How to Photograph Silhouettes in 8 Easy Steps - dPS

How to Photograph Silhouettes in 8 Easy Steps


I normally talk about the importance of using a flash when taking shots into the sun to give sufficient light to add features to your subject but there are also times when making your subject featureless apart from their outline against a bright background can be most effective – or when in other words silhouette is a worth exploring.

Silhouettes are a wonderful way to convey drama, mystery, emotion and mood to the viewers of your photos and often stand out in an album because of the combination of their simplicity but also the story that they convey. I love them because they don’t give the viewer of a clear picture of everything but leave part of the image up to their imagination to wonder about.

The basic strategy you’ll need to employ in taking silhouette shots is to place your subject (the shape you want to be blacked out) in front of some source of light and to force your camera to set its exposure based upon the brightest part of your picture (the background) and not the subject of your image.

In doing this your subject will be under exposed (and very dark, if not black).

There are a lot of very technical descriptions going around on how to take great silhouette shots that you might want to look up but let me attempt to run through some basic steps that should get you the results you’re after. In essence what we’re trying to do is make your camera think that it’s the bright parts of the picture you are most interested in.

Here’s how to do it:

How to Photograph Silhouettes

1. Choose a Strong Subject

Almost any object can be made into a silhouette, however some are better than others. Choose something with a strong and recognizable shape that will be interesting enough in its two dimensional form to hold the interest of those viewing your image. Silhouettes can’t draw on the colors, textures and tones of subjects to make them appealing – so the shape needs to be distinct.

2. Turn off your Flash

If you have your camera in automatic mode your camera will probably want to use its flash which will ruin the silhouette. Basically you want as little light on the front of your subject as possible – so the flash has to go (basic – but I’ve seen a few attempted silhouette shots with the flash firing).

3. Get Your Light Right

When it comes to lighting your subject you’ll need to throw out a lot of what you’ve learnt about normal photography and think a little backwards. Instead of lighting the front of your subject, in silhouettes you need to ensure that there is more light shining from the background than the foreground of your shot – or to put it another way – you want to light the back of your subject rather than the front. The perfect light for this is placing your subject in front of a sunset or sunrise – but really any bright light will be able to do the trick.

4. Frame your image

Frame your shot so you are shooting with your subject in front of a nice plain, but bright background. Usually the best backgrounds will be a bright cloudless sky with the sun setting. You want to position the brightest light source behind your subject (either so that they hide it or so that its in the background somewhere).

5. Make silhouetted shapes distinct and uncluttered

If there is more than one shape or object in the image that you’re attempting to silhouette, try to keep them separated. ie if you are silhouetting a tree and a person don’t have the person stand in front of the tree or even leaning on it as it will merge them into one shape and as a result your viewers could be confused about what the shape is.

Also when framing you’ll probably want to photograph silhouetted people as profiles rather than looking straight on. This means that more of their features (nose, mouth, eyes) are outlined and they are more likely to be recognized.

6. In Auto Mode

Most modern digital cameras have automatic metering which are pretty good at sensing how to expose a photograph so that everything is well lit. The problem with this is that most cameras are so smart that they will light up your subject instead of underexposing it to get a silhouette so you need to trick it. Most cameras work out the exposure levels in auto mode when you push your shutter half way down (at the same time that they focus). So point your camera at the brightest part of your picture and then press the shutter halfway down (don’t let go). Then move your camera back to frame your shot with the subject where you want it and then finish taking the shot. With most digital cameras this will result in a silhouetted subject. In effect what you’re doing is tricking your camera into thinking that the bright part of the image is the mid tone of it so that anything darker than it will be exposed as a nice dark shadow.

Some digital cameras also have ‘spot’ or ‘centered’ metering modes that you can switch on which helps with the above technique as they will set the metering on the central spot of your frame rather than multiple spots. This means you can accurately tell your camera exactly which bit of the bright background you want it to set the exposure on.

7. Manual Mode

If this technique doesn’t work and your camera has controls to allow manual exposure or exposure compensation you might like to try some of your own settings. The beauty of digital is that you can experiment to your hearts content until you get the result you’re after.

A simple way to start using manual mode is to look at the shutter speed and aperture that it suggests in automatic mode and to start from there. If in auto mode your subject is too light (ie you need to make it darker) stop down the shutter speed a stop or two and see what impact that has. Use the ‘bracketing’ technique that I described in my previous tip on sunrises and sunsets to get a variety of shots at slightly different exposures.

