Backlight Photography and the Silhouette

Serenity in silhouette on Barkers Creek Reservoir near Harcourt, in Central Victoria, Australia.

Placing your primary subject into silhouette can produce a dramatic and highly evocative image. Let’s examine light and how to employ it to produce a beautiful and evocative silhouette.

The making of great photos is largely based upon an appreciation and application of light.

Light is transmitted from one or more sources, natural or artificial, either directly or, via diffusion or reflection, through the camera's lens and onto the sensor.

That seems to me to be a relatively straightforward explanation of the most fundamental aspect of photography, to illuminate and then record the subject or scene upon which a composition is based.

But it's the transformational and transcendental properties of light and how it encourages photographer and viewer alike to move beyond the relatively mundane objects depicted (e.g., tree, grass, face, dress, wall) that interests me.

Backlight Photography and Abstraction

I hope that idea is evident in my photo of partly submerged tree branches, photographed in silhouette, at Barkers Reservoir near the small town of Harcourt in Central Victoria, Australia.

The use of backlight to create a silhouette was foremost in my mind when I made this image. And I needed to be there at sunset to do so.

Sunset light reflected off the surface of the reservoir rendering the darker, largely unlit tree branches into silhouette.

The low angle of light also created shadows immediately in front of the branches which achieved the following:

  • Doubled their apparent size

  • Abstracted the branches so that they now appear simply as dark, symmetrical shapes

The success of this image is based upon an ability to abstract the scene in a way that removes it from the now.

By using backlight I’m able to remove detail from the image and, in doing so, provide an impression of mystery.

Rendering the image into black and white also served to remove it from the now, from the known, from what we’d normally refer to as reality.

Photography, as art, allows us to move beyond the mere recording of people, places and events towards a deeper connection to that which exists beyond our understanding, but within our ability to experience.

Architectural details in silhouette on the viewing platform at the Dragon Tower in the city of Harbin, China.

Silhouette Meaning

A silhouette occurs when someone or something appears as a dark shape or outline when placed against a significantly brighter background.

Do you find important subjects in your photos unexpectantly turn out in silhouette?

It’s not uncommon, but don’t worry. This post will explain the following:

  • Silhouette meaning

  • Why the subject or scene you’re photographing sometimes records as a silhouette

  • What you can do to prevent an unwanted or overly dark silhouette from occurring

  • How to create a dynamic and evocative silhouette, in camera

You can see that in the above photo of a safety fence on the viewing platform of the Dragon Tower in the city of Harbin, located quite close to Siberia and North Korea in far northeast China.

Even though it was the middle of winter, with the temperature at around -20C, I found myself looking directly into diffuse smog filtered sunlight.

I immediately pulled out my sunglasses and began examining the scene.

Because the light was so much brighter than the safety fence I knew the image was going to photograph as a silhouette.

The good news was that the scene was full of interesting lines and shapes, organized in a very repetitive manner. There was almost no color to speak of so a black and white rendering was called for.

When processing this image on the desktop I decided I didn’t want a totally stark, high contrast image.

I reduced the contrast of the scene to bring out some drama in the sky and to visually separate the darkest shadows from the blacks.

You can see how this move revealed the heart shaped chains, locked onto the railing. They’re not a major part of the image, but they do introduce an element of story into the picture.

The addition of a warm, sepia tone to the image provided an impression of warm sunlight which I feel also reduces the starkness of the photo.

Red and orange colors dominate this backlit sunset scene at Expedition Pass Reservoir near Chewton in Central Victoria, Australia.

Backlight for Mood

Backlighting can add a heightened sense of drama to a scene. It produces arguably the most dramatic form of lighting that, when teamed with the right subject, can produce dynamic results.

It’s important to understand that, just because you’re photographing into extreme backlighting, doesn’t mean you can’t produce successful photos.

But experience and studying other photographers images will help you identify the kind of subjects and scenes that are well suited to photographing in silhouette.

As you can see a carefully composed and appropriately exposed image, such as this sunset scene at Expeditions Pass Reservoir near the town of Chewton in Central Victoria, can look great in silhouette.

A colorful portrait of a young woman, made with front lighting, in Harbin in northeast China on a cold, winter's day.

Front Lighting Reveals Identity

In the case of general portrait photography front lighting, where the light comes from behind the photographer and illuminates the front of the subject, is the safest option.

