Tips for Photographing Silhouettes

Silhouette of a woman doing cartwheels on the beach at sunset

Mypurgatoryyears / Getty Images

A silhouette is a portrait-type photograph where a dark figure or shape is set against a light background. When done correctly, silhouette photos can produce striking images. Six tips will help you capture a perfect silhouette.

Backlight the Subject

The easiest way to photograph a silhouette is to use the sun as your backlight. Positioning your subject in front of the sun's direct light will give a stronger silhouette and allow the sun's rays to gently spill into the background and color the sky.

You will find that the light is best at sunrise or sunset. The color temperature of the light at these times of day is warmer, which adds to the dramatic appeal of a great silhouette.

Meter for the Background

You will need to meter for the stronger background light in order to get a clean silhouette of the subject. If you meter the subject, the camera will try to expose it 'properly' as if it had proper light falling on it. In this way, DSLR cameras are not smart enough to know that you want the subject to be a deep black.

You will need to by-pass your camera's auto settings by using this technique:

  1. Point the camera at a clear and bright section of light in the background.

  2. Press the shutter button halfway to get an exposure reading.

  3. Make a note of the shutter speed and aperture.

  4. Manually set this exposure reading on your DSLR and take the picture.

If the exposure is too bright, then stop down and try again. If the exposure is too dark, open up.

Ideally, you want a fast shutter speed to have the most success photographing silhouettes. It would be best to make any adjustments with your aperture.

Turn off the Flash

This is another reason to use manual settings on your camera, particularly if you have a pop-up flash on your DSLR.

On an automatic setting, the camera is likely to meter for your subject and it will use the pop-up flash as "fill-in" flash in an attempt to make the subject brighter. By switching the camera to its manual settings, you can choose to keep the flash off, which is key to creating a silhouette.

Move Closer

If you move closer to your subject, it will be easier to block out the direct light. This technique also offers a greater choice of angles and it allows you to move around to find the perfect position when composing the photograph.

Focus Manually

In most cases, silhouettes are best when the subject is sharp and automatic focusing will almost always struggle to pin down a dark shape. There are two ways around this problem:

  • Switch the lens to manual focus. Your eye will be better at focusing on your subject than the DSLR's autofocus system.
  • Set a large depth of field by manually setting your aperture to around f/16. This setting should ensure that the majority of the image falls into focus, even if your eyesight is slightly off.

You are probably going to need a tripod to get a crisp silhouette.

Think About Shapes

A silhouette needs to be a strong image and composition is key to making that dramatic impact. Silhouettes are concerned more about shape and contrast, so make sure to pay special attention to these details.

  • When photographing a person, place him in profile. This allows more of his features to be outlined.
  • When silhouetting an object, look for an object that has curves and angles that will stand out in silhouette.

With these tips in mind, you can see why trees are such a popular silhouette photography subject!