Silhouette portrait photography produces some of the most gorgeous images imaginable – which is why I recommend every portrait shooter try a silhouette shot or two.
In this article, I’m going to show you exactly what you need to do for perfect silhouette portraits. I’ll share plenty of tips and tricks I’ve learned from my own time as a portrait photographer. And by the time you’re done, you’ll be a portrait silhouette expert.
So let’s get started.
1. Shoot low and head to toe
Powerful silhouettes start with clear, minimalistic compositions. Here’s what I recommend:
Place the subject’s entire body, from head to toe, against the sky. To pull this off, you’ll need to be lower than the subject, so try lying on your back or stomach.
If you are unable to get low enough, you may need to have your subject get higher; ask them to stand on a rock, small hill, or sand dune. In most circumstances, this will allow you to get an angle that places the subject’s entire outline against the sky. (You can see a variety of examples throughout this article.)
Why is this so important?
If you can’t place your subject’s body against the sky, they will merge with the background, and the recognizable silhouette will be lost. You’ll end up with a lot of confusing darkness, and your viewer won’t be able to immediately tell what’s going on.
Also, pro tip:
It’s so, so, so important that your subject’s feet are outlined against the sky! Legs in a silhouette portrait that are cut off above the feet look like weird, short stumps:
Even with all this composition advice in mind, there will be times when you just can’t find a suitable spot for a full-body-framed-against-the-sky type silhouette.
And when that happens, you don’t need to give up on silhouettes entirely. Just get closer to your subject and create tighter compositions, focusing on the areas of your subject that are framed by the sky.
2. Shoot at the right time of day
Silhouettes work best around 20-30 minutes before sunset. The ideal time does vary with the angle you are able to achieve; the greater the height difference between you and the subject, the earlier you will need to take the shot.
Because if you wait too long, the sun will hide behind whatever your subjects are standing on, and the sky might not be bright enough to make a silhouette.
Shooting too early is also a problem, however; the sky’s colors can be a bit boring and you will have other issues, such as sun flare.
Pro tip: Silhouettes can be taken earlier in the day (i.e., before sunset) if the sun is partially blocked or filtered through strong clouds.
3. Choose your portrait silhouette settings carefully
Perfect silhouettes require careful settings.
Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and dial in an aperture of f/2.8 and an ISO of 400. Select Evaluative Metering; that way, the camera will consider the whole scene when determining the exposure.
If you fill the frame with your subject’s face or body, the camera will expose for their skin even with a bright background (see the photo below, left).
But if you fill the frame mostly with a very bright sky, then the camera will expose for the sky – bringing out the natural sunset colors and making everything else dark (see the photo below, right).
So place your subject directly against the bright sky and make sure their body takes up a small portion of the frame. The subject will be heavily underexposed, and the sky will retain detail.
The result? A perfect silhouette portrait!
Both the photographs above were taken with the settings I mentioned above (just seconds apart).
The difference? What was filling the frame – subject or sky.
4. Use perfect silhouette portrait posing
Silhouettes are very forgiving of poor facial expressions (because you cannot see them!). But silhouettes are very harsh when it comes to posing.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when posing subjects for a silhouette:
- Hugging poses do not work. A hug silhouette looks like a great big blob monster. Instead, 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 – but by holding hands or kissing, not by hugging.
- Have your clients look away from the camera. Face profiles look beautiful and natural.
- Watch the clothing. Very baggy clothing won’t work well for silhouettes; the shape can become unflattering. It is best to wear form-fitting clothes, as this helps clearly define your subject against the sky.
5. Take portrait silhouettes whenever you can (because they sell!)
Try to capture at least one silhouette at every photo shoot, whether it is a family portrait, maternity, engagement, or wedding.
Why? Because silhouettes sell!
Here are some reasons why silhouettes are great for client shoots:
- Silhouettes add variety to the series. Silhouettes are so different in their colors and style – and the variety they give instantly makes any shoot more interesting. Plus, because silhouettes are unique compared to standard portraits, they’re easy to sell individually as a piece of artwork.
- Silhouettes are perfect for shy clients. Some clients hate the idea of their faces hanging up on the wall. This makes silhouettes the perfect compromise! A silhouette can be marketed to a client as the perfect piece of personalized artwork – without making them feel uncomfortable or self-conscious.
- Silhouettes look better when printed big! Wide-angle silhouettes and scenic, environmental compositions look great, especially when printed large. So if you do capture wider silhouettes, you can sell them as a large piece of artwork. The client will love it, and it’ll be a more profitable sale for you.
Perfect silhouette portrait photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
Five simple secrets to capture stunning portrait silhouette photography.
Silhouette portraits are a lot of fun – so the next time you’re doing a portrait photoshoot, try a few shots! I’m confident you’ll love the results!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES
- 5 Secrets for Creating Perfect Silhouette Portrait Photography