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How to Take Silhouettes in 4 Easy Steps

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Looking at photos like the one above, it’s hard not to be impressed with their beauty.

There’s just something about gorgeous backlighting behind a silhouetted shape that makes for an eye-catching photo.

Of course, there’s more to creating a silhouette than just aiming your camera at a bright light and slapping your subject in front of it.

In this post, we offer up an easy four-step process for getting killer silhouettes.

Step 1: Find Backlighting

Backlighting – light that enters the scene from behind the subject – is required for a silhouette.

The sun is an obvious choice, here, though you can also use natural light coming through a window or artificial lighting, too.

Once you’ve determined your light source, position the subject between you and the light.

That allows the light to fill the frame, casting your subject in shadow.

Step 2: Meter Off the Background

Of course, all that great backlighting won’t make a difference if you get your meter reading off your subject…

That means to get a nice silhouette, you need to be sure your subject is dark. You do that by metering off of the strong light in the background of the shot.

In most cases, this will likely require that you experiment with your camera’s metering modes.

For example, if your camera is in center-weighted average mode and your subject is in the middle of the frame, the chances are that the camera will expose for the subject and not the background.

Instead, you might use spot metering mode, select an AF point that falls on the bright background, and use that point to meter the shot.

If you aren’t familiar with camera metering modes, check the link below in the learn more section.

In addition to taking control of metering, you also need to ensure that your flash is turned off.

If not, the pop-up flash will likely fire and fill in the silhouetted subject with harsh light. Needless to say, that’s not a good look.

You can do this by shooting in Manual Mode, which gives you control over all your cameras settings. If you don’t know how to use manual mode, check the video above by Tony and Chelsea Northrup.

Step 3: Ensure the Subject is Tack-Sharp

Naturally, you want your silhouetted subject to be absolutely sharp.

The difficulty with that is that the vast majority of cameras struggle to identify dark objects. The result can be a blurry subject.

To correct this issue, you can use a small aperture, say, f/11 or f/16, to extend the depth of field to ensure the subject is sharp.

If you aren’t in a situation in which you can use a smaller aperture, you can instead switch your lens from automatic to manual focus.

Doing so allows you to rely on your eye to detect sharpness and make adjustments as needed with the lens’s focus ring.

Whichever method you choose, having your camera mounted on a tripod and using a camera remote to fire the shutter will further serve to help you get a nice, sharp image.

Step 4: It’s All About Angles and Shapes

One of the key factors that determines the success or failure of a silhouette is the angle from which you photograph the subject.

That’s because depending on your angle of view, the shape of the silhouette will change.

For example, when creating a silhouetted portrait, an upward angle of view allows you to highlight more of the subject’s body against the bright background, as you can see above.

Conversely, if you take a shooting position that’s higher relative to the subject, less of them will be visible against the bright background, and the image will have diminished impact.

What’s more, when photographing people as silhouettes, be sure it’s a profile shot, so you can see the outline of the person’s nose, lips, and chin.

Again, this makes for more interesting shapes and lines in the image that will capture the viewer’s attention.

The same goes for silhouetting objects.

Whether it’s a ramp at a skate park, a grove of trees, your dog, or something in between, look for ways to highlight angles, curves, and lines to get a more interesting silhouette.

Final Thoughts

Silhouettes are one of the most interesting and eye-catching types of photos, if you ask me.

I love the contrast of darkness and light, and the opportunity for highlighting interesting shapes and forms is pretty cool as well.

Though there are plenty of other factors involved in getting a high-quality photo, the steps I’ve outlined above will get you on the path to creating impactful silhouettes regardless of the subject.

Do a bit of experimentation with the light sources you use and the subjects you feature as well, that way you can get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Also get familiar with camera settings for exposure and metering, if you haven’t already done so.