More often than not the portrait needs to be adequately illuminated before we’re able to define subject specific information including the following:

  • Gender

  • Age

  • Ethnicity

  • Clothing

  • Occupation

I thought the colors this young woman was wearing were fantastic.

She was happy to be photographed so I asked her to stand in front of those crazy, leafy trees right in the middle of downtown Harbin, a city of over 8 million people.

Given that it was the middle of winter and the temperature was around -20 degrees Celsius those trees seemly particular bizarre.

I opted for front lighting to reveal as much color as possible.

I have to say it was such a hoot to make the image and it’s fun to look at it now.

A beautiful black and white portrait of an elderly man, made with side lighting, sitting by an open doorway on the outskirts of Chennai, India.

Side Lighting Emphasizes Shape And Texture

Side lighting places part of the subject into shadow, but provides a more three dimensional result by emphasizing shape and texture.

As it highlights wrinkles and prominent facial features (e.g., nose, chin, forehead, etc) side lighting is well suited to character portraits.

The same subject lit by strong, backlighting will render the subject dark, probably black, against a sky that’s often rendered as a mid tone.

I photographed this dignified gentleman in the tiny village of Maria Purem, the construction of which my mother helped fund on the outskirts of Chennai in southern India.

It was great to visit the village, which is really no more than a laneway with houses on either side and a village hall at the end of the lane.

I travelled to Kolkata and Chennai specifically to make images to share with my nieces and nephews, and their children, that spoke to the lasting value of some of the charity work my mum had undertaken during her working life.

I asked my subject to sit just inside the doorway of the village hall. This brought him out of the bright sunlight and provided side lighting that raked across his body and highlighted the expressive, textural qualities in his face.

I believe the image represents the life of a working man. A life that’s been lived.

 
Shadows On Iceberg, Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

About To Travel?

 

Portrait Photography For The Travel Photographer

If you want to make great portraits without too much trouble ensure your subject's face is lit appropriately and that the background is no brighter than the subject.

If you want to make great portraits in a more difficult manner, that introduces a range of potential problems, incorporate flash or reflectors and/or diffusers into your workflow.

I've done just that on many, many occasions.

But not needing to impress anyone, and wanting to control the photography event without worrying about equipment or assistants, I'd rather follow this very simple recipe.

  • Look to see where the light is beautiful

  • Place the subject in that light

  • Control the dynamic range (i.e., contrast) of the scene by adjusting the composition to control the brightness of the background, in relation to the subject

  • Move in close and interact with the subject in a way that will produce the expression and mood that convey's the emotion of the moment

  • Make a small series of images and be on your way, often within two minutes of asking permission to make the photograph.

Unless you're dealing with professional models, it's essential to respect the privacy of those you photograph and to be able to make your photos in a way that does not make them feel uncomfortable.

Speed and a positive approach is essential in this regard.

Of course there are different approaches to making great photos. One is not, necessarily, better than the other as far as the final images produced are concerned.

There's no doubt that some photographers are drawn to gear. That's fine, as long as you can manage all that gear and the range of technical considerations associated with it.

While a generalization it should be noted that many photographs drawn to gear and technique are not always that well adapted to working with people, particularly strangers.

That's a challenge that needs to be overcome, but it's harder to do so when you're concentrating on gear and technique.

What’s photography really about? Are your photos about the gear and how you use it, or about how you perceive, interact and record your experience of the world around you?

A black and white portrait of a young boy, photographed under open shade, in rural Bali, Indonesia.

Outdoor Portrait Photography

As a travel photographer and long time teacher of photography I've determined what I believe to be the best way to manage a range of technical issues and place attention on the subject or scene in question.

Put simply I minimize the equipment I’m using and adapt to work with the available light.

This simple philosophy has become integral to my approach to making photos.

A simple rule that I both follow and teach is as follows:

Move Yourself, Move Your Subject
— Glenn Guy

The simple act of following the above rule will, more often than not, allow you to place your subject into beautiful light.

You can often achieve this simply by turning the person you’re photographing around (e.g., 90 or 180 degrees) and/or moving them just a few meters away from where you found them.

That’s exactly what I did when photographing this young boy at a Hindu temple on the island of Bali in Indonesia.

By moving him, no more than a few meters, I was able to place him out of direct sunlight and into very flattering open shade.

I love dappled light, though it can be extremely hard to deal with when making photos.

I was really happy to incorporate the dappled light into the background as I think it adds life to the image without becoming a distraction and taking our attention away from the young lad’s face.

