Silhouettes are a great way to add interest to a photo by adding a dramatic or dreamy feel to a scene. Done right, silhouette photos can be eye-catching and memorable. And while really great silhouette photography often requires a good setting, preparation, and a bit of luck, achieving it isn’t as hard as you might think.
As with creating many other photographic effects, all you need to do is follow some basic guidelines.
The tips in this article will hopefully provide you with a good sense for these guidelines and help you to get some breathtaking silhouette images.
Before you grab your camera and start snapping away, read on to learn the basics about silhouettes and the equipment, settings, and compositional tools you will need for a successful silhouette shoot.
What is a Silhouette?
A silhouette is basically the contour/shape of a subject which appears to be nearly or totally black against a much brighter background. This effect can be achieved if the subject you photograph is directly in front of a very bright light source.
People are probably the most popular subjects for silhouette photography, but landscape silhouettes (such as city skylines and interesting looking trees) or animal silhouettes make great subjects too.
It may seem simple, but it can take a bit of time to get a feel for how silhouette photography works and become accustomed to capturing silhouette images on location or in the studio.
Equipment for Silhouette Photography
While it is definitely possible to create silhouettes in studio, I’ll be focusing here on capturing silhouettes ‘in the wild’. Below is a list of the gear I recommend you bring when going outside and making silhouette images:
While silhouettes can be gotten with even a simple phone camera or point-and-shoot, a DSLR or mirrorless camera will work best for silhouette photography as you’ll have the most control over your settings. It will also enable you to shoot in RAW and use the filters described below.
It’s also a huge advantage if your camera supports the live view function, which allows you to preview the image you are about to take and see what your image will look like as a result of applying different settings.
Live view will help you to get more control over focus, because you can easily zoom in to test your image sharpness and to see where your focus point is. In the live view mode you are able to adjust your focus point precisely while using the manual focus ring of the lens.
There are various filters you can use, but for sunny conditions I recommend using ultraviolet-reducing (UV) filters; the function of the such filters is to block UV light and to remove the blue cast from the images.
You will also want to carry a circular polariser to remove glare and haze that appears when you shoot a very deep scene with distant objects. This will also improve the colours in the scene around the subjects you are silhouetting.
Depending on the distance you are from your subject you either will need a wide angle or a telephoto lens. For silhouette photography I definitely would recommend shooting with wide aperture lenses, because they can collect a ton of light and therefore will be just perfect for low-light conditions.
Since you will ideally be shooting in RAW format, make sure you have memory cards that give you plenty of room for the large RAW files and a fast write speed for when you use continuous burst shooting mode.
Some recommended cards are the SanDisk Extreme PRO 32GB UHS-I/U3 SDHC Flash Memory Card and the Samsung 16GB PRO Class 10 SDHC (90MB/s).
Imagine you are about to have the best photo session in your life and suddenly you realise your camera battery is empty, that’s one of the most terrible things that can happen to a photographer.
To prevent this nightmare, always be sure to bring along a fully charged extra battery for your camera body.
For some camera models, using the battery grip can actually benefit your work as it is easier to hold your camera, while battery life is significantly increased.
A tripod is optional, but using one will help you in case you want to take a self-portrait silhouette, and it will help you to increase the quality of your image in general, especially if you need to take images at a slower shutter speed.
Tripods prevent camera shake, which is important because when your cameras shutter speed is set low, even the slightest bit of camera movement will result in a blurred picture.
I personally use the Hama Traveller 163 Ball, which has a built-in spirit level and a ball head which offers more flexibility, versatility and stability.
The sun itself is the most common and popularly used light source to create such silhouettes. During sunset or sunrise you have exactly the light you need for a perfect silhouette photograph, as the sun is low enough in the sky that you can position your subject directly in front of it.
Of course, silhouettes can be taken with any kind of light source, as long as the light source is bright enough. Among the light sources that can be used to create a silhouette are external camera flashes, streetlights, torches, fire, and moonlight. Just keep an eye out for a light source that will give you enough backlight for your subject to contrast with.
You may prefer and feel more comfortable shooting in your own studio. In this case you have the possibility of experimenting with different artificial light sources and even controlling the colour of your background. Furthermore, if you decide to photograph silhouettes in a studio you can shoot for hours and hours, because as the sun rises or sets you only have a limited of time to get the shot you want.
Here I’ll focus on helping you take photos of silhouettes on location, using the natural light of the sun. These are often the most compelling and interesting types of silhouette photos because of the context.
When using the sun as your backlight source, follow the steps below:
- Find a good spot and be sure of where and when the sun will rise or set (the Sol: Sun Clock app featured here is a great help for this —Ed.)
- Wait until sunset/sunrise and prepare your camera and subject in the meantime
- Position your subject with the sun or sunlit sky behind it
- Dial in your exposure settings so that you can capture your subject’s silhouette (meter for the brightest part of the scene)
- Take the shot and experiment with different points of view
Settings for Capturing Silhouettes
Use Manual Mode
Manual mode is generally used in situations where your camera has problems figuring out the correct exposure in extreme lighting situations (which is usually the case with silhouette photography).
For instance, if you are taking an image of a scene with very dark areas, your camera might automatically set the wrong shutter speed or aperture for your image. Using manual mode will help you to avoid exactly that. Taking images of a subject that you want to appear totally black can be a confusing issue for your camera.
Manual mode allows you to set your aperture, ISO and shutter speed separately to any value you want, so you have full control of all your camera’s settings. When using automatic mode you run the risk of over- or underexposing the photo.
Keep your ISO Low
Try to keep your ISO number as low as possible to avoid grain in your image, but also be sure to set a shutter speed which is fast enough to freeze the moment you want to photograph without causing blurriness.
