Shooting silhouettes can make for a really striking image, but knowing what camera settings to use and when the effect works best is the key to successful photos. In this quick tutorial we explain how to photograph silhouettes that offer more than just a striking sky and are classic and timeless.
It’s a familiar scene for many photographers: you spot a striking sunset and quickly grab your camera and compose with a silhouette in the foreground to add some interest and scale.
And while this can produce a nice result, you’ve probably found that it blends in with all the other snapshots out there. In short, a little more thought is required to make a silhouette that is memorable.
What light conditions do you need to photograph a silhouette?
Creating a silhouette requires a high contrast scene, a dark foreground subject and a bright background.
So unless you’re in a studio, this means that silhouettes can really only be shot on bright sunny days, at sunrise or sunset or at night when there’s a large light source.
What subjects make good silhouettes?
The best silhouettes are those which have highly recognisable shapes. An elephant, for instance. Or a famous landmark. Because silhouettes are completely black and the detail is stripped away, the size, shape and position of your subject or foreground objects is incredibly important to the success of the image.
It can be as simple as shooting a landscape scene through trees, or an object against a spectacular sunset.
Trees are the classic subject, as are skyscrapers, but don’t limit yourself to these. You don’t have to rely on fixed subjects for silhouettes, you can create your own. People can make superb subjects and it’s worth spending a little time looking at a potential model considering the angle to shoot them from. Profile shots which reveal the contours of the face can work very well.
The sky at sunrise or sunset can make an excellent backdrop for a silhouette, and while these events tend to be more dramatic and at slightly more convenient times during spring and autumn, they don’t tend to last for very long. This means its a good idea to do a little research and find good locations during normal daylight hours.
As well as looking for subjects with bold and recognisable shapes, you also need one that offers a view of nothing but sky in the background from your intended shooting location.
This is very important. Other objects behind your intended subject will just be black clutter and spoil your image.
How do you expose your camera for a silhouette?
You should set your camera’s exposure so that the darker foreground is black while the brighter background is correctly exposed, erring towards making it a mid-tone to bring out any colour. Dialling in some negative exposure compensation will help ensure your silhouetted subject is dark enough.
The good news is that because you’re underexposing the foreground so much, you can usually shoot handheld because the shutter speeds are fast enough to avoid camera shake.
How to meter for a silhouette
If the bright part of your scene is very large, most cameras will be able to produce the effect you want by using the general-purpose Evaluative/Matrix/Multi-zone metering option.
However, many cameras will link the required exposure to your active AF point and adjust the settings accordingly. If your active AF point rests over a dark part of the scene that you want to be black, you are likely to get an overexposed image.
If this happens, you need to adjust your exposure using the exposure compensation control on your camera and dial in some negative compensation.
Alternatively, you could switch to your camera’s manual exposure mode to produce the result you are looking for.
Your camera’s centre-weighted or spot-metering modes can be useful for taking light measurements from the brighter part of a scene. Your spotmeter will suggest exposure settings that render it a mid-tone, which may be what you are looking for. If not, you’ll have to increase the exposure a little.
Planning your silhouette shots
The first step in planning a silhouette is to work out the direction in which the sun will rise or set, assuming you want to photograph your subject against a sunrise or sunset.
Shooting silhouettes at night
At night cities can make good venues for shooting silhouettes. Illuminated advertising and brightly lit buildings can make excellent backgrounds and commuters, statues and everyday objects can make interesting silhouettes.
As we said before, it’s more important to make your subject dark and retain the detail of the highlights in the background. And because of this, you can often shoot handheld silhouettes, even at night, given that you’re exposing for these bright backgrounds.