How to Do Silhouette Photography

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SILHOUETTE, THE AGE OLD ART

Welcome photo ninja, to this not-so-secret guide on how to do silhouette photography.

Silhouettes have been around way before photography, and arguably, first found on cave paintings. But I am pretty sure that our caveman ancestors did not call it “silhouette” back then.

It is not until 1759 that silhouette was named after the French finance minister Étienne de Silhouette… in a bad way to depict cheaply made portrait outlines. Sorry France, but history is history. Read more on Wikipedia if you want.

Today, silhouette is a well known art form found in paper cutouts, paintings, shadow plays, and even photography. As bad as how the silhouette name may have originated, it is actually an elegant way to illustrate simplicity, mystery and maybe some drama.

A) WHAT IS SILHOUETTE?

silhouette
Photo by Mats Anda

For the lost souls who somehow stumbled on this guide and have absolutely no idea what a silhouette is – It is nothing more than just an outline of a solid figure, and example above.

While the “common photography” mostly captures well exposed photographs to tell a story, silhouette is somewhat the opposite. It captures subjects that are featureless, leaving a space for the viewer’s imaginations.

B) RECOMMENDED GEAR

Some people may think that silhouette photography is an advanced technique and requires “special” equipment… but it is not.

Really.

To get started, all you need is a decent camera. Don’t worry if you don’t have an expensive “professional” camera, you can even take silhouettes with a smartphone.

As long as the smartphone allows you a certain degree of controls (change shutter speed, ISO, or a silhouette mode), that should do the magic.

But to do silhouette photography comfortably, I will recommend the following gear. Warning, affiliate links below. Read my mind blowing short disclosure message if you want to.

  • A decent camera. DSLR or mirrorless camera.
  • Circular polarizers may come in handy when you are shooting outdoors against the sky, as they do somewhat boost the color contrast. I will recommend a good old Hoya, or if budget is an issue, try out an affordable Yongnuo.
  • If you are shooting indoors, an affordable Yongnuo Flash will come in very handy.

C) THE SETUP IN A NUTSHELL

Place your subject against a bright background.

That is all the magic to silhouette photography. The basic idea is to have a very bright background while having as little light on the subject as possible.

That imbalance in light will cause the subject to be dark and nearly featureless – that will create the silhouette that we want.

D) SETUP AND COMPOSITION CONSIDERATIONS

D1) CHOOSE THY STAGE

Always start by choosing where you want to shoot. Indoor or outdoor?

While a bright and cloudless sky background is nice, some background elements can be interesting to include – the sun, trees, windmills, buildings, etc…

If you choose to shoot indoor, some patterns on the window or door frames can be pretty interesting to include too.

Silhouette
Photo by Rick Smith
 💡 Should you decide to include multiple elements, please make sure that your selected elements are well balanced in the composition. As in, since they are all solid blocks of shapes, make sure that they are uncluttered and distinct.

D2) THE BEST TIME TO SHOOT WHILE OUTDOORS? SUNRISE OR SUNSET.

As long as the sun is shining, any time during the day will work well to capture a good outdoor silhouette.

But sunrise and sunset are probably the best times. The “golden hour” as most photographers call it, offer an interesting orange-gold sky and beautiful color tones.

There really is no right or wrong to not shooting during sunrise/sunset either. If you prefer a nice blue sky, by all means, go ahead. This is just a recommendation.

D3) FIND A NICE OPEN AREA IF YOU ARE OUTDOOR

Remember that you need a bright background?

The sky is your best bet during the day. So you will want to find a good open space where you can use the sky as your background. Not just that, you will want a clutter free open space will give you a clean silhouette with no background distractions.

Open fields, parks, beaches are probably your best bet for finding open spaces. But when you are unsure, do a search online, and just ask around on Facebook or forums.

 💡 Can’t find the sky? Try to find very bright lights instead, or fire your flash against a wall to wash it out.

D4) INDOOR SETUP

If outdoor is not your thing, you can do some indoor silhouette action as well. You can create your own bright background by “blasting” a flash onto a backdrop or wall.

I will recommend using 2 flash to create a more balanced background, just make sure that the wall is clean, single color and does not have all kinds of funky patterns.

This is how you get a clean and bright background
 💡 Alternatively, you can just position your subject in front of a bright window or doorway. Good you folks on smartphones with no access to external flash units.

D5) SUBJECT DOES NOT MEAN JUST PEOPLE

When I mention “subject”, I don’t mean just people only.

Animals, trees, buildings, and just about any object can be your subject. But since silhouette photography does not capture color and details, you will have to choose a subject with distinct shape that stands out.

Silhouette
Cats work in silhouette photography too. Photo by Terry Chapple

D6) SILHOUETTE ACTION

Silhouette
Photo by wahyu din.

Who says that silhouette photography has to be boring and static? A few trees and rocks?

