Silhouette photography is a great way to add interest to an image. They make a scene feel dramatic or dreamy.
Before you grab your camera and start snapping away, read on.
You’ll learn everything you’ll need for a successful silhouette photography shoot. From equipment and settings to composition tools.
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What Is Silhouette Photography?
A silhouette is the contour/shape of a subject. It appears to be black against a much brighter background.
The subject you photograph has to be in front of a very bright light source.
People are the most popular subjects for silhouette photography.
Landscapes (such as city skylines and trees) or animals also make great subjects.
It may seem simple. But it can take a bit of time to get a feel for how it works.
Equipment for Silhouette Photography
It is possible to create silhouettes in a studio. But I’ll be focusing on capturing silhouettes ‘in the wild’.
Here’s the gear I recommend you bring when going outside and making silhouette images.
A DSLR or mirrorless camera will work best for silhouette photography. You’ll have the most control over your settings. It will also enable you to shoot in RAW and use filters.
But you can also capture silhouettes with a phone camera or a point-and-shoot.
It’s also an advantage if your camera supports live view. This allows you to preview your image.
You can zoom in to test your sharpness and to see where your focus point is.
And you can adjust your focus point while using the manual focus ring of the lens.
There are various filters you can use. For sunny conditions, I recommend ultraviolet-reducing (UV) filters.
These filters block UV light and remove the blue cast from the images.
You will also want to carry a circular polariser to remove glare and haze.
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 will need a wide angle or a telephoto lens.
For silhouette photography, I definitely recommend shooting with wide aperture lenses.
They collect a ton of light. This means they’re perfect for low-light conditions.
You will be shooting in RAW (there is no other way). So make sure you have large capacity memory cards.
You will need plenty of room for the large RAW files. And a fast write speed for when you use continuous burst shooting mode.
Some cards we recommend are:
SanDisk Extreme PRO 32GB UHS-I/U3 SDHC Flash Memory Card
Samsung 16GB PRO Class 10 SDHC (90MB/s)
You are about to have the best photo session in your life. Then you realise your camera battery is empty.
To prevent this nightmare, bring along an extra battery (or three).
And consider using a battery grip.
This makes it easier to hold your camera. And it increases your battery life.
A tripod is optional. Using one will help you take a self-portrait silhouette.
It’ll also increase the quality of your image in general. Especially if you need to take images at a slower shutter speed.
With a low shutter speed, even the slightest camera movement means a blurred picture.
I use the Hama Traveller 163 Ball. It has a built-in spirit level and a ball head. These offer more flexibility, versatility and stability.
How to Shoot Silhouette Photography
Having the right gear is one step. The process is the second.
The sun itself is the most common light source for silhouettes.
During sunset or sunrise you have the light you need. You can take a perfect sunset or sunrise silhouette photo.
The sun is low enough in the sky. And you can position your subject in front of it.
Other light sources you can use include external camera flashes, streetlights, torches. Even fire and moonlight.
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 can experiment with different artificial light sources. You can even control the color of your background.
If you decide to capture silhouette shots in a studio you can also shoot for hours and hours.
Here I’ll focus on helping you take silhouette photos on location, using the natural light of the sun.
These are often the most compelling and interesting types of silhouette photos. It’s all about the context.
When using the sun as your backlight source, follow the steps below:
- Find a good spot. 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);
- 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 Silhouette Photos
Use Manual Mode
Manual mode is best for silhouette photographs. You’ll be photographing in extreme lighting situations. Your camera may have problems figuring out the correct exposure.
This is usually the case with from-camera silhouette photography.
Let’s look at taking an image of a scene with very dark areas. Your camera will set the wrong shutter speed or aperture.
Using manual mode will help you to avoid exactly that.
Taking images of a subject that you want to appear black can be a confusing issue for your camera.
Manual mode allows you to set your aperture, ISO and shutter speed to any value you want.
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 as so to a avoid grainy image. But set a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the moment without causing blurriness.
It’s a bit of a balancing act. You want to keep your ISO as low as possible for sharp & high-quality images.
But 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, you can remove most noise afterward. Use a program like Photoshop.
Use a Fast Shutter Speed
The idea behind setting your ISO high is to enable a faster shutter speed. That way you can get sharper images of a higher quality.
The shorter the amount of time that your shutter is open, the less movement can happen during the capture of a scene.
Set the fastest shutter speed possible to maximize sharpness. If you want to take a silhouette image of your subjects jumping, use a fast shutter speed. It will 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, use an open aperture. This will help you to avoid high ISO values.
If you have enough light, set a smaller aperture. This will allow you to have the whole contour of your silhouette in focus.
Remember that the smaller the f-stop, the shallower the depth of field will be. It will be more difficult to get a sharp and crisp camera silhouette image.
Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW will not save your silhouette photography. If it lacks sharpness, is out of focus or is uninteresting, there’s no saving it.
But it can help you when it comes to adjusting settings in post-processing.
For example, if you set the wrong white balance. Or if you set your camera to an undesired preset.
You can correct colours and white balance afterwards in Lightroom.
The idea behind shooting in RAW is that it retains all the information captured by the sensor.
This means your RAW files will be lossless and uncompressed files.
By comparison, JPEG files become compressed. You lose data in this compression process. With every step of compression the image quality decreases.
The only disadvantage of shooting RAW is that the image files will be large. They’re about 4-5 times larger than JPEGs.
And RAW files will fill your camera’s memory buffer up much faster.
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.
You can fine-tune the white balance for each individual image afterward. Use Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.
Otherwise, set the white balance using one of your cameras’ presets.
Or use its auto white balance setting if you are unsure about which white balance mode you should choose.
Composing Your Silhouette Photography Shot
There are a few different principles of composition good for silhouette photos. I like the well-known ‘rule of thirds’, as well as the ‘golden ratio’.
There are other principles too, such as the use of leading lines and visual weight. Choose them depending on the aesthetics and message you want to convey.
Make sure you get familiar with your basic composition rules.
When composing your shot, never stare straight at the sun. And don’t look at it through your viewfinder when you’re pointing your camera towards it.
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 works great.
The idea behind the rule of thirds is to divide your image up into equal vertical and horizontal thirds.
Use two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. Position 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. This 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 our brains find it beautiful.
It can be a powerful tool to attract viewers to the important elements of your photo.
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 works.
Take a look at the sunset silhouette image below and following diagram. These illustrate how I used the Fibonacci Spiral to compose the picture.
Most cameras’ live views don’t have a guide view for the Fibonacci spiral like they do for the rule of thirds.
It’s best to memorize the pattern. Then use your best judgment of where elements are in relation to it when composing your photo.
Other Composition Tips for Silhouette Photography
- Good silhouette photography depends on strong contrast. 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. Think about how they will look when juxtaposed in the frame. They may form interesting shapes when in silhouette.
Silhouettes in Black and White Photography
Colour silhouette photography can look strong, dramatical and powerful. But black and white silhouette photographs have their own attention-grabbing qualities.
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 the subject.
So try converting your silhouette photography to black and white. It 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 you optimize your settings for capturing silhouette photography. And don’t be afraid to try out different perspectives and compositions.
All you need is practice, the techniques described above, and a little luck. Now you should be able to make some spectacular silhouette shots.