Silhouette Photography Technique

Silhouette Photography Technique

silhouette photography technique

A great photograph is no different than any other work of art, in that it should elicit emotion and engage viewers. One of my favorite ways to engage the viewer of a photograph and encourage them to interpret the image is by utilizing silhouettes.

Silhouettes Engage Viewers

The reason silhouettes are so engaging is because they are so open to interpretation. Think of a silhouette of a man sitting alone on a park bench at sunset. Is he sad and lonely because his wife has passed? Is he relaxed and content? Has he finally achieved an important goal in life? Is he anxious about how much longer he will live, and whether his loved ones will be cared for? Are there religious overtones?

The photographer may have all or none of these themes in mind when creating this image. The interpretation is dictated by the individual viewer’s mindset. The viewer subconsciously projects her own hopes, fears, and mood onto the silhouette.
The reason for this is simple. Your brain is constantly working to fill in the details of what it doesn’t know. In a photo such as this, the silhouette provides a great unknown which we cannot help but interpret.

Technique for Shooting Silhouettes

Taking silhouette photos is an intermediate photography skill. The technique is a little tricky, and it will take some trial and error on your first few attempts before you become proficient.

Silhouette photography requires that we use pure back lighting. That is, we want to place our subject so that we maximize the amount of light in the scene coming from behind the subject.
As an example, let’s describe how we would best set up a shot of a silhouetted woman standing alone on a beach at sunset. Sunlight will be our only source of light, and it will be coming from behind the subject. We will not be utilizing any reflectors or fill flash.

Aperture and Selective Focus

silhouette-boy-lake.jpgFirst, focus the camera on the woman. We want the outline of her silhouette to be crisp and in perfect focus. I recommend using a large aperture opening, specifically f8 or higher. The reason for this is we want the background sunset and ocean to be in good focus too.
With the sun just above the ocean horizon, point the camera at the sky just to the side of the sun. Keeping your aperture as you set it, adjust the shutter speed until your exposure is correct.

You may need a long exposure time. Therefore it is good practice have a tripod on hand to keep the camera steady.

Fire off a few shots and check the image on your LCD screen. If you used all the correct settings, you should have a perfectly exposed ocean sunset with your subject rendered as a black silhouette.

Halos and Silhouettes

You can render your silhouette with an interesting halo effect around her. If you desire this effect, move the subject directly in front of the setting sun. This will create a glow, or halo which will further enhance your subject. Such an effect will obviously influence the viewer’s interpretation of your silhouette.

Use Any Subject

Any subject can be rendered as a silhouette provided we are using back lighting. It need not be a person. A silhouette of a tree, or a child’s bike, or any strategically chosen object can add interest to a scene.


Silhouettes add a sense of mystery and intrigue to any image. Because our brains fill in the details of what is not known, a silhouette demands stronger involvement and interpretation from viewers. By using back lighting, and properly exposing the scene for the background, we can create beautiful and interesting silhouettes in our photography.

Learn more about Shooting Silhouettes – read our previous post – How to Photograph Silhouettes in 8 Easy Steps and see our Silhouette Image Collection for some stunning examples.

About the AuthorDaniel Padavona is an avid photographer, and the founder of Warmpicture Royalty-Free Images. Daniel lives in upstate New York with his wife Terri, and their children Joey and Julia.

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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

  • Amy April 19, 2013 08:13 am

    I love shooting silhouettes! As always another great tutorial, thanks!

  • vana December 15, 2012 05:07 am

    article is really great and it is very helpful...

    since i m new to this field..i don't know much about photography.... help to impove me,,,
    tnk u .
    Here is a link for one of my clicks

  • Dan Padavona February 14, 2012 01:40 pm

    Hey guys. Yeah, my bad! I meant small opening, large number with regard to aperture. Usually f8 or more, but of course it depends on the shoot and the subject matter.

    @stephin marglin - Yes, if you open up the aperture to f2.8 you will blur the background. That might be exactly what you want for a project. I've done that plenty of times to get bokehs behind the silhouette.

