How to photograph silhouettes
Learning how to photograph silhouettes is much easier than you think. All you have to do is learn a little about exposure and metering and then think about your composition.
Normally, when creating an image we’re concerned with ensuring that everything in a scene is well exposed – the brights aren’t too bright, the shadows still retain some detail and, overall, the image depicts what we would see with our eyes.
When creating a silhouette photograph we’re playing with the light and dark areas of an image to create solid, or near solid, blacks of our subject with the background “correctly” exposed to isolate the subject, which is a great composition technique.
If you look at the logic of that, the answer is right there in front of you.
To create a silhouette you need to shoot into the light and expose for the background, which will be brighter than the subject. This will make your subject significantly under exposed and therefore a silhouette. If the light is coming from behind you, it will light up your subjects, so you want it behind them so that their shadow side is facing you.
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Exposing for a silhouette photograph
Your exact settings are of course going to depend on how bright it is and will always change depending on time of day, how sunny it is and even where in the world you are. So you need to understand exposure to be able to control exposure in any given situation.
So let’s first have a quick look at exposure and how it works.
Exposure is controlled by three elements. Together, these elements make up the exposure triangle. I’ll briefly explain each element, but for an in-depth look at the role of each element in exposure, read the tutorials listed in each section.
- Shutter speed – determines how long the shutter stays open (how long light hits the camera’s sensor).
Further reading: The exposure triangle – what role does shutter speed play?
- Aperture – determines how wide the lens opens to let in light (how much light can reach the camera’s sensor).
Further reading: The exposure triangle – what role does aperture play?
- ISO – determines the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light (how much light your camera sucks up while the shutter is open).
Further reading: The exposure triangle – what role does ISO play?
Learn how they all fit together to shoot in manual mode.
Further reading: The exposure triangle – why it is so important to know.
ISO settings for photographing silhouettes
For silhouettes it is best not to have any noise (grain) in the photo as this will show up in the dark areas, which is distracting. Unless you’re going for the Nordic Noir look, in which case raise the roof on the ISO and bring that noise.
For normal, happy, peaceful photos with no noise I recommend ISO 200, unless you have a camera that can handle high ISO without creating noise.
Metering modes for photographing silhouettes
Now let’s look at how you meter the exposure of a scene. In other words, how to measure the amount of light available for the shot, so that you can set your camera accordingly.
Learning when to use each of these types of metering will make a big difference to your photography. If the camera knows what part of the scene you want correctly exposed, it will be more able to do what you want it to do.
There are 4 different metering modes, depending on the brand of camera that you use – Nikon has three and Canon has four. I will use the terminology used by Nikon and Canon as they’re the biggest brands.
- Spot metering – meters the brightness of a specific area that you’ve selected, which is about 2 – 4% of the scene
- Partial metering (Canon only) – meters 8 – 13% of the centre of the scene
- Centre-weighted metering – meters the area around the centre of the scene, which is about 60 – 80% of the scene
- Matrix metering (Nikon) or evaluative metering (Canon) – meters the overall brightness of the entire scene
Shooting modes for photographing silhouettes
Now that you’ve got your readings, let’s look at setting your camera to take an accurately exposed silhouette. There are 4 ways to set your camera, depending on the shooting mode that you choose to use:
- Manual Mode
- Program Mode
- Aperture Priority Mode
- Shutter Priority Mode
Further reading: What are the best shooting modes to use and why?
Photographing silhouettes in manual mode
We’ll get to the other shooting modes in a moment, but let’s first look at using manual mode. Manual mode is the goal as it allows you to be the boss of your camera. Here’s what you do:
- Set your ISO to 200. Use spot metering, with the spot pointed at the brightest part of the sky (not the sun), to determine the correct exposure
- Then adjust the shutter speed and aperture accordingly. If your subject is moving, a shutter speed of (at the very least) 1/250 is recommended
- Focus on your subject and snap away until you’re ready to change it up for the next shot
You can also very quickly change the exposure of a shot to grab a moment that is less silhouettey (for want of a better word) to change it up a bit and then instantly flip back to an exposure for a true silhouette.
It really is that easy.
There’s a 2 stop difference between this photo and the one at the top of the page. These photos were taken just 1 minute apart.
Don’t like manual mode? I’ve got you covered
If the concept of using manual mode makes you break out into a cold sweat, let’s look at how you can shoot in the other modes. I’ll go into specifics of program, aperture priority and shutter priority in a moment.
- Firstly, you will need to use matrix metering so that your camera can determine the correct exposure of the entire scene.
- Then you’ll have to set your exposure compensation so that your bright background is correctly exposed and your subject is dark. The reason for this is that the camera thinks you want to expose your shot the normal way, i.e. with the subject well exposed, not blacked out. As you want to do things differently, you need to fool the camera with exposure compensation.
- Select your shooting mode (details below), focus on your subject and shoot.
