Silhouettes are a wonderful way to convey drama, mystery, emotion, and mood. They often stand out thanks to their simplicity and incredible storytelling capabilities.
But creating perfect silhouette photography can be hard – which is where this article comes in handy. Below, I share tips and tricks that are perfect for silhouettes, including:
- How to choose the right subject
- How to handle different lighting scenarios
- How to choose the best settings
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to discover how to shoot gorgeous silhouettes consistently, let’s dive right in!
1. Choose a strong subject
Almost any object can be made into a silhouette. However, some objects work better for silhouettes than others.
First, I recommend choosing a subject that has a strong and recognizable shape – one that’ll be interesting in its two-dimensional form. Silhouettes can’t draw on colors, textures, and tones to make themselves appealing, so the shape needs to be distinct.
People make great silhouette subjects, but if they’re doing something interesting – running, jumping, or riding a bike – the shot will look even better. The best silhouette shots often feature props, such as a bike, a basketball, or a skateboard.
2. Make sure your flash is off
Silhouette photograph often involves shooting in dim light (at the start and the end of the day), and most silhouette subjects look pretty dark, too. Therefore, if you have your camera in Auto mode, it may try to turn on the flash, which will ruin the shot.
You see, to capture a silhouette, you need to have as little light as possible on the front of your subject. The goal is to keep the subject dark and the background bright, not the other way around.
So make sure that flash is off! You may need to set your camera to Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode to control the flash (and as I discuss below, these modes are highly useful for silhouette shooting anyway!).
3. Get the light right
Silhouette lighting doesn’t work like normal photographic lighting. To capture a conventional shot, you generally want to ensure that your subject is lit from the front (so that the sun is coming from over your shoulder and striking your subject) or the side (so that the sun is off to your right or left and is striking one half of the subject).
But when you’re shooting silhouettes, you’ll need to reverse this approach. Find the scene’s main light source, then ensure that it’s shining from the back of the subject, not the front. Remember, the goal is to keep the background bright and the subject dark. You don’t need the light to come from directly behind the subject, but the brighter the background, the better.
That’s why it’s easy to create silhouettes at sunrise or sunset; you can position yourself so that you’re shooting into the low sun, and you can frame the dark subject with the bright sky in the background. However, it is possible to capture silhouettes during the middle of the day. You just have to figure out a way to shoot your subject against strong light. For instance, you can:
- Crouch down so that your subjects are framed against the high afternoon sun
- Photograph from below (e.g., folks walking over a bridge)
- Seek out shadowy subjects walking by a brightly lit wall
- Photograph indoors against a bright window
4. Frame your subject with negative space
Even once you’ve chosen the right subject and found the right light, you’ll need to pay careful attention to your composition. The best silhouette shots tend to feature a single subject (or group of subjects) surrounded by empty space, like this:
The empty space (also known as negative space) helps the shot breathe, and it also focuses the viewer on the main subject.
One trick is to shoot when the sky is bright and cloudless; that way, you don’t have to deal with any distracting clouds. You might also try photographing in areas with lots of empty space (e.g., fields, grassy plains, parking lots).
That said, you can also capture fantastic silhouettes that feature more than just a subject plus negative space. Don’t restrict yourself, but do make sure that you only include subjects that contribute to the shot.
5. Prevent shape intersections
If your silhouette composition includes multiple shapes, do your best to keep them separate. A person walking can look great, and a tree can look great, but if the person and the tree overlap, you’ll end up with a confusing mess. The two shapes will merge into one, and the viewer won’t know what’s happening.
Instead, carefully observe the scene and isolate only those shapes that are highly distinct. If you want to include multiple shapes that are currently overlapping, try changing your angle until the shapes separate.
Alternatively, if you’re photographing a moving subject, you can always wait until it changes position.
One related tip: If you’re photographing people, you probably want to silhouette them in profile, not head-on. That way, their features (nose, mouth, and eyes) will be outlined, and they’ll be more recognizable to the viewer.
6. Carefully adjust your exposure for the best results
Most modern cameras are pretty good at exposing photos so that everything is nice and bright. That can cause a problem; after all, you don’t want your subject to turn out nice and bright in a silhouette shot.
So what do you do? You trick your camera.
Simply set the camera to your shooting mode of choice (Aperture Priority can work great for this, but you can try Auto mode, too). Then point your camera at the brightest part of the scene and press the shutter button halfway. On many cameras, this will set the exposure, and as long as you keep the shutter button half-pressed, it’ll remain locked in.
Next, while still partially depressing the shutter button, point your camera at your subject and frame up your composition. Finally, press the shutter button the rest of the way.
With most digital cameras, this will result in a silhouetted subject! Pointing your camera at the bright part of the scene will cause your camera to darken the exposure – and then, when you do take the shot, the main subject will be rendered as a dark silhouette.
