low angle is the most frequent cause of lens flare -- generally, when the light source is shining into the lens but isn't actually in the image itself. If you don't want lens flare artifacts in your photo, try adjusting the angle of your shot or using a lens hood.

kmg 300 backlit green leavesArtistic license
Backlighting and silhouettes are a great way to add a new dimension of artistic beauty to your photographs. Like most aspects of photography, both techniques take practice and some amount of trial and error to master, but it can be done!

Much like learning the rules of grammar in English class before you can take some poetic license and break them intentionally, it's important to learn the rules of photographic lighting. Then you'll know how to break them and achieve the look you want in your pictures.
kmg 630 silhouette giraffes flickr chriseason
[Writing credit: Katherine Gray.  Image credits: K. Gray, Huiping HoLin FuchshuberChristianChris Eason]

Thanks to our friends over at Tecca for submitting this helpful how to.  Find more How-to tech articles & Gadget news at  And, as always, if you have any stunning back lit shots, post 'em on Steve's Facebook Wall, or hit up the Steve's Forums to talk about this article, ask questions, or anything photography related.