Backlight: The Art of Silhouettes

Younes Bounhar

While the very nature of soft or harsh light and its blue or gold colour go a long way in determining the look and feel of your images, the direction of light also influences your photograph. It can affect the perception of depth, texture, and contrast while creating drama, atmosphere, and that little touch that puts your photograph over the top. Front lighting gives you even exposures that can easily fit within the dynamic range of your camera's sensor, and side lighting adds a sense of depth and bring out texture.


But when the main source of light is behind your subject, that backlight creates some of the most dramatic and sought-after effects. In its simplest form, backlighting involves putting the subject between you and the sun, rendering your subject as a dark silhouette cut out against the background. There are also more nuanced types of backlighting that can be used to great effect in certain circumstances. 


Rim lighting can be used to create dramatic images that focus on shape and texture. 

Rim lighting occurs when light is cast on the scene at a low and indirect angle instead of directly behind, or from the side. As its name suggests, it creates a rim of light—or glow—around the edges of your subject that emphasizes the shape of objects in the scene. This type of light is particularly effective for macro and flower photography as well as for animal portraits. It can also be used to dramatically highlight textures in a landscape. 


You don't need a bright sun to create striking silhouettes; a bright background like this mountain face will suffice.

"Backlight" most often immediately conjures up images of a silhouette standing in front of a glowing sunset; in most instances, we think of a direct light source to create this type of image. However, silhouettes can be made without a direct source of light. Silhouettes result from having a dark subject in front of a brighter background, so in the right conditions, an indirect light source may be sufficient to create a backlit image, provided it is sufficiently brighter than your subject. For example, think of a brightly lit mountain at sunrise that you can use to silhouette a tree or a companion sitting in the shade. 


Knowing how to expose backlit subjects can be tricky; there are various ways to do it, depending on your subject and what you are trying to achieve. Because backlit scenes are contrasty, they invariably exceed the dynamic range of your sensor and therefore force you to make compromises. Since your sensor cannot accommodate the entire dynamic range of the scene, you'll have to choose which of the shadows or the highlights to prioritize. In some instances, you'll want to expose for the shadows, resulting in bright, high key images with blown out highlights. This is an excellent way to simplify compositions and to obtain beautiful, streamlined images. But when seeking to create silhouettes, you'll need to expose for the highlights at the expense of details in the shadows.

Backlighting is not synonymous with silhouetting. By adjusting your exposure, you can obtain compelling high-key photographs.

To determine the necessary exposure for a backlit scene, I often use manual exposure. This allows me to take the reading on the appropriate part of the scene and then recompose to frame my subject as I wish without having to worry about locking exposure or variations in meter readings from different parts of the scene. There are two ways to go about taking the meter reading. To take the guesswork out of the equation, use the spot metering function of your camera and point towards the area you want to expose for (i.e. if you want a silhouette, point it towards the brighter background; for a high key image, take your reading off the subject directly). Once your exposure is locked in, recompose and shoot. Alternatively, if you are more comfortable with the matrix/evaluative metering modes, then take a reading on the entire scene, then overexpose by a few stops to obtain a high-key photograph or underexpose by as many as three stops for a silhouette.


Keep the sun out of your frame and avoid undesirable flare, hide it behind a go-between.

In most cases, you'll find yourself shooting directly into the sun, which brings its share of challenges. First, because it can cause serious damage to your eyes, avoid looking directly into the sun through your lens. Second, the biggest technical issue is flare. Depending on your lens and the angle at which sunlight enters it, this may be more or less of an issue. Using a lens hood supplemented with a lens shade (aka your hand, a magazine, or a willing companion) to shield your lens from the sun can be very effective. If you can't get rid of the flare, embrace it and use it to your advantage as a "special effect" (but remember to use it and not abuse it, as it can get stale pretty quickly). Another way to get rid of flare is by hiding your light source behind a "go-between." This can be your subject itself, or any other compositional element you can find in your scene, such as rocks or trees. Not only will this get rid of flare, but it also ensures the sun won't take over the composition. As our eyes tend to gravitate towards the brightest spot in the frame, your viewers will invariably stray towards the sun and away from the subject, thus distracting from the message you want to convey in your photograph. 


Keep it simple: choose simple subjects to avoid clutter for maximal visual impact.

The choice of what or who to photograph is critical to the success of your image. You want to ensure that your subject is well defined, with clear edges and a nice two-dimensional graphic quality, and avoid it blending with the background into an unrecognizable, featureless, dark mass. For this, try to avoid elements that have no defined edges or that blend with the ground in front of you. I suggest choosing simple, easily recognizable shapes like single trees, rock formations, or people. When silhouetting people, don't forget to shoot profiles as well as frontal for some variation on the theme. Also, to make sure that my subject doesn’t blend with the ground, I tend to choose a lower point of view to get as much of the subject above the horizon and in front of the sky. Pay particular attention to legs, which tend to disappear in the dark foreground, giving the impression that your subject is floating in the middle of a black hole. Whatever you choose to photograph and however you do so, it’s important to strive for simplicity with backlit scenes. The less clutter you have, the more attention your viewers will pay to your subject, and the stronger your photographs will be. Instead of trying to include everything under the sun in front of it, minimize the complexity of for maximum impact. 

This article originally appeared in Issue 1 of PHOTOGRAPH magazine. Want more like this? Take a look at the bundle. 

Younes Bounhar is an Ottawa-based photographer specializing in landscape, travel and architecture photography. He also leads workshops, running destination photography travel adventures in his home country of Morocco. His clients include St-Joseph Media, Apex Publications, K2 Impressions, National Institute of Scenic Arts and Music (Spain) and his work has been printed in Canadian Geographic and PhotoLife. For more about Younes, visit his website or find him on Twitter and Instagram.  

Craft & Technique Natural Light Younes Bounhar

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