As a consequence of placing them into beautiful light, and controlling the dynamic range of the scene, you'll be able to make your photographs quickly and efficiently and move on excited by your success and motivated to make more beautiful photographs.

Or you might prefer to spend your time, and that of your subject's, messaging around with camera controls, flash settings, reflectors and the like.

It's your choice. But, as you can see by the photos in this post, the approach I employ and teach works really, really well.

An elderly woman, displaying a trusting expression, at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Markets near Bangkok, Thailand.

Photograph With Respect

Are you a photo taker or a photo maker?

Please don't forget the impact your approach will have on your subject.

The approach I've outlined, when undertaken in a positive and respectful manner, will allow you to bring joy and beauty into the life of those you photograph.

It seems to me that’s reason enough to make the photograph in the first place.

I remember photographing this lovely lady at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Markets near Bangkok in Thailand.

It was a terribly hot day and the light was extremely high in contrast.

Most of the tourists I noticed were photographing into the light, no doubt resulting in the primary subject of their images photographing as a silhouette.

I made sure I moved around and photographed with the light coming from behind me. Wherever possible I tried to photograph locals who had manouvered their canoes into the gentle shade produced by the verandah under which I was standing.

Less light entered this lightly shaded area. As a consequence the dynamic range of the scene, while still high, was reduced and the shadows photographed less dark.

In this case I’ve actually pushed the shadows close to black in post processing simply to draw attention to the light on her lovely face.

For the most part I find that we’re more accepting of a high contrast black and white photo than we are of the same scene reproduced in color.

Cameras Do Not Recognize Subject

Your camera has no concept as to whether you are photographing a baby, bar mitzvah or birthday cake.

It’s good to remember that, despite all the wonderful technology associated with today’s digital cameras, it’s people that make photos, not cameras.

Your camera is a very sophisticated recording device, but it’s your ability to perceive beauty and tell a meaning rich story that determines the success of your photos.

 
Backlighting    has produced a    technically poor quality photo    of Glenn Guy in silhouette at the    Bali Zoo    in Bali, Indonesia.

Backlighting has produced a technically poor quality photo of Glenn Guy in silhouette at the Bali Zoo in Bali, Indonesia.

 

Backlit Portraits | Why Faces Go Dark in Photos

The light meter’s job, fundamentally, is to measure light and guide the camera to record what it sees as a mid tone.

A mid tone is a level of brightness in between jet black and pure white.

That’s the function for which your camera’s light meter has been designed, regardless of the actual brightness of the area in question.

However, like your eyes, the camera’s light meter is drawn to the brightest part of the scene.

The bright background, which the camera’s light meter is attracted to, is often brought down (i.e., underexposed) and recorded as a mid tone.

As a consequence a light blue colored sky will often photograph a significantly darker (i.e., mid tone) shade of blue.

The result will be a more dramatic background and a subject that records much darker, maybe even black, compared to how they appeared in reality.

Sound familiar?

That’s exactly what happened with the really terrible photo of me holding a bird of prey at the fantastic Bali Zoo.

Frankly, it’s a shocker.

I remember telling the local attendant that I’d look better if we could swap positions and she made the photo from the opposite direction.

She assured me that having the bird looking directly into the light might upset it and that might not end well for me. Well, I didn’t need to be told twice.

 

Glenn Guy, photographer and owner of the Travel Photography Guru website and blog, holding a python at Bali Zoo in Bali, Indonesia.

 

Fortunately, a few minutes later, we were able to make a photo in the same place with me holding a python.

This time around we were able to swap positions and the attendant photographed with the light behind her.

What a difference!

If you want to produce a pleasing likeness of your subject, ensure you light them appropriately.

Light coming from an angle slightly behind and to one side of the photographer will often produce the best mix of identity, shape and texture.

I’m yet to see much evidence that face recognition technology has much of a positive bearing on correct exposure of faces in a photograph, regardless of the direction of the light.

Face detection can certainly be useful for quickly achieving accurate focus in portrait photography, but that’s another issue entirely.

Focus is a measure of distance, specifically the distance between the point of focus (e.g., eye, leaf, candle) and your digital camera’s sensor.

The camera guides the lens to focus beams of light onto the sensor or the film plane, as it’s referred to on a film-based camera.