Yawn…

Not in this age. Here are a few simple action packed ideas that you can add to your photo:

  • Jumping – mid air action!
  • Sports action – running, cycling, skateboarding, basket ball, etc…
  • Throwing things, add drama by flipping a cape or long scarf.

E) THE SETTINGS

What settings should we use for silhouette photography?

I think the only “correct” setting is to expose the shot to the background. So the background pops out and the subject is intentionally dark.

But no worries, silhouette photography is actually quite forgiving in getting the right settings. So long as the subject is underexposed, it should somewhat work.

E1) SHOOTING IN MANUAL

These are my usual manual settings, which could be wrong. Use this as a reference, not something you must apply by force.

  • The aperture is probably going to be f/5.6 or more. Because you want more depth of field to catch the distinct outlines, and you want to intentionally keep the subject underexposed.
  • Shutter speed is sort of an open factor. But in general, keep it fast – Fast enough to prevent a blurred image. If you are still getting details on the subject, use an even faster shutter speed or smaller aperture.
  • You probably won’t even need to deal with ISO, just tweak the shutter speed and aperture before changing the ISO. The ISO as usual, should be kept as low as possible to lower sensor noise.
 💡 Finally, remember to shoot in RAW. If your camera supports it.

E2) SHOOTING IN AUTO

Can you shoot in auto? Yes.

But with today’s “intelligent” camera, it will most probably try to correct the exposure until everything is well lit. Which is not what we want, and we will have to switch to “silhouette mode” if your camera has one.

If not, we will have to use the lock exposure feature. My usual way of doing this is to:

  • Set the metering mode of the camera to “spot” or “centered”.
  • Point at a bright spot in the frame.
  • Press and hold the exposure lock button.
  • Re-frame, focus and take a shot.

If the photo is still too bright to too dark, you can try using different bright spots for your exposure lock. This method can be used on the manual settings as well. Point at a bright spot, copy the settings recommended by the camera, then manually dial them in and adjust.

E3) EXPOSURE COMPENSATION

To make your life easier, make full use of exposure compensation, and it works for both manual and auto settings. For example, if you know your settings are just a tad bit off, quickly dial in a -1 EV. No need to go through the fuss of re-balancing the exposure triangle.

This will probably be a life-saver for smartphone users who cannot do manual settings or change the metering mode as well. Simply set the camera to shoot at negative EV, and watch the magic work.

E4) NEGATIVE BRACKETING

The next lazy man’s tool – bracketing.

For those who are unsure what bracketing does, it simply allows you to take multiple shots a different exposure values. For example, a bracket of 3 shots at 1 stop difference will be:

  • First shot at 0 EV, as per your “normal” exposure.
  • Second shot at -1 EV, an underexposed shot.
  • Last shot at +1 EV, an overexposed shot.

What’s the use of it in silhouette photography? When we set all the brackets to negative EV, that will give you 3 shots at 0 EV, -1 EV, -2 EV.

That will give you plenty of shots to choose from the negative brackets, ranging from a silhouette that still has a little bit of detail, to an entirely dark figure.

E5) SHOOT AND CHIMP

Nothing to do with the settings, but a last important note.

Always shoot, review, and adjust on the spot. The days of film are over. Better to get things right on the spot, then to regret later.

F) EDITING IN PHOTOSHOP

I know, there are 1001 ways to edit a photo.

But this is a sharing on how I usually work. Please do not take this as an iron rule, but as a point of reference… and I use Photoshop only.

Sorry to the Lightroom fans, but you can probably pull off the same in Lightroom in any way.

F1) LET THE DARKNESS RULE

You will want to have a punchy difference between the blacks and whites.

I shoot RAW. So when I open up the photo, Camera Raw fires up.

In general, I love to reduce the blacks, shadows and boost the whites. Which should further darken the silhouette, and separate it from the background – giving it a more distinct contrast.

As for the highlights, it really depends on whether you want to keep the details. I generally love to reduce the highlights to recover some clouds… but it may also be a good idea to keep the clouds blown out instead to keep a clean image. Well, personal preference, I leave this up to you.

F2) CLEAN UP THE PHOTO

Content aware and healing brush magic… that is my fat finger below.

Nothing too fanciful in this step, just cleaning up a few dust spots and pieces of rubbish.

Select area with the marquee tool -> Edit -> Fill -> Content Aware. Alternatively, you can just use the healing brush tool.

F3) ADD YOUR WATERMARK

Taken with Nikon D800E, 16-35mm. At 16mm ISO50 1.3secs f/14

Slap on your watermark, and that’s it. It’s really this simple, and that’s why I love this timeless classic so much.

G) NAILED IT

All right, we have come to the end of this guide.

Hope this has helped you in a way or two, and as with my usual advice – go out and shoot. There is nothing better than practical experience.

If there are parts that are unclear in this guide, feel free to ask questions in the comments below. I try to answer every comment.

Have fun!

RECOMMENDATIONS

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