When we start taking images as a beginner photographer, our aim is to learn which settings to use for a certain shot. The secret of taking sharp images is pretty simple: shoot a lot and practice, practice, practice. The more we experiment, the more exciting photography becomes. However, practicing the same thing over and over again can be boring after a while. If we feel stuck in routine, then it’s time to push ourselves out of the comfort zone. We shouldn’t be afraid to try something new, like shooting the same scene in an interesting, creative way.

The difference between traditional and creative photography, that the second one adds something unique to the image. It can be a feeling, emotion, unusual angle, etc. To being able to take creative shots, we need to know how to use light in photography, because that’s what makes our images so special. There are several types of light exists, and we can divide them into 3 different groups, such as natural, artificial or mixed lighting. In this article, I would like to talk about silhouettes using natural light.

Silhouette photography

Silhouette photography captures subjects against a much lighter background, which makes them too dark to recognize. Only the shape is visible, the subject itself is black without details. Silhouette images grab the viewer’s attention and convey emotions, mood, drama and story as well.

It may seem difficult how to take silhouette shots, but to be honest, it’s easier than we might think. Still wondering how to sharpen photography skills and add outstanding images to our portfolio? To help us get started on this path, I have listed the most important things for capturing stunning silhouettes. Let’s get started!

1. Equipment

The best gear for silhouette images is definitely the DSLR or mirrorless camera with any lens. The main aspect is to be able to switch the camera in manual mode to control ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

2. What to shoot

The key point of silhouette shots is a good choice of subject with a strong, recognizable and characteristic shape. Unfortunately, the colour and details of the subject stays invisible, that’s why silhouettes pay particular attention to curves and angles.

3. Composition

Simple compositions work best with silhouette images. Locations with minimal or no clutter helps to keep our object in focus and make it as sharp as possible. If we can find more than one shape in the image, then it’s best to isolate them. Otherwise, the shape of our main object won’t be recognizable.

When shooting close-up silhouettes try to shoot from the side, and in this way, we can see more details which helps us to recognize our object. Let our imagination fly and try different ways to capture our subject.

4. Play with background light

The most popular light source for silhouette photography is undoubtedly the sun. To find the right light for this kind of images can be tough, but it isn’t impossible! The secret is pretty simple, we need to look for the balance of light.

What we know so far, that the background has to be much lighter than our object to take a clear silhouette. The best time to capture a silhouette is at the beginning or the end of the day when the sun is right above the horizon. (sunrise, sunset) At this time the light is just perfect and the colour temperature is warm, which gives a nice contrast to our images. Make sure that the subject is completely backlit, to create an attractive, pin-sharp silhouette.

Be careful to not turn our lens right at the sun, as the reflected light can destroy the image.

5. Turn flash off!

If we leave our gear in automatic mode, probably the camera wants to focus on the subject, then make it brighter, so that’s why uses its flash. Accordingly make sure that flash is switched off, as we don’t want our subject to be illuminated. The best solution to get rid of the flash is shoot in manual!

6. Metering

When setting up our gear and it comes to metering modes, sometimes we are in doubt which one to use. Understandably cameras don’t know that our aim is to underexpose the subject and correctly expose the rest of the image. That’s why we shouldn’t trust in automatic exposure settings. The solution is take over control!

The evaluative/matrix metering is the common metering mode for most cameras, which calculates the exposure based on the average value for the whole scene. This mode works well if the sky fills most of the background. In other way, the result will be an overexposed silhouette.

At centre-weighted metering mode, the camera checks the light of the whole scene and averages it, but gives preference to the tones in the central area. It works well if our subject is off centred, and the sky takes up most of the image. In every other case, this mode is not the best choice.

Spot metering is one of the best option of all for silhouettes, as it only evaluates the light around the selected focus point and ignores the rest of the image. The outcome is a quicker shutter speed which is appropriate for our sky, while the rest of the scene remains underexposed.

However, we can use evaluative mode and apply a negative exposure compensation until we reach the point as it looks the way we want it.

Alternatively, we can use the auto exposure lock button by pointing on the sky, then pressing the AE lock button only once, before reframing the scene.

7. Manual mode

For best results ideally, we want to shoot in manual, to be able to control our settings.

ISO value should be as low as possible for the best quality. (I would say under ISO 400, but it depends on the camera.) Only rise if necessary to keep the image clear of grain and noise.

Select the aperture to f/8 or even higher for a larger depth of field, to keep the entire image sharp. The other advantage of the large f-number is, that it reduces the chromatic aberration in the image.

The secret of the nice silhouette picture is the correct shutter speed. Keep in mind even though we want to underexpose our subject, the edges have to be sharp, that we should be able to recognize our subject. If it looks too bright, try to stop down the shutter speed.

When shooting silhouettes in auto mode, it can be difficult, as the camera wants to meter the whole scene, and light up the subject if it looks too dark. The solution is, point the camera at the brightest part of the scene, and press the shutter halfway down, so it can meter for the sky. Then move the camera back where it was to frame the subject and press the shutter all way down.

8. Focus

Even though we are exposing for the background, we want our subject in focus. Without sharp edges, the silhouette will lose its magical impact.

9. Post-processing

To enhance our silhouette shots that captured, we shouldn’t skip the editing procedure. The most important steps are adding some contrast and saturation to the image. Adjusting highlights and shadows can give some dramatic effect to the picture, and if needed we can play with the blacks slider too.

Conclusion

The time has come to forget everything we’ve learnt so far about the basics of proper exposure. In view of the fact, that for a decent silhouette image we need to underexpose our subject to see the details in shadow. I hope that with these tips we are ready to start taking stunning silhouette shots!