How to Create the Perfect Silhouette :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Create the Perfect Silhouette

by David Peterson 1 comment

Have you ever seen a silhouette of two people embracing each other on the beach and wondered how to translate it into a beautiful image? The romance of a silhouette is rarely matched. They are timeless and mysterious. These iconic images use the shape of a person, item or structure, devoid of details to create a simple but emotional photograph. Despite their simple structure, there are some technical and artistic techniques you can use to make the process easier and the end result better.

Find shapes and distinct outlines:

Human silhouettes are by nature lacking the details e.g. facial expressions and body language we as people use to infer meaning. Those same indicators are what give our photographs meaning. When photographing silhouettes of people, it is important to use posing that connects them and differentiates them from each other. For example, if you are photographing a ladies maternity photo, have her turn to the side it’ll become obvious she’s proudly with child and not just a little thick in the middle. If you are photographing a family have them hold hands or face each other.

Details on buildings and naturally occurring elements such as tree and mountains do the same thing. Because of the lack of details, we must seek out recognizable shapes. A lighthouse looks like a lighthouse without the color or the windows because of its distinct outline, thus making it a good subject for a silhouette photograph. Find pieces of a structure or scene that separates it from similar ones.

Equip yourself:

You will need a camera that allows you to manually change the settings. At the very least, you will want a camera that allows you to change the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. I’ll explain how and why in depth in just a bit. It would also be beneficial if your camera supports different metering modes. It’ll cut some of the guess work out of the equation when making setting decisions.

I’d also recommend getting a tripod. There will be situations where you need to drop the shutter speed low enough to cause issues with blur. The longer a shutter is open, the more time the camera has to detect the movement caused by tiny hand vibrations. A tripod will reduce if not eliminate the motion and resulting distortion.

Use spot metering:

If your camera has the options to select your metering modes, select the spot metering option. Typically, the camera is automatically set to evaluative metering. In that mode, the camera takes all available light and estimates an average, which it uses to meter the appropriate settings. Spot-metering allows you to select a small portion of your frame upon which to meter. Meter for the light behind your subjects, usually the sky, and use that for a jumping off place for your settings.

Forget what you know about light:

From the very beginning we are taught about lighting our subjects. Speedlights and fill flash and reflectors. Forget it. Leave those at home. Silhouettes turn all that knowledge on its head. Instead of lighting the subject, you light the background and eliminate fore-light to leave your subject in the dark, creating that coveted outline. If your camera has an on-camera flash make sure it’s turned off. The light found during the sunrise and sunset will be the most cooperative but silhouettes are possible in nearly any situation where a subject is strongly backlit.

Embrace manual mode and know where to start with the settings:

Shoot in manual mode instead of automatic mode. Automatic mode is going to seek equilibrium meaning it is going to attempt to make sure everything, including your subject, is properly exposed. It will achieve this by allowing more light through your lens and making the internal sensor more sensitive to light. The camera will regulate the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to seek balance but that’s not what we want. We want a technically underexposed photo. Shooting in manual mode allows you to control all of those aspects so you can actually mold your final product.

First, I start with a small aperture (denoted by a high number), at least f/8. The small aperture allows you to keep the majority of your photo in focus.

Next, I set my ISO somewhere between 100 to 400 depending on the intensity of the available light. There is a good possibility you will have to up this number but I always use this range as the starting point. A low ISO decreases the sensitivity of the sensor and in turn lessens the chance of noise or grain in the photo.

Finally, I set my shutter speed to give the exposure I’m aiming for. If your shutter speed is slower than the length of your lens (or you have super shaky hands), you will need to use your tripod. For example, if you are shooting with 135mm lens and your shutter speed is 1/120th of a second, you would want to use your tripod. The exception to this rule is if you are shooting with a shorter lens with a focal length less than 70mm. In that case, you would want to use a shutter speed of at least 1/100th of a second if you don’t want to use a tripod.

Trial and error:

Silhouettes require you to make educated guesses based on your knowledge and the information your camera gives you. Then, you tweak and turn your ISO and shutter speed until you achieve the photo you want to create. It’s not uncommon to take a number of photos before you get the one you really love. If you pay attention to your revisions, you can learn from them and streamline your process in the future.

Fix it with post processing:

Sometimes a photo that misses the mark or even a nearly perfect photo can be made better by some simple post-processing. Often I darken the shadows. Doing so enhances the blacks, strengthens outlines, and erases the unwanted details. The process also creates a greater separation between the background and the subject.

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  1. rich says:

    I am just beginning the on the path to B&W photography. This has helped me to understand why settings are important.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.