How to take silhouette photos – a tutorial

As part of the Natural Light course I recently took run by the fabulous Beth Ross we had the opportunity to try our hand at taking silhouette photos, now this is a technique I’ve been wanting to try for ages. I think I have devoured every silhouette tutorial on the web and the push and support from Beth was the final step I needed to finally give silhouettes a go.

And now I have I think I am in love! As long as you have done a little bit of preparation they are so easy to do and I think the results can be just stunning. I know I appreciated all the advice I was given so here is my attempt to give something back with a little 4 step silhouette tutorial, I hope it will be the push you need to get out there and give silhouette photography a chance.

It will help if you are comfortable shooting in manual but you could also do this in one of the semi auto modes like aperture priority or even with a point and shoot camera as long as you know how to lock your exposure. If you are not sure how to do this I would suggest having a look in your camera instructions to see if it’s an available option.

4 easy steps to shoot a fabulous silhouette photograph

Step 1 – When
To make this work you are going to need a bright light source behind your subject, I find the easiest way to do this is to use the sun when it’s low in the sky. Either sunrise or sunset will do. So firstly you need to know when the sunrise and sunsets are going to happen on the day of your photo shoot. There are lots of websites out there that will do this, just google ‘sunset times’. I tend to use a little freeware tool which lets me print a personalised calendar and I also love as this shows you the whole window of time from when the sun starts to set to when it’s gone below the horizon.

Step 2 – Where
You are looking for an uninterrupted background, not one that’s cluttered with a lot of buildings, trees or mountains. You do not want anything to get in-between your subject and the sun. If you live near a beach where the sun sets out over the sea then you have struck silhouette gold, lucky thing! My location for most of the examples I will show you in this tutorial was not particularly glamorous, just a field on the outskirts of my nearest town but it did have a couple of things going for it. I was not going to lose sight of the sun behind trees as it set and importantly it had a little bit of a slope to it, you’ll see why that’s helpful in a bit.

Here is my field with the sun about 45minutes before setting. I am right in the middle of the golden hour with a lovely soft golden light all around me. This photo is SOOC (straight out of camera) which should give you an idea of what the sky looked like that night.

Silhouette location photo

Some cloud is fine, in fact I like the texture cloud gives to a photo, but not too much as you need that light source to be bright enough to illuminate your subject and create the silhouette.

Tips on how to find a good location
I live in the northern hemisphere and so I know the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, combine this basic knowledge with Google maps zoomed right in and then you’ve got an easy way of looking for potential good uncluttered sunset/sunrise locations. You might also want to draw on local knowledge from other photographers, I asked on my local Flickr group and they helpfully came up with a range of suggestions and showed me photos of what those sites looked like as well. Another website that can be really helpful is the Photographers Ephermeris as this will show you on a map the predicted route the sun will take.

Step 3 – How
You have your location, you are there at the right time so now all you need to do is to take your silhouette photo. Don’t worry this is the easy bit! 😉

In short what you are going to do is create your silhouette through underexposing your subject by correctly exposing for that bright sky.

I use spot metering and take an exposure reading from a bright part of the sky. If you are not shooting manual this is the bit where you point your camera at the bright sky and lock your exposure for that reading. Do not point your camera too close to the sun as this could damage both your eyes and your camera’s sensor. I like to use an mid range aperture of f5.6 or f8 as I want to get a lot of my subject in focus and have nice crisp edges to my silhouette. But to be honest virtually any aperture will work so just choose the settings that set your exposure correctly for that bright sky.

A couple more things to bear in mind before you start taking your photos. Silhouettes look best when the viewer can see a clearly recognisable form, this could be a person, a group of people or an object. When looking at your shot through the viewfinder or reviewing your images on the camera keep checking that you are capturing silhouettes that others will recognise.

Some objects like this windmill have a naturally defined form.
Sunset windmill

Photos of people work best when their limbs aren’t all bunched up against their body. This often means with photos of people you’ll need to get them to move around so their limbs aren’t close to their body – action shots often work well as this is a good natural way of getting people to stretch out their arms and legs.
Frisbee silhouette photo

To keep that bright light behind your subject matter you will need to get down lower than your subject. Do this by either lying on the ground and pointing your camera up at them or making use of that slope by putting yourself at the bottom with your subjects in front of the sun at the top of the slope. If you are really stuck you could try positioning your subject on an object to raise them up or get them to jump up in the air, if you don’t you will find they blend into the ground at the bottom of the frame. Camera angle is crucial when you are taking your silhouette photo.

Finally it is time to take your photo. Snap away and then have a look at the LCD view screen to check it all looks fine. I often find my silhouette isn’t dark enough and you can make out too many details so I’ll increase my shutter speed a few more clicks and try again. Play around with both your own and your subjects position, just little changes can make a lot of difference. If the sun has almost yet or just set then you will need your subject right in front of the sun to make them stand out from the background.
Hopefully you now have some good silhouette photos so on to the final step – a little post processing to take that photo from good to frame worthy.