  • Joy G February 8, 2012 05:52 am

    this is another

  • Joy G February 8, 2012 05:41 am

    check out my shot, took it a while ago, but i think it qualifies as silhouette

  • Kishan February 7, 2012 02:02 pm

    Great article :) Bringing shadows into life ... Here's a Silhouette that I took sometime ago ..

  • Paul February 5, 2012 04:42 am

    For silhouettes, we should be on manual. Anything else defeats the purpose by adjusting the exposure to the "correct" one the computer has selected.

  • Wayne February 4, 2012 07:10 pm

    This is a great article and I feel very fortunate to have stumbled on this blog. This blog is a gem. I see silhouette photography a bit different now because this kind of photography has to offer a degree of emotional deviation to create that dramatic effect. Man I'm going to have to quit my job to have a chance at being good at this stuff and I barely take a few shots a year. lol. I like camera gear :)

  • Nubia February 3, 2012 05:35 pm

    I was ready to write about the confusing "large aperture opening, specifically f8 or larger" statement on your article, when I saw a lot of replies and decided to check if anyone had noticed, and sure enough, a few other people did. I think you meant smaller aperture.
    You don't need a large aperture when the background light is so bright.
    In my experience, if you have a light as bright as the sun behind your subject, you don't even have to worry about setting exposure if the subject is much smaller than the background, (it usually is), and you shoot in aperture priority, the camera will meter for the large bright background.
    If your subject is in motion, you will have to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough ( 1/500 sec or so), and of course your f stop will change as well, to capture a sharp image.
    I enjoy photographing silhouettes.

  • Jim February 3, 2012 10:32 am

    Aperature discussions aside, since creativity will have a say there anyway, a nice intro article with an engaging opening

    One of mine with a dancer in front of fire

  • Rishin February 3, 2012 10:05 am

    Heres my effort at silhouette.. both clicked in Italy

  • Jay February 3, 2012 06:31 am

    good article. Small issue, I suspect you meant to say "small" not "large" in your comment:

    "...I recommend using a large aperture opening, specifically f8 or higher...:

  • Kartik February 2, 2012 03:10 am

    Great article and nice tips.

    Some innovative things you can do with silhouette photography are:

    1. Shoot with the sun as a back drop. You will get amazing rays thru your subject. Example:

    Tomorrow will be another day

    2. Let there be a hint of light on the subject. It creates a nice, well- lit effect. Example:

    Cat Silhouette

    3. Use the sunset mode in your camera for sunset silhouettes and duo-toning is also a good option:

    Sunset at Morro Bay

  • Bharat Justa February 2, 2012 01:27 am

    " I recommend using a large
    aperture opening, specifically f8 or

    I think you meant a small aperture(bigger number) f/8...

    I took this a week ago...

  • Rachael Talibart February 1, 2012 07:36 pm

    Silhouettes are relatively easy to achieve technically which lives the mind free to think about the image artistically and imaginatively. Frankly, you hardly need to think about the technique at all - take your shot into the light with the right aperture (narrow aperture - high f no.) and most modern cameras will do the job for you. The difference between a good image and an average one becomes a matter of 'seeing' and composing. Strangely, however, I have found that silhouettes, no matter how beautiful, rarely achieve top marks in camera club competitions. Perhaps an example of too much attention being paid to technicalities rather than creativity?

  • Guruprasad February 1, 2012 04:57 pm

    i just Love silhouettes!!
    here , few from my collection.

    'course my personal fev!

  • Kwasi February 1, 2012 04:15 pm

    This is one of my favourites I have taken on my travels. It's always good to get tips about photography so I can put it into practice on my travels.

    Thanks for the tips

  • Naveen February 1, 2012 03:27 pm

    and this is my first silhoutte shot

  • Karl February 1, 2012 02:21 pm

    I've taken a few silhouettes recentlyand love the look of them. I really like the description of them in this article. In fact, I just recently posted one of my better ones -

  • raghavendra February 1, 2012 02:06 pm

    This is fine stuff
    Picture is of taking people for a change
    i have added nature and its beauty in a silhouette photography

  • Jeff E Jensen February 1, 2012 11:46 am

    Great info!

