As soon as a photographer gets their hands on a camera, one of the first types of shots they want to create is the silhouette. In addition to only looking awesome, silhouettes can be incredibly dynamic in how they convey drama, mystery, emotion, and mood. They stand out because of simplicity but also the story they tell.
In a nutshell, here’s how it’s done: Silhouettes occur when your background is brighter than your subject. The best way to achieve this is to use a light source as the background and place your subject between it and the camera.
There are three keys to great silhouette photography: angle, separation, and exposure. By learning to master and control these elements, you’ll be able to create magical silhouette images.
Angle is where you are (or, more importantly, your camera is) in relation to your subject and your light source. Place the light behind the subject and get your camera low to increase the background coverage of lighting. Try it out now:
Bring your camera down low…
You should really be ready to get down on your stomach and shoot up.
If you can’t get low enough, your other option is to place your subjects on something that boosts them up like a wall or a picnic table. Remember that you create a silhouette by placing your subject in front of your light source. The more in frame that source is, the better.
Separation allows you to see what’s going in in the image. It’s what tells your story and sets your beautiful silhouette of a bride and groom apart from a profile of an indiscernible blob. Anyone looking at your photos must be able to clearly identify the subject simply by the outline alone.
Keep as many elements of your subjects separate from each other as possible to highlight the details. Limbs, fingers, people, dogs, etc., the more light you see between your subjects, the more detail in the final image.
If you’re silhouetting a two individuals, don’t have them stand in front of each other – the only thing you’ll be able to see is the outline of whoever is bigger (and who wants to start that argument, am I right?!).
Instead, set up your subjects as profiles instead of facing the camera straight on. Profiles allow you to capture the outlines of the subject’s features and are much easier to recognize. Remember that you will only be able to discern the combined outline.
Setting the right exposure levels can be a tricky one during these shoots. Your goal is to get the light source exposed correctly so that your subject is extremely dark. Essentially, you’re trying to trick your camera into only exposing the background correctly.
Here are a few tips we’ve collected to help you get the most out of your silhouette shoots:
- Always shoot in Manual mode. When using automatic settings, your camera attempts to strike a medium between all elements in the frame. Your images will come out flat and washed out. Manual mode allows you to control all aspects of your exposure.
- Start with a wider aperture setting (8.0 or greater). A larger aperture gives you greater depth of field and means that more of your details are in focus.
- Use a fast shutter speed. By underexposing your subject, you create a silhouette effect against a properly exposed background.
- Select a low ISO setting. Lowering your ISO not only makes it easier to achieve an underexposed subject, but it also lowers any ISO noise.
- Manually control your metering mode. The best meter modes for creating the right exposure for silhouettes are “spot” or “centered” modes. Just place your meter point over the light source (since you are metering it for it and not your subject) and select that as your exposure source. Your camera will now ignore all other exposures.
- Use exposure compensation. Sometimes, adjusting aperture, metering, shutter speed, and ISO isn’t enough to get your silhouette dark enough. If that’s the case, use your camera’s exposure compensation to underexpose the entire image. Bump the exposure down a stop at a time until you get the sky and subject where you want.
Finish the image in post.
Typically, your image will need some love straight out of the camera. Good news is, it’s easy to take an image that’s not quite there, import it into your favorite post-processing software, make a few tweaks and make it pop.
Remember, always shoot in RAW if you can. RAW formats will provide the most flexibility and give you the ability to “push and pull” your color elements.
Need a few tips for getting started in post? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
- Darken your blacks to make the shift between subject and background more dramatic.
- Increase the contrast to harden the outlines and bring out the subject.
- Increase the saturation and lights of the image to create the contrast between the background and the subject.
- Play with the temperature.
The awesome thing about shooting silhouettes is the endless possibilities and perspectives that await you. Always experiment with angles, settings, exposures, backgrounds, and subjects until you find your style.
So get out there, chase the light, capture it, then make it look amazing!
Written by Melanie Hyde: 10 years B2C and B2B marketing experience across a range of industries, and current Product Marketing Manager of Corel’s photo products. Corel’s photo software line-up includes Corel PaintShop Pro, for professional photo editing and graphic design, and Corel AfterShot Pro for RAW conversion, non-destructive photo editing and complete photo management.