Step 4 – Finishing your photo
Post processing of silhouettes is both easy and fun. The first thing I do with my image once I’ve uploaded it to my PC is to look at it in Lightroom (you can also use ACR for this) and to darken my blacks if the silhouette doesn’t look as defined as I would like it to be. I sometimes also play with the exposure slider and add bit of contrast. This gives me a base image to either take over to Photoshop for more artistic editing or I will finish my editing within Lightroom. Sliding the white balance sliders in Lightroom / ACR around can make a dramatic different to your image.

This photo was taken on the same night as the others and to get that fiery sky all I did was change the white balance preset in Lightroom to Shade.

Silhouette magic

And this time I added some more magenta into the white balance.

I find adding a hue/saturation layer in Photoshop and moving the sliders around can really bring out some great colours. You can increase your control with the hue/saturation adjustment if you select the different colour channels from the menu e.g. cyan rather than use master which controls all the hues at the same time.

For a really quick edit just try running any colour pop style action on your image, you might be surprised at just how dramatically this can change your photo.

I hope you have as much fun as I did, please post a link to any photos you take trying this tutorial in the comments as I would love to see them.

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  • […] How to shoot silhouette photos […]ReplyCancel

  • […] Spencer tells us the when, the where and the what as well as many other aspects in her article How to Take Silhouette Photos – A Tutorial. The essential thing is to play around and shoot as many images. In the picture above, it took me […]ReplyCancel

  • Deadgrau518th October 2012 - 8:57 pm

    I would just like to thank you for taking the time to help Noobs like me out!

    Muchos appreciated!ReplyCancel

  • admin10th July 2012 - 9:29 am

    Hi Carol, I’ve just had a look at my metadata for these photos and they are all around the ISO200 s/s 1/640 & f8 range and taken with my 50mm lens. That shutter speed is fast enough for a moving subject, I wouldn’t drop below about 1/250 to be safe but with a still person I’d go down as low as 1/125 with this lens. Hope that helps! RebeccaReplyCancel

  • Carol9th July 2012 - 3:39 am

    Hi Rebecca, beautiful photos! Can you tell me what shutter speed and iso your working with and does that change with moving subjects?

    Thank you CarolReplyCancel

  • kristy28th May 2011 - 6:50 pm

    Great tutorial on photographing silhouettes. I can’t wait to try this out.ReplyCancel

  • Linda22nd May 2011 - 8:12 pm

    Stunning. I love that they all seem to have a slight softeness about them also.ReplyCancel

  • Melissa M.20th May 2011 - 5:11 pm

    Love this tutorial! Your silhouettes are incredible.ReplyCancel

  • hope20th May 2011 - 4:56 am

    love these captures. thx for the awesome tut!ReplyCancel

  • Anna19th May 2011 - 9:18 pm

    Beautiful Silhouettes and wonderful tutorial, TFS!!ReplyCancel

  • Jamie Rubeis19th May 2011 - 8:57 pm

    I LOVE your silhouettes! I have been eyeballing that Natural Light class at CM. I think I might have to jump on board with the next one.ReplyCancel

  • Satakieli19th May 2011 - 3:04 pm

    Great tutorial, those skies look absolutely gorgeous!ReplyCancel

  • Jenn19th May 2011 - 4:42 am

    Hi Rebecca, it was great studying Natural Light with you – your pictures are always so gorgeous! I love that you have put together a tutorial to share – I’ve linked to it for you 🙂ReplyCancel

  • heidi19th May 2011 - 2:56 am

    great tute! 🙂 I love the top hat and bunny prop! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Julie Anders18th May 2011 - 8:34 pm

    Rebecca, these are all WONDERFUL! Thanks for writing up the tutorial! I have not taken many silhouette photos. Again, beautiful work!ReplyCancel

  • Stacey H18th May 2011 - 8:14 pm

    Those last two images are AMAZING! Seriously, I love them. The colors are just gorgeous and you did a wonderful job creating the silhouette. And your subject is adorable!ReplyCancel

  • Shannon Wells18th May 2011 - 12:41 am

    The top hat silhouette is just amazing! Great job and I’m glad you loved the Natural light course… I did too!!!ReplyCancel

  • Jessica Holden17th May 2011 - 8:53 pm

    Fantastic tutorial, Rebecca, and lovely images!!ReplyCancel

  • Stacey17th May 2011 - 1:32 pm

    Thanks Rebecca, this is fantastic! Now I have to find an open field / uninterrupted background to practice!ReplyCancel

  • Holly Thompson17th May 2011 - 1:31 pm

    Rebecca, these are stunning images and such an easy tutorial! My kids are always in the tub during the golden hour but when school is out for summer, I’m going to give this a try. Your writing is so fresh and easy to read! Well done!ReplyCancel

  • karren hubrich17th May 2011 - 3:39 am

    your silouettes are nice. I LOVE the crinkled flower and the photos are just awesome!!! Great job!ReplyCancel

  • clive16th May 2011 - 11:37 am

    To an untrained eye these photographs are amazing Rebecca. Don’t know how you have the patience.ReplyCancel