8. Focusing

In most cases you’ll want the subject which is silhouetted to be the thing that is in focus most crisply. This can mean that the process described in point 4 can be a little tricky as pushing your shutter half way down to get the metering right also means that you’ll focus on that spot in the background. To get around this you can use two strategies. Firstly if your camera has manual focusing you might want to try that. Pre focus your shot before you meter your shot.

The other strategy is to use Aperture to maximize your depth of field (the amount of your image that is in focus). Set a small aperture (ie a larger number) to increase the depth of field – this means you’re more likely to have a sharper foreground and background in your shots.

One last tip on how to photograph Silhouettes – while a total silhouette with a nice crisp and black subject can be a powerful shot, also consider the partial silhouette where some detail of your subject is left. Sometimes a touch of light on them makes them slightly more three dimensional and ‘real’. This is the beauty of bracketing your shots as it will leave you with total and partial silhouettes to choose form.

UPDATE: Check out these 12 Amazing Silhouette Example Shots.

PIN IT: if you’re on Pinterest and want something to save/share there – here’s an image just for you.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Rob Clayton January 8, 2013 11:16 pm

    Some great tips.....feel free to read my blog entry on some particularly challenging silhouette pictures!!

  • Jess Turver December 10, 2012 05:13 am

    Hi, I am currently studying Photography at University, I have a Pinterest page and would be grateful if you could all have a look and share on Social Networking sites... Thanks it would be a great help so people could see my work

    Thank you !!
    Also my personal Twitter is - @Jessturver

  • Riddhi December 3, 2012 12:44 am

    Thank you![eimg url='' title='598896_435601896502791_199776011_n.jpg']

  • the wicked noodle February 8, 2012 12:18 am

    I know you have a zillion readers and one more likely doesn't have much of an impact, but imagine my delight when I arrived here to find that it's run by Mr. Darren Rowse? I follow your problogger site and knew you had one on photography but never had the time to track it down. Happy to find you here and even more happy to subscribe.


  • Alan February 3, 2012 04:56 pm

    Hi Darren,
    I really enjoying reading your tips everyweek.
    Right now I am trying to take some pictures about hockey. Do you have any suggestions?

  • Sandi Owl December 1, 2011 11:27 pm

    Very useful tips here - thanks. I always found it a challenge to photograph a totally black silhouette before.

  • Ed Fitzgerald October 2, 2011 11:34 am

    Loved your post. I have a Nikon that moves the point around the frame that will help with focusing and evaluating exposure without having to move the camera around. I think the Canon also has this feature. The control is on the wheel/multifunction button on the back of the camera.

  • ajel October 1, 2011 04:22 pm

    thanks ...

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer October 1, 2011 05:55 am

    I really like the carnival ride swings silhouette. It is not the type of silhouette subject one traditionally thinks of, especially since it's such a fast moving one.

    This is a great blue heron with a strong, yellow sunset background taken in Florida:

  • Salahuddin Ahmad October 1, 2011 12:11 am

    Here are some of my version

    Thanks for waching.

  • ajel September 30, 2011 10:28 pm

    what are the things that you consider when you talking a picture?

  • ozzie September 30, 2011 09:55 pm

    As always, great article. Got this a few weeks back. Got lucky and was able to take advantage of a family taking up my field of view.

  • Vijay September 30, 2011 05:12 pm

    Suggestions taken !!
    Very good for am amateur with a Canon 1100D

  • Rishin September 30, 2011 01:23 pm

    Thanks for the great article. I took the below picture on my recent trip to Nice, France. Lovely sunset and great how the image turned out.

  • Maria Schnell September 30, 2011 06:35 am

    Years ago, I took a photo of an equestrian monument silhouetted against a sunset. I wanted the statue completely blacked out, with the brilliant sunset behind it. In those pre-digital days, I did not realize that I had overexposed for the sky and the sunset was washed out. Mr. Clueless, aka Dad, asked "Why didn't you increase the DoF to get more detail on the statue?" Maybe Dad was right; he once commented that it was too bad that Ansel Adams did not make color photos. The rest of the family snickered behind Dad's back, until I read some of Adams' comments about how some of his images would be better in color and called Dad to apologize.