A rail bridge, photographed against intense backlighting, on an overcast winter's day in Harbin, China. The strong graphic shapes and shadows make for a dramatic image.

Backlight to Explore Theme, Symbolism And Metaphor 

However, a subject photographed with backlight can produce a very striking image, particularly when positioned in such a way that emphasizes their shape against a brighter background.

The trick when photographing a silhouette is for the subject to form a graphic shape.

A backlit portrait of Gil, a professional Gymnast, when recorded as a silhouette, will not allow the viewer to identify Gil's age, ethnicity and, possibly, even her gender.

But placing Gil in a graphic pose, such as a cartwheel formation, will allow the viewer to identify her as a gymnast.

Silhouettes tend to be less about the identity of the individual depicted and more about the activity or occupation in which they are involved.

Silhouettes, therefore, tend to be more iconic.

Imagine a nude image of a pregnant mother photographed in silhouette. The woman in question will often photograph very dark or black, hiding her identity and retaining modesty.

The image is now less about the individual photographed and more about notions that might include the following:

  • Pregnancy

  • Motherhood

  • Birth

  • Nature

  • The Human Condition

Your photograph, while it can still be considered to be a portrait, has become a more theme based image that encourages the viewer, via symbolism and metaphor, to consider deeper concepts.

Congratulations! You've just made Art.

In the case of the image of the rail bridge in Harbin, China I decided to process the file to retain separation between the black poles in the foreground and the relatively dark brickwork on the bridge.

I like the detail the brickwork adds to the image and I’m happy with the fact that I’ve achieved an image with a relatively large separation of tones from black, through mid tones to near white.

By allowing the snow and the hazy sky to reproduce as mid tones it’s easy to direct attention to the shapes and lines which underpin the composition in this image.

Vibrant pink light provides wonderful backlighting for this street scene along the famous Orchard Road in Singapore.

Backlight and Correct Exposure For JPEG And RAW

Take a look at this photo of vibrant pink light illuminating a street scene along Orchard Road in Singapore.

I don’t mind that the people in this image have recorded dark as they’re really incidental to the photo.

They’ve photographed dark simply because the amount of light reflecting off them is significantly less than the pink colored light radiating out through the windows behind them.

When photographing a subject against a significantly brighter background your camera will try to bring the background down to mid tone brightness.

This phenomenon will usually produce an unnaturally dark, flat looking image.

I’ve found that a more natural looking result with a greater sense of three-dimensional depth will often result from a MAR +1, or greater, exposure compensation.

You’ll still achieve a silhouette, but not at the expense of an overly dark, flat image.

Adding the right amount of extra exposure, above which your camera is recommending, will retain the silhouette while achieving a more dynamic relationship between foreground and background.

That's how to go about it if you're, like the vast majority of folks, working with your camera set to JPEG.

If you're working in RAW mode simply adjust your exposure to the right of the histogram, to gather as much data as possible and to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio.

It’s then a simple matter to re-map the data on the desktop until you achieve the desired exposure and contrast.

Just remember that, for most folks, a JPEG image is created and processed in camera. Sure you can improve the result on the desktop, but that’s not what most folks do.

For them photography is all about making pictures in camera.

If you don’t want to process photos on your computer or mobile device then JPEG is the most appropriate option for you.

But RAW is a different beast entirely. The creation of a RAW file, in camera, is merely the beginning of the process.

With a RAW file you’re simply gathering data that, if done properly, will allow you to maximize the potential quality of the image in question.

You can then redistribute that data on the desktop, in applications like Adobe Lightroom, to achieve a more technically proficient and creatively pleasing result.

Creative Learning | What’s Next For you?

This is a substantial article and it may well take several reads to get your head around how to control backlight to produce fantastic silhouette photos.

However, I’m confident the knowledge and extra confidence you’ll gain by doing so will make the extra effort worthwhile.

I work really hard to express difficult technical and conceptual matters in plain and simple language. Nonetheless, it can still be a lot to take in through a single reading.

If you love what you've just read I'd invite you to share this post both widely and wildly.

The more folks that see the content I produce the more people I'II be able to help with their own creative learning through photography.

If you live in or around Melbourne, Australia and would like to explore your creativity by taking your photography to the next level, please feel free to check out one of my one-to-one photography courses.

If you’re interested in taking control back from the machine and making better photos, in camera, or advancing your desktop post processing skills with an application like Adobe Lightroom feel free to reach out.

I look forward to working with you soon.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru