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What is silhouette photography? Normally, you’d want to bring a flash along when shooting directly into the sun, but silhouette photography embraces strong backlight for an artistic purpose and uses it to create the perfect silhouettes. Silhouettes are featureless outlines against a bright background. They can add a great mood to your photo, as they leave some things to the imagination
How to do Silhouette Photography
Shooting silhouettes is actually really easy and fun and in this quick silhouette tutorial, I’m going to show you exactly what matters and how to do silhouette photography.
Separation, Separation, Separation
Since a perfect silhouette is pitch black with lots of contrast between the bright and dark parts of the image, it’s important to find a subject that is nicely separated from the background and really pops. Often, the subject is placed in front of an open sky with a bright light source, such as the sun or moon, somewhere behind it.
For example, it would be distracting if you photographed the silhouette of a person and there were dark tree branches crisscrossing in the back and interfering with the distinct shape of the silhouette. Instead, it would be much better to think about the composition for a moment, find a clear piece of sky and get them framed by the branches. This creates an uncluttered look and avoids objects merging with the shape of your silhouette.
Tip: Your goal is an uncluttered look. Create a silhouette that is distinctly separated from a brighter background.
Since you want your subject to really stand out and have clearly defined edges, it’s always a good idea to get low to the ground and shoot upwards. This gives you a lot more sky to work with and avoids incorporating too much ground. It doesn’t always have to be the sky though, water for example works equally well for creating silhouettes.
Find the Right Light
One of the most important things when shooting silhouettes is getting the light right and at the same time, throwing out everything you thought you knew about photography. Creating silhouettes invovles shooting straight into a bright background that is significantly brighter than your foreground.
Tip: Silhouettes require all backlighting and no frontlighting.
Generally, you get the best silhouette conditions around sunset and sunrise, when colourful clouds add some extra interest in the sky. But any kind of scene where the background is significantly brighter will do the trick, even in the middle of the night.
For example, I found these beautiful rock formations that had the glowing Milky Way spanning overhead in Joshua Tree National Park. The light of the stars was enough to turn the stone formation into a pitch black silhouette.
Make Your Silhouette Easily Recognizable
Let the viewers of your image guess and fill out the details, but don’t let them wonder what the dark blob in your image is supposed to represent. As mentioned before, avoid overlaps with background objects such as branches and remove any distracting elements in your shot. But also move around a bit to find the best angle for your subject.
Tip: Your silhouette should be recognizable by its two-dimensional shape alone
Almost everything can be made into a silhouette, but the trick is finding a subject whose shape is easily recognizable and stands out. When shooting people, try to capture their profile to make them more easily recognizable and for everything else, find something that can be easily identified by its two-dimensional shape alone. For example, it would be easy to identify the shape of a bicyle, a tree or a camel, while you’d have a hard time recognizing a square building as anything special.
The Technical Side of Things
First things first. How do you get the exposure right when shooting with so much backlight and no frontlight? If you want to rely on your light meter alone, meter the brightest part of the sky and have it correctly exposed (the needle is in the middle). Make sure your silhouette is around two stops underexposed. Then take a test shot and review.
The metering technique can take a bit more time consuming though, especially if you’re not used to using your meter. When you don’t have all the time in the world or don’t want to learn how to properly use the light meter, there is another way you can get your exposure right. What really helps when shooting silhouettes, is having a camera with live view (which they pretty much all do these days) and manual mode. So set your camera on a tripod (low light situations, guys!), switch your camera to manual mode and turn on live view. Then, set the aperture you want, leave the ISO as low as possible and start playing with the shutter speed until you get the desired effect.
Both metering and live view lead to the same result, it’s just a matter of which technique you prefer.
When it comes to aperture, I prefer the silhouette crisp and sharp, with the surrounding landscape perfectly in focus as well. That’s why I shoot silhouettes at about f/8 or higher, with the exception of Milky Way shots, which require the aperture to be wide open. There’s always exceptions and personal preference though, and sometimes a lower f-stop can really enhance the aesthetic of a shot.
Creating a Partial Silhouette
Of course, in a tutorial about silhouette photography, there also has to be a paragraph telling you to break some rules. Creating a partial silhouette can tell a powerful story, as it allows for a little bit more details filling in the black. It shows just a hint of what is there and adds a bit of a third dimension to the otherwise very two-dimensional silhouette. In certain situations, it can be an interesting option.