  • uwais September 30, 2011 05:25 am

    hi, when i shoot silhouettes i use the exposure lock button, on my canon 400D its button with the * next to it on the top right. so you can point at a bright part of the sky for example (the sun) press the button so it meters the required exposure for that bright source and saves it into its memory, then i can recompose the shot with my subject and use the autofocus to focus, it wont affect the saved exposure settings. there is a time limit to this function so you cant take too long with your composition. this helped me alot

  • Scottc September 29, 2011 08:23 pm

    Great explanation of the techniques, I have to admit to all of silhouttes so far have been accidental.

  • Sumit September 29, 2011 07:34 pm

  • ccting September 29, 2011 06:58 pm

    SkyLight? I guess we can lock the exposure by half pressing the compact camera, maximum zoom to the sky near to the sun, half press, then point the subject, then press the button.. well I just guessing, no harm to try ;D

  • ccting September 29, 2011 05:59 pm

    Great tips indeed. For silhoutte shooting, as a noob, i will use point matrix for exposure to point at the point very near to the sun then lock the exposure, focus at the subject then shoot. Please advice. Thanks.

  • Tammy Manes Photography September 1, 2011 03:57 am

    I love your details on how to take this shots! I have some great ideas. And will post my results asap so you can see how much you helped me figure this out. Ty

  • Terry August 20, 2011 11:45 am

    Fantastic tips, thanks for sharing. Your point on shape certainly helped me improve my knowledge. I have done many silhouette shots before (my basic tips below), but I have found thinking about the shape as your suggest really makes a big difference.

    Great Photography Tips


  • Dee July 13, 2011 12:47 pm

    Could you explain the often used term, "take a meter reading" or, "meter the sky". t-y

  • SkyLight May 19, 2011 07:12 am

    Does anyone here have a Canon PowerShot SX210 IS ? If you do please let me know how u can take those kinds of pictures..... Thanks!!!

  • Jim April 19, 2011 08:46 am

    I've read a load of books and have had pro' 1 to 1 lessons. This artical is writen so lovely, it is simple to understand. So much so that when I practised it for the first time, even I was able to do it and get it right. So I'd like to thank you. And want to know if you have writen any books on photography.

  • preti_pilya April 10, 2011 05:03 am

    I so love taking photos in silhouettes, even with my digicam before.. I so love this article too. It helped me a lot! Thank you so much. (happy reader)

  • Tim April 7, 2011 08:18 am

    Item #7 Manual Mode....second paragraph. Should that not
    read "stop down aperture" instead of shutter speed ?

  • Jnr Lavigne March 25, 2011 09:06 pm

    Yeaaah,...Me too :) :) :) :) :)

  • doodles March 25, 2011 03:19 am

    I am very fond of silhouette phots as well as photos of shadows

  • Jnr Lavigne March 24, 2011 08:26 pm

    Wooow, Cool

    "I prefer the edited"
    But maybe you need to remove the black edges that, it makes our eyes are less comfortable. just a suggestion Friend :)

    Be the best :)

  • sumit March 24, 2011 07:39 am

    I honestly love silhouettes even though at times they can be tricky, but a pleasure if you get it right.

  • Jnr Lavigne March 19, 2011 04:02 pm

    Great information, Like This. :)

    I also once tried to shoot with Canon cameras, but I think the result is not maximized, you can see it in my deviantART
    I do not know if this is included in "silhouettes Photograph" or not ?

  • Ybrael Abergas February 24, 2011 05:27 am

    This is a very great and amazing art form in photography. I really enjoy doing it! ^_^
    Would you mind to check my silhouette photos and compare yours
    please leave some comments, it would really help me improve. thanks! :)

  • Ally Laurente November 10, 2010 07:43 am

    This is funny "
    So point your camera at the brightest part of your picture and then press the shutter halfway down (don’t let go). Then move your camera back to frame your shot with the subject where you want it and then finish taking the shot"

    You can use AEL instead of this. Pressing AEL will lock exposure for few seconds then you can shift your camera to your subject without holding the half press shutter.

  • Nubia September 26, 2010 11:03 pm

    To Taryn,

    Your browser page should have a printer icon on it, just press it and it will either print all authomatically or bring up your printer selection page. Or go to File, Print, on the Microsoft tool bar on the same page, (if you have a PC), select the pages you want printed and print.

