Silhouette Photography

Recipe By John Wilberforce

Taking a good silhouette photo can be an extremely rewarding experience. In order to get that masterpiece, oftentimes the rules of traditional photography lighting must be broken. The following steps outline a recipe to get you on the road to taking successful silhouette photos. This recipe holds true for both point & shoot and DSLR cameras.

Firstly, there are a few tips that can help in taking a good silhouette photo. These tips are outlined as follows:

  1. Choose a strong subject.
  2. Light from behind.
  3. Make shapes distinct and uncluttered.
  4. Expose for the brighter part of the image (but not the brightest).
  5. Ideally shoot at dusk or dawn . The "Golden hours" provide for good backlighting.
  6. Turn off flash.
  7. Use a silhouette to frame your subject.
  8. Keep multiple subjects separated in order to show form.
  9. Use a tripod and a smaller aperture to ensure sharpness.


Steps to taking a silhouette photo

  1. Choose your subject and ensure that your point of view makes for the best possible composition. Pay attention to detail so that the image is as uncluttered as possible, while still conveying what you were trying to photograph in the first place.
  2. Make sure that the main lighting source is coming from behind the subject and that there is very little front lighting.
  3. Place your camera on a tripod to ensure the sharpest image possible. A tripod often gets overlooked by photographers, but it is a very important tool to keep your camera steady and give you the best possible results.
  4. When you are ready to take your exposure reading, there are a few ways to do this. If you have a camera that is capable of spot metering, this is the easiest way to work. You simply spot meter on a part of the sky that is bright (but not too bright) and make note of the shutter speed and aperture readings that the camera gives you. Switch the camera into manual mode and dial in the settings that you just noted. Re-compose your shot and focus on the subject.
  5. If your camera is a fairly basic point and shoot type, simply point it at the backlight source to get your exposure reading, press the shutter half-way down, re-compose and take the shot. There may be focus issues doing it this way and the best solution is to use a P&S camera that has manual controls.
  6. Take the shot, ensuring that the camera stays as steady as possible.
  7. Check the results on the LCD panel (in the case of digital) and adjust your camera settings until the desired exposure is achieved.

The guidelines noted above should get you pretty close to getting a good exposure for a silhouette. The beauty of shooting digital is that we can always check our results right after the image is taken and adjust our settings accordingly.

The bottom line is that the best way to learn photography is to get out and shoot as much as possible - taking note of your exposures in various lighting conditions - and really paying attention to all of the elements that brought a particular image together.

Hope this recipe helps and happy shooting!!



These photos by Betty Cooper include traditional silhouettes and some with more interesting colours than just black.





This photo is by Sallee Photography.


Here's a sample from John Wilberforce (author of the recipe):


This example is courtesy of Peter Green.