Tips For Shooting Dramatic Silhouettes

silhouette example
Exposing for the daylight beyond the door got the look I wanted in this photo

A silhouette can add dramatic flair to an otherwise average shot by providing a bold subject and sharp contrast. A silhouette turns a solid thing with depth into a flat, two-dimensional cut out that brings back memories of shadow puppets.

Modern digital cameras make shooting silhouettes a lot easier and what the camera can’t do for you, you can always touch up in post processing.

Find The Scene

A silhouette is basically an underexposed subject framed by a brightly lit background. Look for situations where you’re shooting from the shadows toward the light, like the photo of the man and his son sweeping out the garage.

photo by Kol Tregaskes from flickr

Another trick with silhouettes is to get low and in close to the subject and shoot at a slight upward angle. Shooting slightly upward lengthens the lines and makes the contrast bolder.

Any bright background will do. Daylight, stained glass windows, bright lights, or a sunset sky are all great backdrops for a silhouette.

Turn Off The Flash

Munich in Silhouette by Werner Kunz from flickr

This is one time you want to be in a shooting mode that gives you at least some manual control and in auto mode your camera is going to try and fire that fill flash. I’d shoot the scene both ways: One as a silhouette, the other with the fill flash, and see which one you like better.

Expose For The Background

There are a number of ways to do this. Many cameras will let you point the camera at the brighter part of the picture, then press the shutter release button half-way down to lock the exposure and reframe the picture before pushing the button all the way down. Other cameras, like the Nikon D5100, have a special exposure lock button.

There’s also the old fashioned way of using your camera to meter the brighter part of the photo, then dial the exposure in manually.

bird silhouette
A fairly average looking shot is improved greatly by taking the detail out of the foreground subject
Focus For The Subject

The only problem for some cameras when it comes to using the half-way press on the shutter button is that it also freezes the auto-focus. Not so much with modern cameras, like my Canon 7D, which will adjust the focus even if the exposure is locked. Just be aware you may have to tweak the focus manually on some older cameras.

Clean It Up In Post

photo by Brenden Sherratt, used with permission

If the exposure isn’t perfect in the camera don’t sweat it, a silhouette is fairly easy to clean up in post. Since you’re not trying to preserve any detail in the subject, you can usually make the adjustments with just the brightness/contrast tools, which almost every image program on the planet offers.

Worst case you have to use the selection tools to outline the silhouette and selectively drop the brightness.

Silhouettes are a good exercise to get familiar with your camera’s exposure compensation features and you’ll end up with some great shots as well. Happy shooting.