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 featuring a dark figure or shape set against a light background. When done correctly, silhouette photos can produce striking images. These tips will help you capture a perfect silhouette.

Girl's Profile Silhouette
Girl's Profile Silhouette. 123RF

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 produce a strong silhouette and allow the sun's rays to gently spill into the background and color the sky.

Cross on a hill next to a person backlit by a sunset sky.
Pixabay/Pexels

Light is best for photography at sunrise and sunset. The color temperature at these times is warmer than midday, which adds to the dramatic appeal of a great silhouette.

Meter for the Background

DSLR cameras are not smart enough to know that you want the subject to be a deep black. The solution: Bypass your camera's automatic settings to meter the subject, thereby forcing the camera to expose the subject as if it had optimum light falling on it. Here's how:

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

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

    Screenshot of camera settings display
  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.

Generally, a fast shutter speed is best for shooting silhouettes. Make any necessary adjustments with your aperture.

Turn off the Flash

On an automatic setting, your DSLR camera is likely to meter for your subject. The camera will then use the pop-up flash as fill-in flash to make the subject brighter. To counter this, switch the camera to manual mode so you can choose to keep the flash off.

understanding camera shooting modes
You usually can see the DSLR camera shooting modes by looking at the mode dial on the top of the camera body. By Kyle Schurman for About Cameras

Move Closer

Move closer to your subject so you can block out the direct light and compose your photo more easily. This also affords you a greater choice of angles.

Focus Manually

In most cases, silhouettes are best when the subject is in sharp focus. However, automatic-mode focusing almost always struggles 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 about f/16. This setting should ensure that most of the image falls into focus, even if your eyesight is slightly off.

Want the crispest edges possible? Use a tripod.

Think About Shapes

Silhouettes are all about shape and contrast, so pay special attention to these details.

Compose for Drama

A silhouette needs to be a strong image; good composition is the key to making that dramatic impact.

A good silhouette begins with a good choice of subject. For objects, look for curves and angles that will stand out in silhouette. When photographing a person, think in terms of a profile rather than the details that lie within the outside edges. In both cases, your goal is to produce an image that outlines your subject's features.

Sunset with palm tree and airplane silhouettes
leekris / Getty Images

With these tips in mind, you can see why trees are such a popular silhouette photography subject. Their crisp lines backlit by sunlight often create stunning, moody images.

Where Did "Silhouette" Come From, Anyway?

Étienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister in the mid 1700s, when war forced him to take action to save France's economy. He became known for frugality and austerity—and eventually, his name was applied to anything perceived as cheaply done. Back then, the only way to memorialize someone's face was to cut an outline from black cardstock, which was inexpensive. Thus, these outlines became known as silhouettes.

Girl's Profile Silhouette
Girl's Profile Silhouette. 123RF