Silhouette photography evokes a sense of mystery and conveys a unique mix of emotions that other forms of photography cannot deliver.
Silhouette photographs can be deep and powerful artistic expressions while also being highly abstract. They tend to convey a lot with very little actual information about the subject, The picture often leaves the meaning of the image to the subjective interpretation of the viewer.
Getting started with silhouette photography can be challenging at first, but with the right tools and techniques, you can master this marvelous form of photography and it can be a great addition to your portfolio.
In this article I’ll talk about the different aspects of silhouette photos and I’m going to give you some amazing tips and ideas to get started.
What is Silhouette Photography
Silhouette photography consists of taking pictures of the profile and shape of subjects, leaving the core empty, often completely black. Often used to evoke a sense of impenetrability, silhouette photos persuade the viewer to identify with the subject.
Usually taken at sunrise or sunset, in these types of photos, there is a sheer difference in brightness between the background and the foreground. Silhouette photos require the source of light to be behind the subject, this way the subject itself will result in a black profile highlighted by the sun.
The human element is obviously one of the main subjects of silhouette shots but as you’ll see down below, there can be several ways to include different elements to create this effect.
How to Do Silhouette Photography
First of all, silhouette photographs should never reveal too many features of the subject. You should focus on only one element and ensure that your foreground is clutter-free. Simplicity is key and the plan is always to always follow the ‘less is more’ principle.
Source of Light in Silhouette Photography
In general, the lighting in a picture can be the difference between a dull image and an impactful one, but in silhouette photography, all the conventional lighting rules are not directly applicable.
The subject does not get good lighting, and in fact, it is the background that should be illuminated. To get a good silhouette, you will need to underexpose your subject by “tricking” your camera to set the exposure based on the background illumination, which should be brighter than the foreground.
This will result in a detailed background and a black subject. The perfect time of the day to practice shooting silhouettes is during the golden hour, right after sunrise and before sunset.
Related article: Sunset Photography Tips
Silhouette Photography Composition
When taking silhouettes you need to keep in mind that the purpose of your photograph is to create mystery and have the subject as a dark shape without revealing any detail about it or at least to reveal the least amount of detail as possible.
Playing with the empty space around your main subject will help you create a sense of calm and isolation. The stark contrast between the background and the focus point of the image will enhance this empty effect even more.
You can place your subject right in the middle of the frame or follow the rule of thirds to have a more dynamic image and help the viewer imagining what the subject is going to do next.
The subject might be going towards a certain direction or simply staring at it. The imagination here is going to complete the story. The negative space helps showing the scale of the scene and it improves the quality of your photo.
What story do you want to tell and what aspect of the subject’s outline best tells this story?
Related: Mastering Storytelling Photography
Camera Settings for Silhouette Photography
Now that you know what to do in general, let’s see the camera settings to obtain a silhouette photo like a pro.
Before we start, the first thing you should do is to turn off the flash. The reason you don’t need it is you don’t want to illuminate your subject and defeat the purpose of this technique.
Exposure. Since you don’t want your subject to be revealed, point your camera at the brightest part of the scene and half-press the shutter to focus. To create the silhouette effect, you can then move the camera down to the subject without releasing the shutter.
Modern cameras have brilliant automatic metering systems to help you focus on a subject and expose the photograph so that the background is well lit. Your camera will turn the foreground element, your subject, into a dark shape.
Quick note: When you execute this technique pay attention not to point your camera directly at the sun, this might damage your gear but also your eyes.
Aperture. To have a deep depth of field and obtain a sharp photo from foreground to background use a narrow aperture, for example, f/16. This will also create a starburst effect if the sun is in the frame. Experiment with a range of apertures from f/8 to f/22 and choose the best.
Shutter speed. My favorite silhouette photos are those where I’m able to freeze motion. Having a well defined outline in your subject is key to produce a great photo. Use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion, this will also help you getting a darker image.
As a photographer, you should take all your pictures in RAW format. I’ll never stop repeating it. Shooting in RAW allows you to keep color and exposure details that you may have otherwise lost if you used Jpeg.
The larger file obtained with the RAW format will make your life easier when post-processing your images. This is especially true when you are working with silhouette photography.
Through post-processing, you can recover areas that are too dark or too bright and you can also fine-tune the outline of the subject to make it crisp. Some of the most magical silhouettes that you see are often the result of masterful post-production. Make sufficient use of tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom to enhance the overall quality of your photographs.
Silhouette Photography Ideas
Here are some ideas for your silhouette photography inspiration. I researched these artists on 500px.com. I hope you’ll like them as I do.
Play With Reflections
In this beautiful shot you can see how the artist used the rule of thirds to position the main subject and balanced the composition adding reflections to create more interest.
Birds on A Tree
The three birds on the branches complete the composition perfectly. The photographer decided not to use a narrow aperture, in fact the sun doesn’t show the classic starburst effect.
Rule of Empty Space
The photographer used the rule of space positioning the subject at the bottom, giving importance to the beautiful clouds in the sky and creating an interesting and relaxing image.
A Simple Sunset
Sometimes just focusing on simplicity you can obtain the best shots. This time the silhouette is formed by elements on the background the trees separate the water from the sky.
Silhouette Photography and Romantic Moments
Sunrises and sunsets are perfect for these types of photos. The silhouette is not completely dark and the sturburst effect obtained with a narrow aperture are beautiful details that the photographers accurately delivered to create a romantic and not dramatic silhouette photo.
Black and White Silhouette Photography
Silhouette photography is not always only about landscapes. Also, why not trying a black and white shot? In this street photo the artist carefully positioned the little dog at the center of the frame and obtained a balanced composition with the overexposed road contrasting the rest of the image.
Birds Passing By
Not the easiest photo to take but one of the most interesting to look at. Once more the empty space forms the perfect canvas for the two ducks flying quietly in the early hours of the day.
Use it as a Profile Image
Why not having someone taking a silhouette photo of you to use on your social media profile? The delicate starburst and the layers formed by the mountains on the background make of this composition a great shot. Don’t you think?
Taking silhouettes is one of the best ways to express your creativity as a photographer. It’s not only one of the forms of photography that breaks every conventional rule but also one of the most aesthetically pleasing.
Remember to keep experimenting since you need some practice to get it right. Through regular practice and application of the techniques you’ve just learned, you will be able to get the most out of your silhouette photography.
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Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.