Silhouette portrait photography guide

by David Em
Last updated:

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Silhouette portraits are a great way to make a portrait more dramatic and interesting. Learn the secrets to capturing silhouettes.

Silhouette of a person sitting down at sunset.

Tips for photographing silhouettes

Silhouette photos are created when the background is brighter than the foreground. It occurs when the light source is behind the subject.

RelatedWhat’s secondary sunset?

One thing to be careful with is exposure. When the background is brighter than the foreground, it’s easy to overexpose the image.

When you aim to perfectly expose the subject, the background becomes blown out.

It’ll become bright and white to the point where there’s no detail in the background.

The goal is to perfectly expose the background, which will result in an underexposed foreground.

The subject will be underexposed, which means the viewer won’t be able to see them in detail. Only the subject’s outline will be visible.

Silhouettes are a great way to convey emotions, drama and create interesting images.

1. Pick an eye-catching background

Silhouette of a person walking.
Clouds add drama to a silhouette.

The background is going to be the main point of interest. It’s also the only thing that’ll be bright enough to see details, so be sure you pick something interesting.

Typically, the best silhouette portraits are shot during sunrise or sunset.

These times of the day create a lot of color in the sky and makes it visually pleasing to look at.

You can have more than the sky in the background. Many things can make a silhouette portrait look amazing. The following are other background ideas:

  • Mountains
  • Trees
  • Grass
  • Birds
  • Buildings

These are all great ways to create interest in the background.

2. Capture shapes

Silhouette of a person jumping.
Movement and shapes add interest to the photo.

Shapes are important with silhouette photos because you can’t see any other detail of your subject. You want your subject to stand out.

When you’re shooting silhouettes, avoid having your subject stand perfectly upright because it’ll look boring and creepy.

Try to capture your subject in action or posing with negative space. Negative space will create shapes and outline the subject look more interesting.

Silhouette action shots are the best ways to enhance the shot.

3. Perfectly expose the sky

Silhouette of a person walking on the beach.

When you point the camera at your subject as the focal point, the metering will tell you to perfectly expose the subject.

However, the goal is to create a silhouette. If you perfectly expose the subject, the background will be overexposed.

The key to creating a silhouette portrait is to perfectly expose the sky.

Point the camera at the sky, which is the brightest part of the frame, and expose for the sky.

When you perfectly expose the sky, your subject will naturally be underexposed and it will result in a beautiful silhouette portrait.

Also, make sure you keep your subject’s head above or below the horizon.

4. Nail your focus

Person taking a picture.

Focus is so important when it comes to a silhouette portrait. Make sure that you are nailing your focus each time.

The edges of your subject must be in sharp focus because if it’s slightly blurry, the image will look soft and blurry.

Even though we focus on perfectly exposing the sky, your focus must be on the subject.

The goal with a silhouette portrait is to have sharp and defined edges. By doing so, you’ll have beautiful photos that are interesting to look at.

5. Shoot in manual mode

Black camera.

Manual mode is a great way to create a solid silhouette portrait. It’ll help you create the best image because you can control the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

When shooting in manual mode, it’s important to use a large aperture. f/5.6 and higher should be sufficient.

A deep depth of field is important because it will ensure that a large distance within the image is in sharp focus.

Another tip is to keep the ISO as low as possible. With silhouette portraits, you can generally use the base ISO. Many times the base ISO is 100.

Using the base ISO will allow you to capture a high-quality image with the least amount of grain.

Lastly, you’ll want to use fast shutter speeds for the following two reasons:

  1. Fast shutter speeds will allow less light into the camera which also means it will most likely be underexposed.
  2. Fast shutter speeds will also help you capture motion. This is important because the action is important for this style of photography because the action is where the interest is found.

Best settings to use

The settings you use will depend on the light and environment you’re in. A great place to start is at your base ISO. In most cases, ISO 100 is the base ISO.

After setting your ISO to the base ISO, increase your shutter speed so that you capture the photo without any blur caused by movement.

Lastly, you can use a smaller aperture. When you use a smaller aperture, you’re also increasing the depth of field which means more of the image will be in focus.

All three of these changes in your settings will also decrease the exposure, which will make the image darker.

The following are the settings for silhouette portraits:

  1. Use the lowest ISO possible
  2. Increase the shutter speed to freeze movement
  3. Use a smaller aperture to increase the depth of field


Now that you know the essential knowledge with silhouette portraits, grab your camera and go shoot! Applying what you learn is one of the most beneficial ways to learn and grow.

More resources:

Featured photo by David Em/Portraits Refined.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

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About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.