5 Secrets to Create a Perfect Silhouette Portrait Outdoors

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DPS Silhouette 1

1) SHOOT LOW AND HEAD TO TOE

Place the subject’s entire body, from head to toe, against the sky. In order to do this, you will need to be lower than the subject. You can do this by laying on your back, or stomach, while taking the shot.

If you are unable to get low enough, you may need to have your subjects get higher, such as on the very top of a rock, small hill or sand dune. This will hopefully allow you, in most circumstances, to get an angle that places the subject’s entire outline against the sky. You can see a variety of landscapes utilized in the examples below.

DPS Silhouette 2

Hint: It’s so, so, SO important that their feet are against the sky! Legs in a silhouette portrait that are cut off above the feet look like weird, short stumps. If you can’t find a suitably spot at a location, you can play with silhouettes of a closer composition.

DPS Silhouette 3

2) IT’S ALL IN THE TIMING

Silhouettes work best around 20-30 minutes before sunset. However, it does vary with the angle you are able to achieve – the greater the height difference between you and the subject(s), the earlier you will need to take the shot.

If you wait any longer, the sun will be hidden behind whatever your subjects are standing on, and the sky might not be bright enough to make a silhouette. If you do it too early, the sky’s colours can be a bit boring and you will be dealing with other issues, such as sun flare.

DPS Silhouette 4

Tip: Silhouettes can be taken earlier before sunset if the sun is partially blocked or filtered through strong clouds.

3) SILHOUETTE SETTINGS ARE SIMPLE

Set your camera to Aperture Priority (AV) mode, with an aperture of f/2.8, and ISO of 400. Have Evaluative Metering selected, which means that the camera will take into account the whole scene when deciding how to find a balanced exposure.

If you fill the frame with your subjects’ faces or bodies, then the camera will expose for their skin, even with a bright background (see example below).

If you fill the frame mostly with a very bright sky, than the camera will expose for the bright sky, brining out the natural sunset colors and making everything else in the photograph dark.

So, if you place your subject directly against the sky (bright), than the subject (which is darker) will be heavily underexposed. The result – a silhouette!

DPS Silhouette 5 DPS Silhouette 6

Both photographs were taken on the exact same setting mentioned above, only seconds apart. The difference? Composition, and what is filling the frame – subject or sky.

4) SILHOUETTE PORTRAIT POSING IS SPECIFIC

Silhouettes are very forgiving of poor facial expressions (simply because you cannot see them), but very harsh when it comes to outlines. After taking each shot, check to make sure that nothing looks odd in the photograph.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when posing subjects in a silhouette:

  1. Hugging poses do not work – A hug silhouette looks like a great big blob monster. All subjects need to be clearly defined, which means they need to be at least a couple of inches apart from each other. It’s nice for subjects to still be connected, through holding hands, or kissing, but their bodies should still be defined.
  2. Have your clients look away from camera – It’s much nicer and more natural to have poses where the faces are profiled.
  3. Watch the clothing – Very baggy clothing will not work as well for a silhouette, as the shape can become unflattering. It is best for females to wear dresses or skirts in silhouettes, as it brings a feminine shape and helps clearly define them against the male’s figure. – Very baggy clothing will not work as well for a silhouette, as the shape can become unflattering. It is best for females to wear dresses or skirts in silhouettes, as it brings a feminine shape and helps clearly define them against the male’s figure.

DPS Silhouette 7

5) SILHOUETTES SELL

Try to capture at least one silhouette at every photo shoot, whether it is a family portrait, maternity, engagement or wedding. Why? Because they sell!

Here are some reasons why clients love to purchase silhouettes:

  • Silhouettes add variety to your shoot. Silhouettes are so different in nature, in their colouring and style, that the variety they give instantly makes any shoot more interesting and saleable. As the silhouette is quite unique from all other photographs, it also makes it easy to sell individually as a unique piece of artwork.
  • Silhouettes are perfect for shy clients. Some clients hate the idea of their faces hanging up on their walls, making silhouettes the perfect objection handler. As the focus of the photograph is not on the subjects’ faces at all, it can be marketed to them as the perfect piece of personalized artwork, without battling their self-conscious nature.
  • Silhouettes look better bigger! If you capture silhouettes on a wide composition, it’s all too easy to sell them as very large piece of artwork. Because the subjects are relatively small within the frame, silhouettes can encourage a larger, more impressive piece of artwork for the client and a more profitable sale for you.

DPS Silhouette 8

We hope this guide gives you the confidence to go out and try your own silhouettes.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Alana Orth is the founder of Sunlit Studios, a natural light photography studio based in Brisbane, Queensland. With a studio team supporting her, she now concentrates on her passion for teaching fellow photographers. Sunlit Studios offer One-on-One Photography Tutorials where we can teach you in-person about our famous Sunny Silhouettes and practice a silhouette together. Our online Lighting E-guide, “The Logic of Light”, also helps you plan your entire sunset shoot.

  • Trendisitas

    Thank you for the Tips Ms. Alana. I have been practicing Silhouette shooting but darn can’t get the right composition. There’s always light in the back of my subjects. I really want dark at the back of my subjects. I took a picture of my twin cousins here in Iloilo, Philippines at our Sea Port few weeks ago. Might be due the sun was late off since we arrive late for the sunset. But love it, making practice will make things perfect. I hope I can read more of your articles. Regards!

  • So beautiful your pictures and very informative your post. This is so helpful for me. Actually not only me but also others. Really you did a good job. Thanks for sharing this..

