They’re eye-catching. They’re dramatic. They’re mysterious. They’re…stunning.
Silhouette photographs are not your run-of-the-mill images. You’re not trying to capture an evenly-lit scene with all the details of your subject clearly on display.
Instead, silhouette photography is a great way to take advantage of challenging lighting conditions. The intense shadows and the details you can’t see add mystery and drama, creating an intriguing image that draws the viewer in.
Interested to learn how to shoot silhouette photographs? Read on for everything you need to know!
So what camera settings are needed to create a successful silhouette?
Typically when shooting images, you will expose for your subject. This means that your subject will be properly lit though the background may be darker or lighter.
In silhouette photography, you want to expose for the background instead. With a bright background (we’ll talk about lighting in a moment) your subject will be in shadow. Your subject may be completely dark or sometimes photographers will use the rim light spilling around the subject to capture a few details.
To help with this, switch your camera to spot metering mode.
There are three main metering modes that most cameras use. The first one averages the light across the entire scene. It may be known as Multi, Evaluative, or Matrix mode, depending on your camera brand.
The second one also evaluates all the light but places more importance on the center of the scene. It might be called Center or Center-Weighted mode.
The third, the one we want for silhouette photography, is called spot metering. You can choose a specific spot and the camera will expose for this spot.
Now when you press the shutter in automatic, the camera will seek to expose for the point you chose. This is how you shoot silhouettes without venturing into manual mode. However, by switching to manual you’ll have control over the following three settings, which will help you to get the best image possible.
If you haven’t ventured out of automatic mode yet, today is the day!
Keep your ISO low for silhouette photography. As you turn up ISO, you introduce noise into the shadows of your image. Since your subject is a shadow, you want to keep it as crisp as possible.
Stick to ISO 100 whenever possible. You can raise your ISO as needed, just keep in mind that your image might be noisier than you realize on your tiny camera screen.
Unlike in portrait photography, you’re typically not going for a creamy bokeh (blurred) background in silhouette photography. The exact point of focus isn’t overly important, but you generally want the whole scene in focus.
Use a narrower aperture to achieve this. Start somewhere between f/8 and f/11 depending on the size of your scene. Higher aperture values also help to avoid the chromatic aberration you often get when shooting into the sun. Feel free to experiment with closing down the aperture even further to see the effect on the image.
Keep in mind that your camera’s autofocus may have trouble focusing on your shadowy subject. Try focusing on the edge of your subject instead. The contrast between the dark subject and the bright background will help the camera find its focus point.
Once you’re happy with your ISO and aperture, use the shutter speed to properly expose the background. Keep in mind that you don’t want to drop below about 1/250 if your image has any movement in it. The fast shutter will freeze the action and create a crisp edge to your silhouette.
Experiment with a few different speeds. The main thing is to find one that will keep the background properly exposed while plunging the subject into shadow.
The position and type of lighting are crucial for getting a good silhouette. Ideally, you want a strong source of hard light behind the subject. Hard light will give you stark contrast and the light must be strong enough to light the scene behind your subject, making the silhouette really stand out.
Shooting Silhouettes Outdoors
The sun is a common source of light when photographing silhouettes outdoors. However, the light must be behind the subject.
Thus, silhouettes are often shot at sunset (or sunrise) when the sun is low enough in the sky to get behind the subject. The brilliant colors of the sunset also ramp up the stunning factor in the image considerably.
But don’t get boxed in. You can create silhouettes outdoors with streetlights, car headlights, or any other strong source of light. Bring your own lighting gear for ultimate control over the light’s position.
Shooting Silhouettes Indoors
You also aren’t restricted to shooting silhouettes outdoors. Frame your subject with a window and use the bright daylight coming in to create the effect. You might also place your subject in a doorway with a bright light on in the room behind them. Again, get creative! There are lots of options.
Your composition is critical in silhouette photography. With a strong composition, you can create amazing silhouette images that will stop people in their tracks. A poorly composed image will just look muddy and leave the viewer wondering what story you are trying to convey.
Here are the key points to keep in mind.
Choosing Your Subject
It’s crucial to choose the right subject when creating silhouettes. Your subject must have a well-defined edge and a recognizable form. Without these two elements, your image will just have this weird dark blob in it that will confuse the viewer instead of amaze them.
Humans are popular subjects for silhouette photography, but they must be positioned correctly. Have the subject stand with all their limbs away from their body in some capacity. If you can’t clearly see each limb, it starts to look like that formless blob you want to avoid.
In the same vein, if there are two people in your image, make sure there is space between them. They can be touching each other, such as a couple holding hands. But however they are positioned, the viewer should be able to easily tell where one person begins and the other one ends.
Of course, people aren’t the only things that make good silhouettes. Animals, buildings, trees, boats, bicycles, statues, towers — anything with a distinctive shape can be made into an interesting silhouette image.
It’s crucial to be able to see the edges of the silhouette. There needs to be a certain amount of negative space around the subject to allow it to stand out. A busy background will easily detract from your image.
You’ll see a lot of silhouette images that have just a subject and a colorful, empty sky behind them. This composition makes a strong image and leaves the viewer with no doubt about what is the subject in the photograph.
But it can also be a little boring. You can include other elements in the image as well. Just be careful not to let them overpower the main subject.
Think carefully about the angle of your image. A common angle is to get down low and shoot up at the subject. This allows you to put more sky behind your subject, even if there are other elements in the area. It also makes the subject seem larger and more imposing. This helps put the drama in the dramatic image you’re trying to create.
You should also consider whether you want the light source to be visible. In some cases, you might position yourself so that the subject is covering the light source. This will give you a strong rim light around the subject. Plus, you won’t have to worry about the light source blowing out part of the image.
In other cases, you may want the light source to be seen. The sun as a big orange ball is a fun element to add to your silhouette images.
Finally, at some angles, you’ll get sun flares or light flares in the image. Artfully done, these can be gorgeous. But be careful and thoughtful about them. Random or poorly positioned sun flares can just be distracting and ruin the image rather than add to it.
A little editing goes a long ways when cleaning up silhouette images. You can bring down the shadows or blacks to strengthen the subject even more. Or you might enhance the color in the sky to give the image more impact.
Remember, you don’t necessarily have to pay for Photoshop or Lightroom to enhance your images. Free apps like Snapseed or Lightroom mobile offer the options you need to add the cherry on top to silhouette images.
Wowing Your Audience With Silhouettes
Excited to add some mystery and drama to your photographs? Silhouette photography is stunning and may seem intimidating, but it’s quite simple once you get the hang of it. Grab your camera and start playing around, you just might surprise yourself with the awesomeness you encounter!