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5 Tips For Photographing Silhouettes

In this post, Steve Berardi from PhotoNaturalist discusses five tips for photographing silhouettes.

Photographing a silhouette is a great way to capture the dramatic colors of a sunrise or sunset, and to emphasize the shape of something.

creosote_bush.jpg

The basic idea with a silhouette is to photograph something that’s backlit by the Sun (or some other light source), so your subject shows up completely black in the image. This really helps highlight the shape of your subject, so silhouettes work great for a variety of subjects: people, plants, and even big piles of rocks.

Although they’re usually simple-looking images, there’s a few things you should keep in mind when photographing silhouettes:

1. Concentrate on your subject’s shape

Silhouettes are all about emphasizing the shape of your subject, so when you’re looking for something to photograph as a silhouette, concentrate on shape: is the subject well balanced? can you tell what it is just by it’s shape? Sometimes the things that look boring during the day will make great subjects for silhouettes, so focus on the subject’s form and structure–that’s what you’re trying to capture with a silhouette.

joshua_tree.jpg

2. Find your subject well before sunrise or sunset

Since the colors change so quickly during sunrise and sunset, it’s a good idea to scout out your subject well ahead of time, so you’re prepared for the most dramatic colors. Plan on being in place and having everything set up at least a half hour before sunrise or sunset, and be prepared to stay at least a half hour after sunrise or sunset. It’s extremely difficult to predict when the most dramatic colors will occur, so it’s good to be there for the entire show :)

lake_tahoe.jpg

3. Be aware of your surroundings

Although the most dramatic colors usually occur on the horizon where the Sun is rising or setting, it’s also possible for the best colors to be at the opposite horizon, or even straight up in the sky! It really depends on the clouds, so to ensure you capture the best colors, keep looking around while the Sun is setting or rising and be prepared to move your camera and tripod in a hurry.

4. Shoot at sunrise to avoid the wind

One of the biggest problems you’ll face when photographing silhouettes of plants is wind. Since you’ll be shooting in low light, a slight breeze will shake the plant enough to cause a blurry photo. One way to prevent this is to shoot at sunrise instead of sunset. The air is usually much calmer in the morning than in the afternoon.

5. Consider daytime silhouettes too

daytime_silhouette.jpg

Most silhouettes are shot during sunrise or sunset, but it’s also possible to capture some great silhouettes during the middle of the day. Remember, all you need is something that’s backlit, so as long as you can photograph something with the Sun directly behind it, you’ll have an opportunity to capture a silhouette. People or plants make great subjects for daytime silhouettes.

What did I miss?

If you have another tip for photographing silhouettes, please share it by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

steveb.jpeg
About the Author: Steve Berardi is a nature photographer and software developer, who can usually be found hiking in the beautiful mountains of Southern California. You can read more of his articles on nature photography at the PhotoNaturalist.

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Some older comments

  • michele

    July 6, 2012 10:44 pm

    Hi,
    I shoot this one a year ago, in Brussels, what do you think? I'd really appreciate any comment :)
    [eimg url='http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6195/6087085392_80dd02ef2c_d.jpg' title='6087085392_80dd02ef2c_d.jpg']

  • Lindsay Vallester

    July 6, 2012 01:44 pm

    Thank you for this article, big help for me cause i taking up Silhouettes photography for my Thesis this year. Can I ask question? What is the problem in Silhouette photography? and what is the best setting to capture a beautiful silhouette photos without editing? I need Your answer Sir Steve. Thank you so much

  • Mikhail Anand

    July 6, 2012 08:41 am

    Silhouettes from a fort in Udaipur, India (monsoon palace)
    http://mikhailanand.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/sunset-drive-sajjangarh-monsoon-palace/

  • Mikhail Anand

    July 6, 2012 08:36 am

    London: Searchin For Silhouettes
    http://mikhailanand.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/searching-for-silhouettes/

  • Rich Spears

    July 6, 2012 07:10 am

    First I'll say that your pictures look great. These are the kinds of silhouettes that I would love to capture. Let me see if I can summarize the information provided here: Look for something that's backlit, don't forget sunrise, look for interesting shapes. Then you asked "What did I miss?" Like some of the other comments, you missed the part about how to technically do the shot, which might be a little important. Yeah, that part about metering might be important... and the fact that your camera won't be able to figure out the settings, you'll probably have to do this on "M" manual, and that shutter speed and ISO might be important too... but hey... thanks for the article.

