How to Take Silhouettes




Introduction: How to Take Silhouettes

About: Hi I am a sculpture major at VCU Arts and I love to create functional art pieces. Whether its wood, metal, or 3d printing I love to be challenged.

Silhouettes can create such powerful images, due to the simple isolation of subject. They remove all distractions and all you see is the a perfectly sharp black outline against a beautiful background. Silhouettes have no face, brand, or logo, it simply represents what it is. By separating all of that you are left with a striking image of an ambiguous theme appealing for multiple audiences.

Alright enough with all of this metaphorical crap, in case you don't know, silhouettes are, the dark shape and outline of someone or something visible against a lighter background especially in dim light. All thats really happening is, the camera is metered to the light source, so the areas not lit, will be underexposed resulting in a silhouette. Because the sun is a really big bright light that everyone has access to, it is the most popular method of achieving a Silhouette. Even if the sun is below the horizon, or behind something it still gives off so much light that there is a pretty glow in the sky that we can use too.
Now that you know a little be about Silhouettes this tutorial is going to show you how to take some stunning silhouetted pictures.

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Step 1: What You Will Need

preferably a camera that has manual mode (M)
  • a tripod (not necessary but helpful)
  • needs to be taken when the sun is low in the sky: usually 5:30-8:00 am or 5:30- 9:00pm or depending on the time of year and place. For more exact times of a specific location see:
  • Preferably somewhere where there is an open sky, so you can put your subject up in it
  • attractive sunset with some cloud(clouds can add to the beauty when there is the light to illuminate them, but as it gets darker, so do the clouds, and they can get in the way of your subject)
  • last but but most importantly something interesting to take a picture of.

Step 2: Setting Your Camera

If you have a camera with the option of manual mode skip this paragraph if not, I will explain a quick and easy way to achieve this shot. Your camera or phone is going to fight desperately against us, and try not to expose a silhouetted image. These cameras are programmed to test the light and then use everything its got to create a perfectly exposed image with either a flash or a high iso(which we don't want for this.) So to trick the camera, point it directly at the light source, hold down the shutter release halfway like you would to focus the camera and it should take one last light reading before it exposes it. Once it has measured the light, compose your image, then press the shutter down the rest of the way. I've used this before and it works great, except the silhouette is a little out of focus because when you measure the light, you also focus it. Thats the only way I have found to work decently so far, but please experiment and let me know what you find.

Most cameras by default are set to whats called "evaluative metering" which means, the built in light meter will measure the light from the whole scene to and give you an average measure of the light so you get an average exposure (to avoid Silhouetting). This works fine in most cases but you need to point your camera up in the sky, set the exposure even, then bring it back down to your subject and take the picture.

The other alternative is something called spot metering. With spot metering, the camera will only measure a very small area of the scene in the center of the frame (only between 1-5%). this will allow you to get more specific readings of the light to better expose the silhouette.

Now center the at the brightest part of the sky and get the reading, once you've done so set up the picture how you want it to be and take it. Depending on the background and the subject, you might want use the highest aperture you can without sacrificing anything bellow 1/60 of a second if your shooting action. The high aperture will get foliage and buildings crisp, rather than have a blurry looking shadow(unless thats what you've intended).

White Balance! Auto is always an option, and will still give you good  accurate colors. Because there is no "Sunrise/Sunset" mode, we must revert to the Kelvin scale. I won't get into how it works for all light, but if your camera has the option "K" under white balance or "WB," use that. The color temperature we will be using is somewhere in between 2000 and 3000 which will really boost the color in the sunsets.

For more information see: Kelvin Scale Site

Step 3: Angles

in order to create the silhouette the subject needs to be in front of a light source so it doesn't get drowned in the ground or in front of something dark. Some angles to consider, get as low to the ground as you can to make sure your getting as much of your subject as possible. If you can, try getting below your subject to isolate them in the sky. If there is some kind of reflection on water or ground then you might be able to use that as a second light source and shoot down.

Step 4: Locations

Silhouettes can be taken almost anywhere you want, but for attractive backgrounds seek: wide open skys, some foliage for perspective, colorful sunsets, even urban landscapes.

Step 5: Subjects

For me, combining a sweet action shoot with a beautiful sunset makes a great image. I really like using skaters and BMX riders for this because if you were to take a picture of this not silhouetted, there is so much going on at once. This isn't bad but sometimes its interesting to see a contrast. As you can see in the picture bellow, it freezes this outline of skateboarder and all you see is the beauty of the trick.

Aside from that, when choosing subjects, just think of what the outline of it would look like. So something like a pig wouldn't be so good for this because it doesn't have any distinct features that would stand out in a silhouette. You can't really go wrong with using people, but try to have them doing something interesting or striking a pose.

Step 6: Conclusion

There is no real wrong way to create a silhouette, this is just the way I have been taught and do it; have fun and experiment. Below I attached some Silhouetted pictures I have taken. Thanks for reading! 

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    9 Discussions


    7 years ago on Step 2

    If you know where your subject is going to be (roughly) and you have the ability to turn off auto-focus: you can pre-focus, turn off AF, take the meter/exposure reading, then take desired photo.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I also used these settings:
    F-stop 3.5
    1/1250 sec
    ISO 100
    focal length 18mm
    with a Canon EOS 40D with a 18-55mm lens
    and they gave me this:

    _MG_5872 1366X768   wallpaper.jpg

    8 years ago on Step 6

    Great 'Ibble! I used to take silhouettes all the time while in the Navy...not much to do on Hawaii except drink, hike, surf, and take sunset pics. Using an old Canon Elan IIe, just on basic landscape setting, I was still able to get some stunning silhouettes, even without going into manual mode. Tripods, though, are definitely a must.

    Couple of thoughts, though, on composition. Love your skateboarder and bmx pics, but keep in mind whats in the background when shooting. The first two images on the last step, the background is the sky, and there's a very dark strip of cloud in the middle of the image that the BMX'er gets lost in. Not much one can do to remove the sky, of course, except try to get lower to the ground (the subject will move "higher" in the sky....which can be cool, making the subject appear to be standing on the moon or a treetop). The bird pics are excellent, but the last image of the horse, we're losing the horse's head out of the left side of the image.

    Again, excellent Instructible and some amazing images! Please take the above paragraph with a grain of salt, I'm by no means a professional, just a very interested ameture who loves the hobby and really needs to get out and exercise my itchy shutter-finger.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Nice pictures! And I really enjoyed your "metaphorical crap" description of a silhouette.