  • Some stunning portraits. I am assuming you have some wedding photography experience based on the lovely photos you have shared?

  • Alana Orth

    Hi Geoff,

    Yes we have been a Wedding and Family Portrait studio for 5 years now. We love to take silhouettes at every wedding possible as well!

  • Alana Orth

    You are welcome! 🙂

  • Alana Orth

    Yes, taking this photograph a little earlier would have given you a greater contrast between your subjects and the sky. As for composition, if they had been standing their entire bodies might have been more clearly defined. Keep up the great work! 🙂

  • Annie Bonneau

    Thank you for this! I’m new to photography and always wanted to take silhouette pictures. I wrote everything down in my little photography book that I bring everywhere and will definitely take a few shots!

  • Christopher Fevrier

    I am relatively new to Photography but I definitely have a passion for it. I remember my first and last attempt at experimenting with silhouettes. It was a mess. I could not get the subjects dark enough without underexposing the photo completely. I am going to try again using the evaluating metering though because I never thought at the time to change the metering mode. I will read more on it and experiment with that also. Thank you for this guide!

  • Alana Orth

    You are welcome! You do need a bright sky in contrast to help the subjects be underexposed. We also take down the exposure further in editing to bring out the colours in the sky and make sure the subjects are completely black. Good luck!

  • Alana Orth

    You are welcome!

  • A. Blas

    In every place i visit, i always take pictures of sunset, there is something about it that I really really like.
    -just want to share this sunset photo taken from RX100

  • A. Blas

    after reading the article it made me feel taking pictures of silhouettes more.
    -just want to share this photo taken from RX100 🙂

  • A. Blas

    Antipolo City, Philippines.

  • Fantastic tips, I’m definitely going to try some of them!

    Here are a couple of silhouette photos I took of my wife & I while on a cruise using a Canon 60D on a tripod & a timer. Here is a link to some other sunrise/sunset photos I took while on the cruise which include a few more silhouettes https://flic.kr/s/aHsk8ZoW9u

  • This is a great tutorial! Thank you so much for sharing, it has given me even more confidence to add them to my portfolio to share with others.

  • Odeta O. Rimaite

    gorgeous !

  • Matthew Schomburg

    Here’s one of mine at Sunset.

  • Michael Rhodes

    Question…you state “Set your camera to Aperture Priority (AV) mode, with an aperture of f/2.8, and ISO of 400.” I have only the two kit lenses that came with my Rebel T3i, and neither will dial down to a 2.8 setting. These lenses are EFS 18-55mm and EFS 55-250mm. What size lens would you recommend for these types of pictures…or, if possible, what settings with my current lens might work well for these types of pics?

    Great article by the way…makes me want to give it a shot (pun intended), which is why I’m trying to get this information.

    Thank you!

  • Tim Coleman

    Make sure your lens and filters are spotless!

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    The setting of f2.8 is to minimise the depth of field, so that the background and foreground is out of focus. Just use the widest aperture your lenses will go to if you want out-of-focus backgrounds. But in several of the images used to illustrate this article, depth of focus was not an issue.
    Also, using a wide aperture allows a higher shutter speed in low light, eg at sunset.

  • Steve

    Lake Orta, Italy. Weird shaped trees and the sun going down over the mountains.

  • Lewis Mangaba

    I have just read the article and tried the photo shot in the evening at sunset with my guests.

  • Photomad84

    Another Silhouette to add to the list. Lake Wendouree Australia.

  • Olivia White

    Oh, oh, oh. That’s . . . awesome!

  • Debashis RC Biswas

    Somewhere in the Agricultural Fields of Westbengal, India
    camera: Cellphone camera (5mp)
    Please let me know for further improvements
    Thanks!

  • Cameron Orth

    Wow, Amazing!

  • Josh

    I won’t say the setting described using evaluative metering is wrong, but I would disagree with the technique as being a go to. While doing it this way with the sun in your face it will almost always work, but by doing it the following way will allow you to take a silhouette without having the sun in your shot as long as the dynamic range fits the situation of a brightly lit background. To start with a silhouette for me it’s just easier to use spot or partial metering and just meter a bright part of the sky (not directly into the sun, press shutter halfway, can also utilize meter lock) and then compose your shot. In manual mode, this or any creative mode for this matter, will give you a good enough starting point for a silhouette. It will more depend on whether you want all black subjects or partially lit outlines on the silhouette on how you’ll adjust your other settings to either let in more or less light. Some find all dark more appealing, but I was taught it’s usually nicer to atleast have some outline of the subjects lit up, but neither is right or wrong. That’s more of a creative choice and judgment call on the shot being taken.

  • Haytham Mohamed Aljaili

    Silhouette is beginers friendly .

  • I tried this last week: http://static1.squarespace.com/static/52fb3846e4b09514a1010450/t/55eaecd8e4b08279fc089ce3/1441459421671/RMVM20150901-7757.jpg?format=2500w

    Location: Waalkade, Zaltbommel (NL). There is a kind of statue from Jip & Janneke

  • Om Prakash Kewalia

    I tried this morning at Gadisar Lake, Jaisalmer,India,.I love silhouettes.

  • tried with my favourite subject the dog :

  • Susan Palmer Gutterman

    Just happened to catch this on my first night in Maui last night. Taken with my iPhone 6s cause that’s what I had with me

  • Susan Palmer Gutterman

    Photo didn’t load on original post

  • wukedypuk

    I managed to get this one while in Kenya of a Masai shepherd around sunset just near the Mara

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