How to Photograph a Silhouette

Image above from Evan Leavitt Photography

A few of you were asking on the Pretty Presets Facebook page how to photograph silhouettes, so in this post, we are going to look at a few steps to get your started. Once you have these ideas in mind, photographing silhouettes is surprisingly easy!

1. Choose a Bold Subject and Composition 

Anything can be made into a silhouette with the right lighting, but certain subjects stand out more than others. If you are photographing people in silhouette, make sure that they are separate from any elements in the composition that they may “blend in” with. For example, if you are shooting under a pier at sunset, make sure that your subject is not touching the support beams holding up the pier. Also, look for simple compositions with defined lines and minimal clutter, so that the silhouette will be the main focus.

2. Lighting 

At this point, you’ll have to forget what you have learned about lighting thus far! Most importantly, you want to make sure that your subject is completely backlit, and that you do not use your flash, as you do not want any light on the front of your subject.

3. Camera Settings 

Shooting in Manual mode is, by far, the best way to achieve a silhouette. When adjusting your settings, meter to perfectly expose the background light, not your subject. You may also find it helpful to meter your background to slightly under-exposed, as this will give you an even darker silhouette on your subject. Then, you can adjust the exposure of the background in your post processing.

If you are shooting in Auto mode, you will want to apply the same idea of metering to get the correct exposure for the background. However, this can be tricky, as cameras, in Auto mode, are designed to perfectly meter the whole scene. You can trick your camera, though, by pressing your shutter halfway while having your in-camera focal point on the background. Then, once the camera has metered for just the background, press the shutter all the way down.

How to Photograph a Silhouette

4. Focus 

Generally speaking, the goal of photographing silhouettes is to have the subject in sharp focus. If the subject is not in focus, the whole composition will sort of mesh together and look “soft” because the silhouette will not have defined edges, reducing the dynamic impact of sharp focus. With this in mind, remember that when you meter with your camera, it will also auto focus your lens, so, if you are using a DSLR, you may want to try setting your camera to manual focus, get your subject in focus, then meter the background, so you do not loose the defined outlines on your subject.

5. Equipment 

A couple of optional, but handy tools are a tripod, and a circular polarizer. Having a tripod will help prevent camera shake if you are working with extremely low background light. A circular polarizer (lens filter) can also be useful, as it will create more contrast, depth and saturation in your background.

6. Post Processing 

If you want to make any adjustments to your image, you can do so in post-processing by upping the Blacks, Shadows, Clarity and Contrast to define your subject even more. You can also bump up the Saturation and Vibrance in order to add more detail to your background.

Last but not least, experiment! Each time you photograph silhouettes, your camera settings will vary depending on your subject, and the lighting conditions, so play around with your settings until you find what tends to work in various conditions.

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