    Here's one I shot recently:

  • Scottc February 1, 2012 10:35 am

    Great article and some reminders on a somewhat underused technique (IMHO).

    Though a complete accident, this is the best silhouette photo I've ever taken, in the middle of the day in Prague.

  • Stephen Marglin February 1, 2012 09:30 am

    I am puzzled my a comment that you made regarding silhouettes and aperture. You suggested a large aperture,, f8 or greater, in order to have background in focus. Isn't a large aperture, e.g. f2.8, intended to blur the background?


  • Fernando February 1, 2012 08:07 am

    One of my favourite silhouettes ive done in the past is the following:
    I enjoy silhouette photos very much, but only find the time to do them now and then.

  • Kevin February 1, 2012 07:16 am

    One of my first attempts at a silhouette, the people are a little bunched together to see what's really happening but I like the sun shining through.

  • Matt February 1, 2012 06:23 am

    My family took a weekend trip to the lake last summer. I got some good silhouette shots.

    Tree stumps out in the middle of the lake -
    Two of my kids fishing at sunset -
    My wife fishing with one of the kids' fishing pole -

  • Rebecca W February 1, 2012 06:18 am

    I was doing this in the studio last week!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer February 1, 2012 05:31 am

    As @dr. bob pointed out f/8 is a small aperture. Also, I would disagree with using long shutter speeds for silhouette photos, as I believe it to be much more common to use a very fast shutter speed when creating the majority of silhouette shots. The subject is going to be backlit, and since only the background is what needs to be exposed for, that will not take long. If the author could reference some examples where a long shutter speed was needed for silhouette photos that would be helpful. According to the exif data of the boy on the boat shot in the post, the shutter speed used was 1/180th of a second @ f/13 ISO 400 using a 75-300mm lens @ 300mm.

    I do like the opening paragraphs of this post and believe the author describes the appeal of silhouette images very well.

    From my own examples, I photographed a great blue heron with the sun directly in the background, with shutter speeds ranging from 1/1000th to 1/1600th:

  • MikeC366 February 1, 2012 03:56 am

    I love silhouette shots. have done a few in my time. Some good advice here that I'm looking forward to trying out.
    Here is the most recent one I did for my 366 challenge.
    Thanks for the great article.

  • Dr. Bob February 1, 2012 03:41 am

    "I recommend using a large aperture opening, specifically f8 or higher. The reason for this is we want the background sunset and ocean to be in good focus too."

    Actually f/8 or higher is a small aperture opening. (but a high f-number)

    @Ed, that would be perfectly possible. It's almost the same as using manual mode. Except when lighting changes (such as during sunset) so will you exposure. But that's not a bad thing per sé.

  • Tiago DeJerk February 1, 2012 03:19 am

    "I recommend using a large aperture opening, specifically f8 or higher." - You mean a small opening, right? Big numbers, small opening, large focal range...

  • THE aSTIG @ February 1, 2012 03:06 am

    Silhouette Photography for me is the step before flash photography. It is basically exposing for the background, before you light your actual subject with Flash.

    I do a lot of Automotive Flash Photography at

    I always expose for the background first, using taking test shots until I get the background to the way I want it. That part is essentially the silhouette shot. Then I finally set up my off-camera flashes and light my subject, in this case, the cars (with the occassional models), accordingly.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 1, 2012 02:13 am


    Great article - here are some fishermen on a pier in Santa Monica, California

  • Prati Photography February 1, 2012 02:03 am

    I just posted a silhouette picture in a thread, not realizing that it was almost a year old, maybe older than that. Anyway, I recently took a photo of some Temple structures atop a hill, forming a silhouette:

  • Ed February 1, 2012 01:46 am

    Would it be possible to user Aperture Priority mode for this I wonder (choose Aperture, focus on subject, then spot meter the background to get the right exposure)? Or is Manual mode better?

  • Mridula February 1, 2012 01:36 am

    Here is one of mine of the Morecambe Light Tower, from UK.

  • Maik-T. Šebenik February 1, 2012 01:24 am

    Check out my latest silhouette photo - it's the first picture in this blogpost: