How to create a quick silhouette

 In Photography

I love creating silhouettes. It’s a quick, easy way to add drama to a scene that might otherwise be bland, and focus our attention on shape, colour and light.

How to photograph a silhouette

Step 1:  Find the right shoot position

For maximum impact, position yourself so that the brightest part of the sky is behind the subject that you want to silhoutte.  This will create the most contrast and allow your silhouette to stand out more.

We will only see the outline of your subject so choose an angle that shows the most interesting silhouette.  Usually a lower angle helps so that you can frame more of the subject against the brightness of the sky.

Step 2:   Create a starburst with the sun

If you’re including the sun in your photo, try to position the sun behind an interesting element in the scene that you want to bring attention to. 

To capture a starburst effect, shoot in Aperture Priority mode at f16.

Step 3:  Get the sharpness right

If you’ve already set the aperture at f16, great.  Your silhouettes should be sharp, it would be a bit distracting if the outlines of your shapes were soft and blurry. 

If there is depth to the silhouettes, focus on a closer element so that the depth will extend into the scene and outlines that are further away will also be sharp.

Photographer at Angkor Wat Silhouette

Step 4:  Get the exposure right

When you shoot towards light, your photo will already be a bit under-exposed, but it might not be as dark as you want it to be.

Use Exposure Compensation (+-) to make the photo as dark as you want it (shift it to the minus side).  I usually underexpose by about -2 to make my silhouettes black and pull back all the colour and texture in the sky.

Starburst behind street lamp silhouette

Step 5:  Avoid camera-shake and movement blur

At f16 you will get slower shutter speeds so make sure your speed is fast enough to avoid camera shake blur (at least 1/60s) and movement blur (at least 1/500s). 

Increase ISO in Aperture Priority mode to increase Shutter Speed.

Step 6:  Add a pop of colour or create high contrast Black & White

Try using a Tungsten/Incadescent (Blue) or Flourescent (Violet) White Balance to add a pop of colour to the scene.   My favourite is the Tungsten/Incandescent setting.

Split-toning is a great technique that you can apply in post-production.  Add one colour to the highlights and another colour to the shadows.

And, of course, silhouettes can look amazing in Black & White, so add a bit of contrast and eliminate all colour in post-production and you’re bound to end up with a Wow! photo.

So, the next time you’re out and about on a bright day, see if there are some interesting shapes that you could silhouette.  Get low, underexpose and shoot.  Have fun!

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