Silhouette photography is one of the most creative techniques an aspiring photographer can employ to move beyond technical competency and produce really compelling images. My own exploration of the silhouette has enabled me to create photos that are dramatic in mood and imbued with a sense of mystery.
Silhouette photos depict the subject as a solid, dark shape against a much brighter background. The effect is achieved when the dynamic range or contrast between the subject and background is high. Subjects photographed in silhouette look particularly striking against a blue sky, sunrise or sunset.
The drama and mystery evident in the silhouette photos you create will entice your audience to look more closely and discover a deeper, more personal connection with the subject depicted.
There’s no doubt that the relatively stark contrast between a darker subject and a lighter background makes a silhouette an immediately recognizable technique. Take a look at this photo of burnt trees from the Yarra Valley in Australia as a point in case.
Notice how the burnt trees seem to take on a life of their own in the photo. I achieved that effect in two simple steps:
Recording the trees in silhouette by photographing them against a significantly brighter background
Photographing from a low angle of view, giving the trees a somewhat menacing, overbearing appearance
I love how the leafless branches now take on the appearance of tentacles which enhances the prevailing sombre mood of the image.
If you’re looking to expand your creativity with a new approach to making photos you’ll love exploring the silhouette.
What’s Special About Silhouette Photography?
Silhouettes provide a window onto a world beyond that which is portrayed and, by extension, a mirror revealing the inner landscape of the photographer or viewer’s mind.
You see the silhouette provides just enough information to encourage the viewer to imagine a story, the details of which they’ve played a part in creating.
The silhouette opens the image up to an examination of the concept of duality. And I don’t just mean light and dark. Notions such as absence and presence can also be examined by placing the primary subject in your photo into silhouette.
Photographers are normally concerned with ensuring the subject is illuminated. They do so to ensure the subject is recognisable and to reduce the relative brightness range between subject and background so that there’s plenty of shadow detail and subtle highlight texture evident in the final image.
But the approach taken to creating a silhouette is quite different. No longer concerned with creating a pleasing, recognisable likeness of the subject the intention now is to ensure the subject renders dark and, as a consequence, loses their specific identity.
This encourages the viewer to resolve the intrigue by filling in the blanks, adding their own narrative or story to the image, or by imagining themselves replacing the primary subject in the picture.
While the subject is rendered very dark, the image is by no means devoid of meaning. The viewer is now encouraged to make sense of the image in whatever way they choose.
With the viewer’s imagination stimulated the subject photographed now takes on more of an iconic, even mythic identity in the mind of the viewer.
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Types of Silhouettes in Photography
Actually there are two types of silhouette, often referred to as follows:
Full or perfect silhouette
Near or partial silhouette
Let’s define the two and see what makes them different from each other.
Advantages of the Perfect Silhouette
The most common of the two, the full or perfect silhouette, consists of a jet black subject against a significantly brighter background.
This is definitely the way to go if you’re looking to produce a more iconic, less identity based representation of your subject.
Just imagine a near full term pregnant woman, turned at a 90 degree angle to the camera and photographed nude so as to draw attention to her condition by emphasizing the shape of her belly.
The perfect or full silhouette is a great option for nude photography, such as when photographing a pregnant mum in a state of undress.
The loss of shadow detail allows her to retain modesty, while the silhouette enables the photographer to produce a more iconic image which becomes less about the specific woman photographed and more about universal themes like motherhood, pregnancy or life.
A near or partial silhouette can be explained in two ways.
The difference in brightness between the subject and the background is not quite enough to render the subject absolutely black
Side light illuminates one side of the subject, placing the other side into silhouette
In both cases the minimal amount of shadow detail that’s apparent in the darker areas of the subject might be sufficient to refer to it as a near or partial silhouette.
A sense of mystery can still be maintained in these kinds of images, despite the fact that more of the subject’s actual identity is likely to be revealed.
That’s the case in this lovely image of a young family in front of a huge aquarium at the Mandai Wildlife Reserve in Singapore.
Being backlit and rendering in partial silhouette they’re identity is largely obscured. However, it’s still possible to get a sense of the age and gender of the subjects and their relationship to each other.
Sometimes a little bit of illumination, revealing subtle shadow details in the subject, can produce a more three dimensional and more realistic looking image.