Setting up your matrix metering and exposure compensation keeps things simple, so that once you’ve decided on your shooting mode and you’re set, you can simply focus on your subject and shoot.
Let’s sidetrack briefly into exposure compensation…
Using exposure compensation alters the exposure value selected by the camera in situations where the camera’s metering is fooled by conditions. It compensates for your camera’s desire to read and record a scene the way it normally would.
You can set exposure compensation to -1, -2 or -3 EV (exposure value) on some cameras. You can also adjust it in 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments. On some cameras exposure compensation is set using a separate button, on others the button might share another function.
Look for the plus minus symbol. Exposure compensation is set using the button in conjunction with a separate dial (such as the command dial).
For a silhouette, I would suggest starting at -3 EV (or as low as your camera goes) and then adjusting upwards if need be based on what the image looks like.
Side note – when you change the exposure compensation, it does not automatically cancel when you turn your camera off. So, remember to reset it to zero before you finish shooting to avoid all kinds of confusion the next time you use your camera (been there, done that).
Further reading: How and when to use exposure compensation
The other shooting modes (i.e. not manual mode)
I’m not going to get into auto mode, because please please please don’t use auto. Use program mode if you want the camera to make the decisions – it’s like auto, but better.
Program (P or Ps)
In program mode the camera will decide on your aperture and shutter speed settings. You just need to set your ISO. To compensate the exposure down, set your exposure compensation.
Although it is an improvement on auto mode, I would not advise using program mode, as it leaves too much up to the camera to decide and so you never learn how to work your camera properly.
Aperture priority (A or Av)
With aperture priority mode you prioritise aperture as being the most important factor in the exposure triangle. Set the aperture and the ISO and the camera will select the correct shutter speed for an accurate exposure. To compensate the exposure down, set your exposure compensation.
Shutter priority (S or Tv)
If speed (fast or slow) is a priority, shoot in shutter priority mode. Set the shutter speed and the ISO and the camera will select the aperture for a correct exposure. To compensate your exposure down, set your exposure compensation.
But I still say use manual mode
With all that said, I wouldn’t recommend using any of these modes as it leaves too much to chance and you can’t guarantee that you’ll get a proper silhouette. Even at -3 EV your silhouette might not be as dark as you would like.
The best shooting mode to use for photographing silhouettes is manual mode. Give it a go…what’s the worst that can happen?
When is the best time to photograph silhouettes?
Unsurprisingly, the golden hour is the best time for silhouettes, because the sun is lower in the sky, it’s not as bright and the clouds and sky are most often beautifully warm tones.
Sunset, towards the end of the golden hour, is of course absolutely ideal with all the amazing sunset colors as a vibrant backdrop to your silhouettes.
You can photograph silhouettes at other times of the day, of course, but the golden hour and sunset are the best.
Where’s a good place to photograph silhouettes?
You need to be especially aware of your background when photographing silhouettes.
Because everything that’s not sky is going to be a blacked out shape, you need to eliminate unnecessary background clutter. Keep the background details to a minimum so that you can focus on the shapes that you want to create with your silhouettes.
This is why you see so many silhouettes shot on the beach, on the sea or at the top of a hill.
What makes a good silhouette?
Anything that has an interesting shape, for example:
- A tree with long, twisting branches
- Lovers just about to kiss (not actually kissing yet as they’ll be too much of a solid block)
- A sailing boat in full sail
- A cityscape of skyscrapers
Solid blocks are not interesting, so that rules out:
- A person standing facing the camera, feet together with the arms at their sides
- People standing really close together
- A truck
- A standard office block
Consider your position – it often helps to get low and shoot slightly upwards so that you have more of your subject silhouetted against the sky.
How to photograph silhouettes indoors
Bearing all the above in principles mind, there are three ways to shoot silhouettes indoors:
- Light a plain background and meter to expose the background correctly
- Backlight your subjects with strobes or speedlights (flash)
- Position your subject in front of a window and expose for the background
The principles are the same for indoor silhouettes as they are for outdoor silhouettes:
- expose for the background,
- create great shapes and
- shoot your subject as a dark, abstract shape
My client loved silhouettes, so she wanted silhouette photographs for her bump photos. The maternity shoot was in my studio.
My clients wanted a different look to their bump photos, so we got creative with light. Photographed in the studio using strobes to create rim light around the father kissing his wife’s baby bump.
Summary of how to photograph silhouettes:
- Face into the light
- Select your shooting mode – preferably manual
- Select your metering mode (spot for manual mode or matrix for everything else)
- Set your exposure compensation if you’re not shooting in manual mode
- Set your ISO to 200
- Meter the sky / bright background
- Consider your position – maybe get down lower
- Compose your shot to avoid unnecessary distractions and solid blocks
- Focus on your subject
- Make magic!
Silhouettes are so much fun and a totally different way of looking at the world. I highly recommend you give it a go!
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