Note that some cameras also have a spot metering mode that helps with the above technique. Spot metering causes the camera to set the exposure based on the central part of your frame; with it, you can tell your camera the exact portion of bright background you want to use to determine the exposure. So if you’re not getting the shots you want using the technique discussed above, you can always try switching your metering mode and see if that helps.
7. Try shooting in Manual mode
The technique I discussed above often works well, but if you want even more control over your settings, I’d really recommend shooting in Manual mode.
Manual mode lets you input each and every exposure variable on your own. It can be a little difficult at first, but after a few hours of practice, you’ll get the hang of it.
Once your camera is set to Manual, I’d recommend dialing in a low ISO (100 is a good starting value) and a mid-level aperture (such as f/6.3). Then point your camera at the brightest part of the scene, and adjust the shutter speed until the exposure bar in the viewfinder is balanced.
Take the first shot and review the results on your camera’s LCD. If the image looks too dark, you can always lower the shutter speed, and if the image looks too bright, you can always increase the shutter speed instead.
(If you’re working with very limited light and your shots are turning out dark, you can also widen the aperture or boost the ISO to increase the exposure, but do so sparingly; widening the aperture will limit the area of the photo that’s in focus, while boosting the ISO will add unwanted noise to the image!)
I’d also recommend capturing the same shot using a variety of different exposures – just so you have slightly darker and slightly lighter versions as backup files.
8. Take steps to keep the subject sharp
The best silhouette photograph tends to feature sharp, in-focus subjects.
Unfortunately, this can make the automatic metering process – described in Tip 6 – somewhat tricky. You see, pushing your shutter halfway down to get the metering right also means that your camera will focus on a spot in the background rather than on your subject.
If you’re using the Manual mode shared above, you won’t run into any issues. You can always acquire your exposure settings by pointing your camera at the background, dialing them in, then focusing on your subject. But if you prefer the Auto mode strategy, then you have two options.
First, if your camera offers manual focusing, you can prefocus on your subject. Then, when you meter off the background, the point of focus won’t change. You can effectively frame up your composition before triggering the shutter.
Second, you can try adjusting the aperture to maximize your depth of field (i.e., the amount of your image that is in focus). For this, you’ll need to set a small aperture (i.e., a large f-number, such as f/11 or f/16).
If the f-number is large enough and your subject isn’t too close to the camera, you’ll end up with a sharp subject and a sharp background, even if your camera is focused on the area behind your subject.
9. Try partial silhouette photography
While a total silhouette with a crisp, dark subject can be powerful, also consider capturing some partial silhouettes. I’m talking about photos that include some detail on the subject, like this:
As you can see, the subjects are dark, but they’re not completely dark, and you can still see a bit of detail in the sand and the subjects’ clothes.
Sometimes, a touch of light makes the subject slightly more three-dimensional and real, which – depending on your goals – can work well. Plus, a bit of extra detail can add to the mysterious feel of the image.
And if you’re not sure whether to create a full silhouette or a partial silhouette, that’s okay; just bracket your shots! That’s the beauty of bracketing: it will leave you with both total and partial silhouettes to choose from.
10. Don’t just photograph people
Most silhouette photographers focus on people, and people do make great silhouette subjects. But you can also capture beautiful – and original – shots by focusing on other interesting objects.
For instance, you can create silhouettes of staircases (by getting down low and shooting upward), buildings, pets, planes, cars, and so much more.
Really, whenever you see a subject with a compelling shape, see if you can position yourself so that you have a nice backlighting effect, then try to shoot a clear silhouette. You’ll often fail to get the result you’re after, but occasionally the photos will look amazing.
11. Use a flash as your main light source
Throughout this article, I’ve talked about photographing silhouettes using natural light. But did you know that you can capture gorgeous shots using flash, too? One benefit of flash silhouette photography is that you can completely control the light direction and strength, which allows you to achieve all sorts of cool effects.
Working with flash can be a bit intimidating, but the goal is simply to make the background brighter than the subject. Position your subject in front of a light-colored backdrop (such as a white wall), point the flash at the wall, then take some shots, with the goal of overexposing the background while underexposing the subject.
You might also try positioning the flash behind your subject so that it’s pointed directly at their back; this will create a rim-lit effect, which can look wonderfully artistic.
12. Spend some time processing your silhouette photos
Even if you nail the silhouette exposure in camera, I’d recommend making a few minor tweaks using an editing program like Lightroom.
First, adjust the white balance until you get the results you want, then raise or lower the exposure to add or remove detail on the subject. You can also adjust specific tonal sliders for a more refined effect.
If you’re after a punchy silhouette shot, try adding some contrast – and if the image features a beautiful sunrise or sunset in the background, consider boosting the vibrance or the saturation.
Silhouette photography: conclusion
Well, there you have it:
Our top 12 tips for photographing amazing silhouettes.
So head out when the light is right, remember the composition and settings advice I shared above, and start doing some silhouette photography of your own!
Now over to you:
Have any silhouette tips or photos you’d like to share? Share them in the comments below!