Backlit Silhouette Portraits: Photography Activity

This is a portrait of a person or thing, taken with bright back light, causing the subject to be rendered as a dark shape. You’ll need:

backlight silhouette portrait

“Silhouette blown hair” captured by PictureSocial member Ornela Pagani

  1. A source of bright light (open window, bright sun behind a person outdoors, etc.). The sunset with water behind it is a great setting for this kind of shot.
  2. A willing model.

Camera Setup

  • Mode: Aperture Priority (often shown as Av on the mode wheel)
  • ISO: 100 or so (there will be lots of light)
  • White Balance: Custom
  • Aperture: Mid-range, from f/5.6 to f/16


Even in aperture priority, the camera may try to expose for the subject. You may have to use your exposure compensation to drop the exposure by 2-3 stops.

White Balance

Take a shot of your gray card or reference paper before you adjust your exposure compensation. Make sure it’s bright grey, and set custom white balance.


This is your choice, but I recommend an interesting body pose. For ladies, I recommend a turned pose, off-center, hands on hips, head facing 90 degrees so you can see a face silhouette.

Framing the Image

For people shots, frame in portrait mode, and not on center. Think of the rule of thirds, and leave some open space to one side.

Take the Image

You want a very bright background and the subject quite dark. If the camera refuses to do this naturally, you can use the exposure compensation down by 2-3 stops from normal to force a darkening of the underexposed portions. Do not use flash!

Advanced Tricks

Instead of messing with exposure compensation, you can expose for the background, note the f-stop and shutter speed, and then switch to manual mode and crank up the f-stop (to larger f-numbers) or crank up the shutter speed (to faster values), to lower the total exposure. It also holds those parameters and will not float around like aperture value tends to do when changing your composition. Also, in post production, you can use the levels tool to pull in the darks and make them darker.

silhouette photography portrait

Photo captured by PictureSocial member bluenaren

Analyzing and Improving

If you can get the background perfectly exposed, to see the colors and features, and the silhouette is dark, you have nailed it! Try the same kind of shot with non-people things such as bridges, buildings, towers—anything that has less light on one side and will create an iconic shadow.

About the Author:
John Huegel ( is a photographer in the Erie, Pennsylvania area who specializes in Seniors, Dance Studio, Families and other groups. He is active in many charitable and volunteer activities in the Erie area.

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  1. dobri says:

    most Nikon DSLRs have Silhouette Mode! ftw!

  2. Sus says:

    Wonderful website, helpful tutorials, thanks !

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