The use of Fill Flash or a little illumination from a torch or flash light might be all that’s required to achieve this kind of result. A similar effect can sometimes be achieved when light from the background bounces off the ground and reflects back towards your subject.
Creating Easy Silhouette Pictures
While they look awesome, under the right conditions silhouette photos are quite easy to create.
Choosing the right subject, positioning them correctly in relation to the light, placing emphasis upon them through composition and adapting your camera’s exposure is the basis of a great silhouette photograph.
What’s more, while it might be ideal to use a DSLR or Mirrorless camera, you can create really awesome silhouette photos with one of today’s high end mobile phones.
How to Photograph Amazing Silhouettes
Before heading out to shoot silhouettes, make sure you have a camera that lets you adjust the exposure. In other words, you should be able to use your camera to lighten or darken the brightness of the photo at will.
All modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have this functionality and so do most smartphones.
Silhouette Photography Settings
There are no specific camera settings required to produce an awesome silhouette. Great silhouette photos are actually more about the following:
Direction of the light
Shape of the subject
Difference in relative brightness between the subject and the background
Photographing your subject against a much brighter and relatively unobstructed background
However, all the usual considerations relating to accurate focusing, depth of field, iso and white balance apply.
Once you get your basic exposure correct you may decide to darken or, more likely, lighten the exposure to achieve the desired result.
An overall darker image will produce a more sombre or brooding result, while an overall brighter image will produce a greater sense of three dimensional space and provide more visual separation between the subject and the background.
Just remember that adjusting exposure is an important decision. It’s not just about how bright your subject appears in the photo. It’s also about the mood you’re wanting to explore.
It’s often a good idea to use an aperture of f/8 or narrower when photographing directly into a light source (e.g., sunrise or sunset) so as to minimize the likelihood of a blooming of color along the edge of elements within the frame.
Referred to as chromatic aberration you may be able to avoid this phenomena by making your photos at apertures of f/8 or narrower. Longer focal lengths will likely required apertures of f/11 or even narrower when photographing silhouettes directly into a bright light source.
You can see an example of pretty dramatic chromatic aberration in this image of tree branches photographed in silhouette near the regional city of Mildura in Australia.
The effect has probably been emphasised through a relatively shallow depth of field which has caused the reddish fringing along the distant, out of focus tree line to balloon somewhat.
The reality is that most folks probably won’t even notice mild occurrences of chromatic aberration. But it is one of those things, like a crooked horizon, that can drive some folks nuts.
How To Take A Silhouette Photo
It’s important to understand that, as they are rendered black against a brighter background, the individual identity of the subject is often lost in a silhouette.
As a result it may be impossible to discern certain things about the subject, including the following:
Clothing color and texture
With individual identity lost a well constructed silhouette becomes less about the individual and more about an iconic, sometimes mythical or archetypal rendering of the subject.
Not Warrick the warrior, but the warrior
Not Jill the gymnast, but the gymnast
With virtually all individual identity removed it’s essential to ensure the subject stands out and that they’re positioned in such a way so as to form a graphic shape.
When doing so ensure the sun is out of frame or hidden behind the subject so as to avoid creating an overly bright hot spot within the image.
While your silhouettes will often be created photographing into the light you can also place your primary subject into silhouette by photographing them against a very light tone wall or a white studio background.
Top 10 Tips To Master Silhouette Photography
Are you looking to advance your photography beyond technical competency and a good understanding of photo composition?
The silhouette is a great option, particularly as it allows you to create awesome photos on bright, sunny days. And they’re the very conditions often considered undesirable for creating great photos.
Here’s 10 simple and easy to action tips and techniques that will help you create stunningly beautiful and emotionally charged silhouettes. With this information you’ll be well on your way to creating truly awesome silhouette photos for yourself.
1. Select Subjects Well Suited To A Silhouette
Choosing the right subject is critical to the success of a silhouette. You’ll find your best results will come from photographing a subject that forms a graphic shape. My photo of the burnt trees at the very top of this post is a case in point.
Likewise, a strong and recognizable shape, such as a pregnant woman photographed backlit, is an excellent choice of subject for a silhouette.
When photographed nude the subject’s identity is hidden and their modesty retained as a consequence of being backlit.
It’s important for the subject to be prominent in the photo. For this reason you’ll need to position the subject and yourself so that they stand out from their surroundings.