  • Taryn Pyle September 25, 2010 12:28 am

    This is great information. Thank you so much. Does anyone know if there is a way to print this article? Thanks!

  • A Ram August 12, 2010 08:47 pm

    How nice, Really you are great.

  • Mark April 16, 2010 08:06 am

    Great tip! This will make me improve my craft in taking pictures in silhouette!

  • enrolled agent exam March 12, 2010 05:31 am

    Thanks for sharing your amazing photos and tips.

  • Darren Mc February 28, 2010 11:00 pm

    [eimg link='' title='7/52 - Silhouette (DPS Weekend Challenge)' url='']

    I wanted to do one of those retro 80's feel images and towards the end decided to light up one of the flowers a bit. My lovely wife helped with the flower arrangements.

    Forgot to take a setup shot for this one, so here is how it was done:

    1 stop diffusion panel for the background lit from behind by a a 580EXII with a 1/4CTB gel (triggered with a cactus v4). The speedlite had the wide angle flipout on and was very low and angled up - giving the gradiation and the blueish background tint.

    The top tulip is lit by a YN460 (also triggered by a cactus v4) with a massive grid spot on it that just illuminated a very small area which I initially had illuminating the flower from the inside but it looked TOO 80s, so I switched it to light from a different angle and feather onto the stem as well. The grid is about 15cm long with each cell having a roughly 5mm diameter, so it is about a 5 degree spot - way tight (I can light a single eye from 3m out).

    Other kit details:
    Canon 450D with battery grip
    24-105 f4L @ 92mm
    1/200th @ f4 @ 200iso

  • Raeni February 21, 2010 12:23 am

    This was awesome. My pictures usually turn out to be verry bad.. but this helped a lot ! xD

  • Sime January 15, 2010 09:08 am

    Dropped you an email.. :-)

  • sreemoy mitra October 23, 2009 12:33 am

    Nice tips.I must try it.I also eager to know about candid photography and flash photography.

  • jr September 3, 2009 12:17 pm

    wow thanks i think i know how to take a silhouette

  • Ashley Adams : Postcard Printing August 28, 2009 09:59 pm

    I’ve been looking for some good tips for silhouette shot and then I found your post. It answered all my queries. Thanks for sharing. I just can’t wait to try them out. Silhouettes also make nice postcards. :)

  • abc August 7, 2009 02:52 am

    Good post but will come to its full extend only with some more sample pics....[as dhanesh said]

  • dhanesh August 7, 2009 02:49 am

    nice post.... but can be better and easier if you add some more pictures as example...
    I think this post needs more sample pictures.....

  • John Small July 19, 2009 01:48 pm

    great help, worked wonders for class assignment, thanks.

  • Sarthak Singhal July 15, 2009 09:58 pm

    Thank you for the tips. My attempt @

  • dokki-kidd July 14, 2009 06:20 pm

    thanks for this tutorial. really excellent! likewise with the comments and tips by the readers, except for that comment by Mr Foo. I must say he is in the wrong site to post such. i suggest he must look for an ENGLISH TUTORIAL website to say all his corrections.

  • Pam July 10, 2009 05:18 am

    Great tips as usual.

    On another note, Mr. Foo is entitled to his opinion, which was politely expressed. He doesn't deserve such a harsh reaction. If you don't like his comments, either express your displeasure civilly or keep your comments to yourself. Commuincation is important and there is a big difference between a contraction and a possessive.

  • Nubie July 10, 2009 04:12 am

    Great information. I love silhouettes, usually get them at sunset or against a bright sky. Thanks! As Shepy does, I use the * in my Cannon a lot on difficult exposure shots when the auto exposure is not appropriate for the main subject i.e: very bright sun or clouds. I have to try the manual mode more in silhouettes.

  • Monica July 10, 2009 03:07 am

    Is there any way to do the silhouettes in an editing software? I am using Photoshop and Photopaint? Please let me know if there is a way to do it in there........

  • Von May 13, 2009 11:56 am

    thanks for the tips dude! It's really useful! two thumbs up! =D

  • Ronnie April 6, 2009 03:33 am

    First class !! have been hunting around for ages for tips on shooting silhouettes. The tips were spot on and now all i have to do is go out and try them.
    many thanks !!