  • Friend

    July 6, 2012 03:24 am

    My humble amateurish contribution .....

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/65728881@N08/6274225846/in/photostream/

  • jason

    July 5, 2012 07:21 am

    Here are 3 camels just before sunset in tunisia. It was a chance shot as i was on a camel at the time.

    I completely over-exposed the sky in error & tried to rescue it by converting to b and w

    http://flic.kr/p/aKEnX4

  • Perry Lentine

    July 5, 2012 02:23 am

    Steve, Great article! I enjoyed learning about how you set-up your shots.

    Here's one of my silhouettes: http://www.PerryLentinephotography.com/fine_art_landscape/e62440a2

    Thanks again,

    Perry Lentine

  • Guig

    July 4, 2012 04:56 pm

    Great tips! Loving the cactus. With a little tinting, silhouetting can also rescue a landscape if the weather goes against you. Here's one where the clouds descended on a mountain I visited recently.
    http://m.flickr.com/#/photos/69604456@N07/7480688216/

  • Edgar

    July 4, 2012 02:54 pm

    How about some general camera settings?

  • Steve Berardi

    July 4, 2012 01:46 pm

    Thanks everyone for your nice comments! Glad you enjoyed the post :)

    @David - I usually use evaluative metering and then use the histogram to help guide me towards a good exposure. Here's a post I wrote explaining my method:

    http://photonaturalist.net/how-to-use-the-histogram-to-get-a-better-exposure/

    I basically follow the "expose to the right" idea: I keep making my shutter speed longer until the histogram is as far to the right as possible.

    @Zack - great point! spot metering works great for silhouettes too.

  • Wil A Campbell

    July 4, 2012 04:25 am

    What about shutter speed and camera settings, are those important for shooting silhouette too?

    Here are a couple of mine:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/wilacam/7167926293/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/wilacam/7167926293/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/wilacam/7167926293/

  • Travis

    July 4, 2012 03:03 am

    Colors are amazing, and a solid set of tips.

    Keep in mind there are a lot of different things worthy of silhouetting.

    These are a couple of shots.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/traviskuester/sets/72157629683327579/

  • Zack Jones

    July 3, 2012 10:33 pm

    Hey Steve - You missed one very important tip, IMO -- spot metering. Use that metering mode and meter for the bright area of the photo such as the sky and you'll have good luck creating silhouettes.

  • raghavendra

    July 3, 2012 08:31 pm

    yes i do agree most of the silhouettes taken on sunset or sun rise

    here is mine
    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.in/2012/02/exploring-nature-in-evening.html

  • Tanguerochino

    July 3, 2012 03:47 pm

    Great tips.

    I did not have any plan for any particular shot that night, but I caught this one as I was walking back to my car.

    ¡ & Silhouette

  • Mridula

    July 3, 2012 02:29 pm

    Such dramatic colors in the sky!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/07/back-from-conclay-with-club-mahindra-at-baiguney-sikkim.html

  • Scottc

    July 3, 2012 09:10 am

    Incredible photos, the light is amazing.

    I usually shoot silhouettes by accident, but I can see the attraction of doing so on purpose.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4391096249/

  • David

    July 3, 2012 04:45 am

    Thanks for the article. I'd like to hear your thoughts on where to meter, and what the histogram ought to look like.

  • Steve

    July 3, 2012 03:50 am

    Silhouette at sunrise. It is surprising how many people focus on the little clock on the tower.

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-of-Spain-The-Costas/G0000Qp9QOeUBwDA/I0000zSD4xT9VW.w

  • Badflea

    July 3, 2012 03:34 am

    Here is my little contribution... I have to work a lot to improve my Silhouette photography!

    http://pdf34.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/weekly-photo-challenge-contrast/

    http://pdf34.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/weekly-photo-challenge-contrast/

  • MikeC366

    July 3, 2012 03:30 am

    Good article with some sound advice here. Mostly I don't set out of an evening to shoot a silhouette. I just seem to stumble upon them. This happened recently on a beach with some young lads. http://wp.me/p268wp-gy
    One of my favourite shots to date.
    M.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    July 3, 2012 02:53 am

    I really liked the variety of color in the background of the first three example silhouette images. I will keep in mind more the tip about considering the subject's shape as well.

    I do not often set out to make silhouette shots, but I had an opportunity with a great blue heron and the setting sun for these images:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/5/10/snell-isle-series-05-great-blue-heron-sunset-silhouette.html

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