To achieve this ensure the background is uncluttered and the subject is positioned away from any potentially distracting subjects that might compete for attention in the composition.
That was easy to achieve when photographing the viewing platform on top of the Dragon Tower in the city of Harbin in far north-eastern China.
Notice how the strong vertical lines in the railing stand out against the relatively nondescript background. It’s this use of graphic compositional elements within an image that will allow you to create powerful silhouette photographs for yourself.
2. Control Composition by Separating Subject and Background
Actually, I could have created more separation between the structure and the background by lightening the sky in my photo of the viewing platform at the Dragon Tower in Harbin.
In this case I chose not to because, rather than suggesting the positive feelings associated with greater three dimensional space, I opted for a slightly more compressed rendering of the scene.
Why and how you make your images will depend upon the mood you want to explore. This is a primary concern for the artistic minded photographer, underpinning much of the photography they create.
That may not always be the case in camera, but it’s increasingly so when post processing images on the desktop.
On the other side of the coin the success of your photos will also depend upon how you feel about them, your ability to get them out into the world and how well they’re accepted and collected or shared by your audience.
It’s also worth noting that photography, as art, has very little to do with the accurate depiction of reality. A photographic silhouette is an excellent example of that fact.
Any inherent truth apparent to the image is, therefore, dependant upon the following:
The intentions of the photographer, as artist, who created the image
The way the image is read and understood by individual viewers and, in the case of more widely understood symbols or themes, by a larger audience
The relatively high degree of visual separation between subject and background in a silhouette is usually critical to the success of the image. The same is usually the case with potentially competing subjects within the frame. However, there are notable exceptions to this rule.
Sometimes you’ll want to minimise separation, between otherwise competing subjects, when merging them together makes for a more compelling image. A couple kissing or an adult bird feeding a chick are good examples of this phenomenon.
The most dramatic silhouettes can be created when photographing the subject against an even, relatively uncluttered and distraction free background. Positioning the subject against a clear, texture free background such as a blue sky is a great way to achieve this result.
However, incorporating spectacular clouds or colorful light into the background can greatly enhance the appeal of your image by evoking feelings of positivity and warmth from your audience.
The trick is to mix your approach up so that you don’t end up with a portfolio of similar looking images.
No one wants to appear like a one-trick pony, and you’ll be amazed at how varying the type and color of your backgrounds will expand the range and acceptance of the silhouette photos you create.
3. Turn Off Your Camera’s Flash
One of the problems associated with using your camera in Auto or, so called, Intelligent Auto mode is the chance that it will automatically fire the flash as a way of trying to ensure your subject is not underexposed.
Doing so will often prevent you from creating a silhouette which, being contrary to your intentions, wouldn’t be ideal.
You might be able to switch your camera’s flash off. Some cameras enable you to do so quickly and easily. If that’s not the case with your camera you might want to move over to either Manual, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority exposure modes.
Either way you need to take exposure control back from the camera. That’s because the camera has no concept of whether you’re photographing a baby, a bar mitzvah or a birthday cake.
And not only has it little idea of the subject’s identity, it also has no idea that you want to render it as a silhouette.
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4. How to Control the Brightness of a Silhouette Photo
The whole idea is to be able to control exposure in camera so as to ensure the background is recorded correctly in relation to a backlit and, therefore, significantly darker subject.
That basically entails exposing for the sky and allowing the significantly darker subject to record in silhouette.
However, I’ve found an extra adjustment to exposure is often required. That’s because light meters are designed to record what they see as a mid tone, which doesn’t always align with the actual brightness of the subject or with your artistic vision.
I often find that a blue sky looks great exposed one stop or more brighter than what the camera tries to achieve through a mid tone rendering.
That requires an exposure adjustment, either by changing the shutter speed or the aperture while working in Manual exposure mode or, alternatively, through exposure compensation on Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Program modes.
Unless you really know what you’re doing I’d avoid anything other than a relatively simplistic approach to controlling camera exposure.
For example, there are a variety of ways of locking exposure after you get your camera’s light meter to measure the brightness of a particular part of the scene. That could be, for example, be the background.
Just be aware that, in addition to exposure, your camera may also set focus and white balance based upon that particular area of the frame. That action could, amongst other things, be enough to prevent your camera from rendering your primary subject sharp.