It’s a bit of a balancing act—on one hand you want to keep your ISO as low as possible for sharp & high-quality images and on the other hand you also want to capture blur-free images.
This requires you to set a fast shutter speed along with a low ISO, as I describe below.
Nowadays most DSLRs are able to provide good quality images at ISOs up to 1600. If you don’t have the option to decrease your ISO there is the possibility of removing any noise afterwards in a program like Photoshop.
Nevertheless, you should always try to set your ISO value as low as possible to avoid unnecessary noise to begin with.
Use a Fast Shutter Speed
The idea behind setting your ISO high is to enable a faster shutter speed so that you can get higher-quality and sharper images.
The shorter the amount of time that the shutter of your camera is open, the less movement can happen during the capture of an image.
Set the fastest shutter speed possible to maximise sharpness. For example, if you want to take an silhouetted image of your subjects jumping, a fast shutter speed is necessary to freeze the action.
Set Aperture According to Available Light
Depending on the light situation I would recommend using an aperture between f/2.8 and f/8.
For low light situations an open aperture will help you to avoid unnecessarily high ISO values.
If you have enough light, set a smaller aperture in order to have the whole contour of your silhouette in focus.
Remember that the larger the aperture is, the shallower the depth of field will be and the more difficult it will become to get a sharp and crisp silhouette image.
Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW will not save your silhouette photography from lacking sharpness, being out of focus or being uninteresting, but it can help you when it comes to adjusting settings in post-processing.
For example, if you accidentally set the wrong white balance or set your camera to an undesired preset you can easily correct colours and white balance afterwards in Lightroom.
The idea behind shooting in RAW is that all the information captured by the sensor will be retained, which means your RAW files will be lossless and uncompressed files.
By comparison, JPEG files are compressed and often show posterisation because data is lost in the compression process. With every step of compression the image quality decreases.
The only disadvantage of shooting RAW is that the image files will be really large, about 4-5 times larger than JPEGs, plus RAW files will fill your camera’s memory buffer up much faster when using continuous shooting mode.
Make sure you have a memory card that has enough room for all your RAW images and has a fast write speed (90MB/s or greater).
If you do shoot RAW, white balance actually should not be as much of an issue since you can fine-tune the white balance for each individual image afterwards in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.
Otherwise, set the white balance using one of your camera presets, or use its auto white balance setting if you are unsure about which white balance mode you should choose.
Turn your camera’s built-in flash off.
You will not need to use your on-camera flash while taking an image of a silhouette, because the idea behind creating a silhouette image is to take a photograph of a completely dark subject without any details and light on it.
If you shoot in automatic mode, your camera won’t know that you want to have your subject totally black on purpose, so your flash could suddenly pop up and fire in order to lighten the dark areas on your subject.
Composing Your Silhouette Shot
There are a few different principles of composition which you can use to create a striking silhouette image. The well-known ‘rule of thirds’, as well as the ‘golden section’ are the two rules I find most helpful in composing silhouettes. I briefly explain how below.
These and other principles, such as the use of leading lines and visual weight, should be chosen depending on the aesthetics and message you want to convey. Make sure you get familiar with your basic composition rules in order to show eye-catching silhouette images.
When composing your shot, never stare directly at the sun or look at it through your viewfinder when your camera is pointed towards it, as this can damage your eyes.
At sunrise and sunset it is usually possible to look at the sun when it’s less bright and close to the horizon line, but use common sense—if staring causes you discomfort, trust your instincts and look away.
The Rule of Thirds
For example if you are about to take an image of a beach silhouette, the rule of thirds will just apply perfectly.
The idea behind the rule of thirds is to divide your image up into equal vertical and horizontal thirds using 2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines and positioning all of the important elements in the photo along those lines.
Try to fill two thirds of the frame with sky to create an interesting point of view. Most modern cameras can display the standard rule of thirds grid while using live view which will help you a lot when you are taking silhouette images.
The Golden Ratio (and the Fibonacci Spiral)
Without getting into the maths of it, the golden ratio is the ratio of 1 to 1.618, and this proportion has been used by many artists in many different media over the course of history because it produced aesthetically pleasing results.
It can likewise be a powerful tool for attract viewers to the important elements of your photo. The Fibonacci Spiral is a visual tool constructed using the golden ratio which can guide your composition.
It’s a bit less intuitive than the rule of thirds, but it’s not so difficult to apply once you get used to how it work.
The sunset silhouette image below and following diagram illustrates how the Fibonacci Spiral was used to compose the picture.
Cameras’ live views don’t have a guide view for the Fibonacci spiral like they do for the rule of thirds, so it’s best to just memorise the pattern and use your best judgement of where elements are in relation to it when compose your photo.
Other Composition Tips
- Good silhouettes depend on strong contrast, so look for strong tonal contrasts within the scene as you compose
- Use leading lines to draw attention to the silhouetted subjects
- Look at the contours of the subject(s) and areas you are silhouetting and think about how they will look when they are juxtaposed in the frame; they may form interesting shapes when in silhouette
Silhouettes in Black and White Photography
Colour silhouette images can certainly look strong, dramatically and powerful, but black and white silhouette photo have their own attention-grabbing qualities which, not the least of which is the contrast between the darkest and brightest tones.
Stripping away all the colours ends up drawing greater attention to the form of of the subject and converting your silhouette photo to black and white will give your images a certain dreamy, melancholic, or even dark feel.
Now it’s time to grab your camera and to find a nice location with some good natural backlight.
Always make sure your settings are optimised for capturing silhouettes and don’t be afraid to try out different perspectives and compositions.
With some practice, experimentation, the techniques described above, and a little luck you should be able to make some spectacular silhouette images.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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