Sometimes it is the simplest pictures that work best. And in terms of photo composition and lighting, shots don’t come any simpler than silhouette photography.
Silhouette photography is when you shoot a subject with backlight so that you only show its outline. As the subject is thrown into shadow due to the position of the lighting, you can’t see texture, you can’t see its three-dimensional form, and you can’t even see its colour. What you are left with is the shape alone.
To shoot successful silhouette photography you first need to choose a subject that can be identified by its two-dimensional shape.
A strong outline is not enough: you also need to photograph the subject from the right angle to accentuate this shape. Silhouette photography of a person, for instance, works better if you shoot their profile rather than shooting them head on.
For a bigger subject, such as a building, you will need to hunt out the best angle to shoot from by walking around it, and then possibly coming back when the sun is in front of you and behind the structure.
To get clear silhouette photography, you need a subject which can be isolated against the sky or by a plain bright backdrop – it is much harder to get a silhouette of a building in a built-up area than of one that stands in an open space.
Although you can shoot silhouette photography in practically any weather, silhouettes look more impressive when shot against a deep blue sky or a dramatic scarlet sunset.
The biggest problem with silhouette photography is getting the silhouette to look dark enough. If you shoot in auto modes, your camera will refuse you to give you a perfect exposure.
You want the shadowy outline to be as black as possible, and not a muddy grey. Because of this you need to take control of the settings yourself. Here’s how to do just that…
Step by step how to shoot silhouette photography
01 Find your position
The best time for shooting silhouettes is at the beginning or end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky. You don’t necessarily need to have the sun directly behind the subject, it just needs to be in front of you. Hunt out the camera angle that shows the best outline of your subject.
02 Turn off Active D-Lighting or Auto Lighting Optimizer
By default, your camera will likely have some sort of dynamic range enhancing feature to pull more detail from shadow areas. Nikon DSLRs will have Active D-Lighting, for instance, while Canon DSLRs have Auto Lighting Optimizer. These features essentially adjust the contrast in your picture, helping you to pull maximum detail from shadows. For shooting silhouette photography, you need to turn this Off.
03 Get up to speed
Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode, and use a low ISO setting of between 100-200 to avoid noise. Set a mid-aperture of around f/8, as this should help minimise the amount of chromatic aberration (colour fringing) which can be a particular problem when shooting into the sun.
04 Exposure compensation
With the settings you have now, silhouettes will not be dark enough, so you must use exposure compensation. You will typically need to dial in a setting of between -1 to -3 EV (the more sky in the shot, the less negative compensation you will need).
Photo ideas for shooting into the sun
Keep It Simple for Silhouettes! No need to have the Taj Mahal or ET on a bike. Even a lone tree makes a great subject.
02 Turn sideways
Victorians loved silhouette portraits, and it is a great way of photographing friends and family. Just shoot their profile!
03 Sun spot
Avoid staring into the sun, but do try include it in the frame. Reduce its brightness by partly hiding it behind the subject.
04 Fill flash
Try a burst of flash to light up the foreground, while keeping the silhouette in the distance.
05 Rim lighting
If the sun is low enough, and with the right subject, backlighting can make the edge of your silhouette glow, as with these sheep.
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