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If you’ve ever captured a backlit portrait by accident you know how alluring and ethereal these images can be. Learning to master this lighting technique in both indoor and outdoor settings can be a new creative tool for your next portrait session.

Basically you’ll want the background to be so bright that it overpowers your foreground. The reason most people capture these images by accident is that your eye gathers information about light differently than the camera. You probably were able to see your subject when your happy accident occurred. You’re going to need to learn to see like your camera in order to visualize the final shot.

Creating an Indoor Silhouette Portrait

This is the easiest scenario since you’ll have to ability to control the lighting. There also some great new tools on the market to help you achieve some cool effects.

Keep the Background Simple

Keeping it solid and simple will give you the maximum contrast effect for your silhouette.


Placing the Background Behind

Choose a light colored backdrop. Place your lights behind your subject, out of frame of the camera and aimed at the backdrop. Get the lights as close as possible to the backdrop to avoid spill. You can also try placing a single light directly behind the subject so that their body blocks the light source. 

Next, you’ll want to meter for the background. It’s easiest if there is no other ambient light in the room. If you’re shooting in a small space, be aware of light bounce, which may cast more light onto your subject than you want.

If your not shooting with continuous lights, you may need to do a few test shots to get the exposure right.  Shooting tethered to your computer can help immensely in this situation. (Adobe offers an affordable Create Cloud Photography Plan for just $9.99/month enabling you to shoot tethered with Lightroom and then retouch in Photoshop). If you still can’t capture the total effect you’re looking for, make sure to shoot in RAW so you can make the correct adjustments in post using your levels and curves settings. You’ll want to:

  • Pump up the brights on the tone curve
  • Don’t mess with the saturation
  • Adjust your blacks accordingly

Typically we think of the photographic silhouette in black-and-white but why not try shooting in color and experiment with colored gels on your backdrop? If you do decided to go with a monotone theme, mix up your subject’s poses to explore interesting shapes.


Placing the Subject Behind the Background

That’s right, you can shoot with your subject behind a backdrop! Savage Universal just introduced their newest product Translum®. It’s an extremely versatile and unique semi-translucent plastic material that allows you to create stunning visual effects in the studio. Learn other ways to shoot portraits with this adaptable photographic tool here or check out Savage’s Pinterest board on Translum® to get even more inspiration. 

silhouette portraitsPhotos by Lopshire Photography

Creating an Outdoor Silhouette Portrait

Silhouettes shot in the great outdoors can be extremely unpredictable. You’ll need to practice adapting quickly to changing lighting situations such as drifting clouds and changing sunlight. The easiest solution is to stick with sunrise and sunset to give you the ideal lighting situation and most colorful backlight.

When you’re first learning you’ll want to stick to manual mode and quickly assess each shot in the viewfinder to see what adjustments you need to make. You’ll become extremely familiar with your camera setting and soon you won’t need to take your eye off the viewfinder. shift with the rapidly changing light. Your time frame for ideal lighting conditions is going to be very small during these two periods.


Here’s some additional thoughts to keep in mind when shooting photographic silhouettes whether you’re in the studio or on location:


  • Go low or get your subjects up high.
  • Subjects should be full length.
  • Keep the horizon in the lower one-third of image.
  • Subjects should be between you and the light source.


Viewers must be able to understand what’s happening in the photo instantly. 


Think about how to convey the maximum emotion without the viewer being able to see facial expressions.


Expose for the sky to avoid overexposure.

Cheryl Woods

Cheryl Woods is an accomplished photographer, designer and branding consultant with a career spanning 20+ years. Her photographic work includes editorial, fashion, portraiture and product photography for major companies in the consumer products field including QVC and Hanover Direct. She received a B.F.A. in Photography from the University of the Arts and an M.F.A. in Media Design from Full Sail University. Cheryl's work has been exhibited at the Lowes Museum of Art in Coral Gables, FL, The New York Independent Film Festival and the Rosenwald Wolf Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. Check out her website here!


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