  • Bridget Casas March 27, 2009 03:01 pm

    Please explain: I do not understand "Pre focus your shot before you meter your shot." This is under step 8 above and I do not understand it. Could you please clarify ?

  • Prosenjit Das March 23, 2009 03:51 am

    Great ideas. Till date I am using manual Pentax cameras. Hope I shall be able to improve my next shots. Thanks.

  • Corrie January 28, 2009 11:59 pm

    wow. thanks for the great tips:)

  • emma January 13, 2009 07:34 pm

    Hi, the images are not showing....

  • Mike October 19, 2008 05:26 am

    Mr. Foo,

    Cripes, it's a photog website, and if that was really the only comment you had to make, keep it to yourself. If you don't have anything constructive to add, then I agree with Rob: Shut up. Don't make me f-stop your aperature.

  • Kristian October 15, 2008 01:57 pm

    Ok this seems very helpful but, I am wanting to take a silhouette with about 10 people in a alley. I know this sounds very crazy but, I really want this to turn out well. there is no light down this alley. So I have to find a way to light it and still get a good silhouette. Any comments or suggestions would be very helpful to me. I have a film camera it is a SRL cannon. I am new to photography although I have taken basic photography. I have the book (photography the eighth edition) If anyone can tell me maybe chapters or anything that would be helpful.
    Thank you

  • Mr. Obvious July 19, 2008 11:13 am

    Mr. Rob,

    You're not very nice. It's very important to communicate well , and you need to learn how to punctuate, yourself. Had I not used that comma you might have wondered how to punctuate yourself. See, grammar is important.

    Thanks, Shepy, for the great Canon tip. I've always wondered what the asterisk was doing there on my G7.

  • Debbie July 19, 2008 08:01 am

    Will try the thing with the camera in auto-mode...thanks for the help.

  • BK July 18, 2008 11:31 pm

    Thanks - I'm taking my granddaughter star gazing next week from a hill top in our pasture. We'll get there early enough for sunset and will try some silhouette shots. Thanks again.

  • rahmad July 18, 2008 01:24 pm

    I'll try it, thanks

  • Ali February 16, 2008 01:44 am

    Brilliant tips! Especially the bit about tricking the camera in auto mode!

    Thank you!

    Oh and totally agree with guy above me!

  • rob February 15, 2008 12:55 pm

    shut up mr foo

    no one cares how to write its or it's or its' or tits

    the article is on taking photos
    not a grammar lesson

  • Megan November 26, 2007 03:20 am

    This has really helped me. thanks a lot!

  • Alessandro May 28, 2007 07:24 pm

    Ohhh...Thanks a lot!!!!!!!
    I've make very good photo...THANKSSSS!!!!!

  • nop May 28, 2007 03:53 pm

    My Fuji compact camera's 'sunset mode' takes photo similar to Silhouette too. You might want to try it on your camera.

  • Shepy May 26, 2007 03:04 pm

    If you have a Canon camera then the * button can be handy for taking silhouettes. You can half depress the shoot button to focus then move the center of the frame to a light section / background of the image and press the * button (Just behind the mode wheel on my 400D) and this will set the light metering for the whole image against what you currently have centered in the frame. Move back to regain your composition to take shot and it should turn out great!

  • Motorcycle Guy May 26, 2007 11:34 am

    Its really amazing what you can do with silhouettes. :-)

  • Mr. Foo May 26, 2007 01:13 am

    Please learn the difference between "it's" and "its".

  • Mark May 25, 2007 05:12 am

    Great Tips!! I go on vacation in a couple of weeks and I can't wait to try them out.

  • Low Leh Hock May 24, 2007 11:53 pm

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Luis May 24, 2007 10:23 pm

    wow, I can see myself trying this today. Great tips, thanks.

  • Simon May 24, 2007 11:51 am

    Some great advice here, nice article. For those interested I've written a beginners guide to photography at Hope it proves useful too!

  • Patrick Alessi May 24, 2007 10:27 am

    Here is my best silhouette shot. This is an excellent article. I think that people too often focus on detail in the subject and don't think at all about shape and form.

  • Paul May 24, 2007 07:17 am

    Another excellent article backed up once more with superb images.
    - Paul @

  • Jordan Meeter May 24, 2007 05:37 am

    What he said. ^_^

  • Bo May 24, 2007 03:10 am

    Great tips! Thanks for this. I can't wait to try it!