Would you say it’s a good idea that your camera’s lens is focused on a distant sky. Likewise, should your camera be basing white balance decisions solely upon a blue sky. I say no!
It’s for this reason that it’s important to have the ability to separate exposure, white balance and focus when you’re making photos.
The best way to produce a great silhouette is to position your subject relative to the light source, so that the subject is backlit, and to focus and compose your image through your camera’s viewfinder.
Any adjustments to the overall image exposure and white balance can then be made without too much trouble.
This workflow actually works best with a mirrorless camera which shows you exactly what the image will look life before you actually release the camera’s shutter.
If it looks too light or too dark, too warm or too cool, or too high in contrast you simple make the appropriate adjustments to exposure, white balance, and subject and/or camera placement before making the photo.
With a DSLR camera you’d need to make an exposure, view the result on the camera’s LCD and alter exposure and/or white balance as required. And you might have to go through that process a few times before you get it right.
Things get even more complicated when working handheld, without a tripod, and when photographing a moving subject with a DSLR camera.
By the time you bring your DSLR back to your eye and reframe the image there’s a good chance it’s not the exact same composition that you reviewed a moment ago.
When photographing on any mode other than Manual exposure, any change in framing and/or subject position within the frame could result in a different exposure being generated by the camera. That can be very frustrating.
That’s why I’d say a mirrorless camera is the best way to go. But if you own a DSLR camera, don’t despair. Getting used to Manual exposure will make the whole process a little bit more controllable and predictable.
As to which exposure mode is best, for any type of DSLR or Mirrorless camera, I’d say Manual exposure is the way to go.
When you’re photographing into the light the camera can be easily influenced by subtle changes in the position of the camera or the subject.
The advantage of manual exposure is that, while the camera’s light meter will move around depending upon variations in light intensity, the exposure will remain unchanged unless you actually manually change the shutter speed, aperture or iso.
Please be aware that’s not the case with any of the other exposure modes.
As far as other popular camera hacks are concerned I also dislike relying on exposure bracketing when photographing a silhouette.
What’s the chance of the perfect moment coinciding with the optimal exposure. In the case of a three image exposure bracket that would be, at best, one in three, which is far from ideal.
Better to get the exposure right, in camera, knowing that the overall brightness of every image you make from then on should be acceptable, assuming either you or your subject don’t move around too much.
Needless to say mirrorless cameras allow you to adjust exposure on the fly, before you make the actual photo. Just remember, for ultimate control, to do so with your eye inside the camera’s viewfinder.
5. The Decisive Moment In Silhouette Photography
The decisive moment is an important concept in photography. Most commonly associated with documentary street photography, the concept of the decisive moment is equally important to any kind of sports, action or candid photography.
We can describe the decisive moment as the moment in time when the following key aspects of a photograph come together to form a cohesive and harmonious image.
Technical aspects such as camera exposure, lens focal length, focus and depth of field
Lighting quality, direction and color
Dynamic Range of the scene
Image composition and framing
Subject pose, gesture or interaction
The peak moment of action at which the subject is depicted, such as a water droplet bouncing off a leaf or a sporting figure just about to kick the winning goal
Making use of the decisive moment to record moving subjects at the peak of action is a skill that’s worth honing, particularly if you’re interested in seriously pursuing sports, wildlife, street photography or candid portrait photography.
6. How To Create Iconic Images With Silhouettes
Silhouettes are evocative, particularly when the subject forms a graphic shape and they’re photographed against a colorful background.
The above image was made in Kakadu National Park in the Top End of Australia. The bird, a darter, is light gray with dark wings and not the most visually interesting bird to behold.
However, the darter has a long neck which offers the potential of a very compelling image when photographed into the light.
Recognizing this fact, as my boat approached the bird, I asked the tour guide to turn the boat around so that we could approach the darter from the opposite direction.
Not only did that set me up to create a great silhouette photo, but it allowed us to approach the bird closer than we might otherwise be able to if they bird had to look into the light to see us.
By photographing from the boat I was also able to create an image, more or less, from water level. This lower angle of view added an extra sense of drama to the image depicting the bird in a more heroic manner.
Finally, just before I released my camera’s shutter, I made a rather dismal attempt at a mating call. Despite a complete ignorance as to how to produce the correct sound my feeble attempt had the desired effect.
