Silhouette portraits are a great way to make a portrait more dramatic and interesting. Here are 5 tips to help you shoot better silhouette portraits.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July 2019. It’s been freshened up with new pictures and commentary on November 26, 2019.
- What is a silhouette?
- Why should I photograph silhouettes?
- 5 tips for better silhouette photos
- Best settings to use
What is a silhouette?
Silhouette photos are created when the background is brighter than the foreground. It occurs when the light source is behind the subject.
One thing to be careful with is exposure. When the background is brighter than the foreground, it’s very easy to overexpose the image. This happens when you try to perfectly expose your subject.
When you try to perfectly expose the subject, the background becomes blown out. This means it becomes bright and white to the point where there is no detail in the background.
The goal is to perfectly expose the background, which will result in an underexposed foreground. This means the subject will be underexposed and the viewer will not be able to see them in detail – only their outline will be visible.
Why should I photograph silhouettes?
Silhouettes are a great way to convey emotions, drama, and create interesting images.
Another reason to shoot silhouette portraits is the story. Since all a viewer can see is the outline of your subject, storytelling is an important factor of silhouette photography.
By creating an interesting scene with the background and capturing your subject’s movements, you’ll leave the rest of the story up to the viewer.
5 tips for better silhouette photos
Use these 5 tips to take better silhouette photos that capture a viewer’s attention and is filled with drama and mood.
1. Pick an eye-catching background
The background is going to be the main point of interest. It’s also the only thing that will 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. There are many things that can make a silhouette portrait look amazing. A few more background ideas are:
These are all great ways to create interest in the background. Next, we’ll talk about creating shapes with your subject.
2. Capture shapes
Shapes are VERY 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 these, avoid having your subject stand perfectly upright. This will make it look boring and it can be creepy.
Try to capture your subject in action or posing with negative space. Negative space will create shapes and make the outline of the subject look more interesting.
Silhouette action shots are the best ways to enhance the shot!
3. Perfectly expose the sky
When you point the camera with your subject as the focus, the metering will tell you to perfectly expose the subject. In most cases, this is a good thing.
However, the goal is to create a silhouette and if we perfectly expose the subject, the background will be overexposed.
The key to creating a silhouette portrait is to perfectly expose the sky.
To do this, point the camera at the sky, which is the brightest part of the frame (except the sun) 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.
Pro Tip: Keep your subject’s head above or below the horizon.
4. Nail your focus
Focus is so important when it comes to a silhouette portrait! Make sure that you are nailing your focus each time.
This type of portrait requires the edges of your subject to be in sharp focus because if it’s even 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. Doing so, you’ll have beautiful photos that are interesting to look at!
5. Shoot in manual mode
Manual mode is a great way to create a solid silhouette portrait. This setting will help you create the absolute best image because you can control the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Although it’s not a bad thing to shoot in automatic or semi-automatic modes, shooting in manual mode will produce the best image.
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 two reasons:
- Fast shutter speeds will allow less light into the camera which also means it will most likely be underexposed.
- 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.
Settings for a Silhouette:
- Use the lowest ISO possible
- Increase the shutter speed to freeze movement
- 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.
The How to Shoot series
Check out the other articles in the 5-part How to Shoot series:
- How to Shoot Urban Portraits
- How to Shoot Portraits at Night
- How to Shoot Black and White Portraits
- How to Shoot Senior Photos
Featured photo by David Em/Portraits Refined.