Photos composed using silhouettes are shrouded in drama, mystery, and more than a drop or two of romance. I love silhouette pictures for what you don’t see as much as for what you do; It’s the lack of light that ignites the imagination. It isn’t hard to take silhouette photos; it just takes an understanding of the elements needed to make them pop!
The First Step in Learning How to Take Silhouette Photos
When you take a photo of a subject with the light behind them (backlit)––say on a sunny day––your subject will appear in shadow. That’s because the camera can’t set the exposure for both the subject and the light simultaneously the way our eyes can.
It’s the reason every time you try to capture your friends in front of a beautiful sunset; it never quite looks the way you saw it.
Focus on Your Subject, Expose for the Background
Now that you understand backlighting, you’ll understand why the key to creating a great silhouette photo is focusing on your subject, as I did here on the men and the scaffolding in a temple in Myanmar, and exposing for the background, which is the light streaming in the background.
Refining the Silhouette
Take Control of the Exposure
Your subject is backlit and in shadow, but you want it to be completely opaque, not something muddled in-between. Your camera can only do so much. This is why you need to take control of the exposure to make the most of your silhouette.
If you photograph on automatic, it’s a good time to learn how to adjust your settings manually. For example, if you touch the screen to focus on an iPhone, you’ll see a little sun icon pop up. That represents your exposure. Dragging your finger up or down will lighten or darken your image. Check your camera’s manual for how to do it yourself.
Once you’ve figured out how to play with the exposure, slowly reduce it (i.e., decrease the light) until you achieve your desired result.
What Subjects Make a Good Silhouette?
When thinking about how to take silhouette photos, any subject can work––buildings, people, wildlife, nature––as long as the outline is clear, interesting, and recognizable. In this situation, expressions are irrelevant, colors worn or type of clothes mean little.
Pay attention to clean lines. If you’re photographing more than one thing, make sure outlines don’t overlap in weird places, or you’re back to that blob again.
Best Times of Day for Outdoor Silhouette Photography
The best outdoor silhouettes are taken around sunrise and sunset when the sun is relatively low on the horizon to ensure full backlighting. It also doesn’t hurt that sunrise and set typically deliver beautiful colors and backgrounds.
Minimize Sun Blowout and Flares
Photographing at sunrise or sunset also means you’re pointing your camera toward the sun. Great for shadows, not great if the light is so bright, it overexposes parts of your image or casts flares. An easy fix is to hide the sun behind your subject: a person, a tree limb. You get my drift.
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