The bird lifted its wings, forming a graphic shape, and I made the photo.
7. Dramatic Silhouettes Through Extreme Camera Angles
While composing your silhouette photos consider photographing from a low angle of view to enhance drama and subject dominance within the frame.
Photographing from a low angle of view, as I did when making this image of the darter bird, will also allow you to visually separate your subject from what might otherwise be a cluttered and distracting background.
8. How to Take a Silhouette Picture Indoors
Placing the subject against a window, with the blind and/or curtains drawn, will often provide the necessary amount of backlight to create a silhouette.
It might be helpful to turn off any lights inside the room to further increase the dynamic range of the scene.
But that’s not always the case and it might be worthwhile making creative use of the color mismatch that occurs between a subject illuminated with warm, incandescent (i.e., tungsten) light that’s photographed against a brighter and, possibly, cooler colored background.
9. Add More Mood to a Silhouette with Post Processing
There’s no doubt post processing can have a massive impact on your photos. This is just as true for silhouettes as any other kind of photo you’re likely to make.
Working global you can employ post processing to alter the dynamic range within the scene, either increasing or decreasing the difference in brightness between the subject and background.
As a result you’ll be able to impact the sense of three dimensional space within the image.
Likewise, saturation and vibrance sliders are a great way to heighten impact or, alternatively, produce a quieter, more subdued image.
10. Try Adding a Starburst Effect to a Silhouette
While sometimes cheesy, special effects like a starburst can really add life and a sense of mystery to a photograph.
You can achieve a starburst by closing your lens’s aperture to one of it’s physically narrowest openings. For example, f/16 or f/22 can produce a really interesting starburst when you’re photographing directly into a round light source.
You’ll find this a fun technique when photographing round light sources affixed to piers at a variety of waterfront locations like rivers, lakes and by the seashore.
The effect works well with the sun though, of course, you should never look through your camera’s viewfinder with your lens pointed directly at the sun. Doing so could damage your camera’s sensor, particularly if it’s a mirrorless camera.
But you can also damage your eye under such circumstances.
In the case of a DSLR the camera’s internal mirror, used to help you compose and focus an image, can reflect the bright sunlight into your eye while you’re composing the image through the camera’s viewfinder.
Actually the starburst is only one form of lens flare and deliberate lens flare streaks can be a fantastic feature that contributes to a visually dynamic result.
Conversely low level lens flare is usually detrimental to an image, resulting in poor quality photos. Here’s how to reduce the likelihood of experiencing the detrimental effects of low level lens flare in your photos.
Places To Take Great Silhouette Photos
From a technical point of view it’s critical that the background be significantly brighter than your subject when it comes to crafting a successful silhouette photo.
But, to truly engage your audience, you’ll want a background that’s interesting and, ideally, adds to the emotive power of the photograph.
So, with a relatively bright background and interesting locations in mind, here’s some places, times of day and weather conditions to consider when you’re out and about looking to create great silhouette photos.
Clear, blue skies
Dramatic skies, particularly those with big cumulus clouds
Plain white walls
Actually there are several reasons why sunrise and sunset work so well in silhouette photography.
With the sun low in the sky it’s easy to position the subject so that they’re backlit and, as a consequence, record as a silhouette.
The warm colored light at sunrise and sunset adds drama to the image and evokes positive, romantic feelings from your audience.
Have no doubt that’s exactly the kind of image folks love. If you’re looking for affirmation and positive feedback you really can’t go wrong with a great silhouette made around sunrise or sunset.
Silhouette Photography Ideas
There are so many subjects that make good candidates for being photographed in silhouette. In addition to the above listed locations, here’s some subjects that are well suited to photographing in silhouette.
People photographed on a beach
Winter trees without any leaves
Sporting figures in action
People running or jumping
Kids playing games involving spreading their arms and/or legs outwards
Animals positioned side on to the camera
Portraits where a backlit subject is positioned so that they appear in profile
The silhouette is such an interesting way to explore the world. Take my suggestions as a starting point and give it a try.
With practice you’ll find your own way of working and your own favorite subject matter that will enable you to create awesome silhouette photos that are rich in mood and emotionally charged.
Photography can bring us creators and our audience so much joy. The silhouette might be just want you need to take your own photography to the next level.
Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru