Have you always looked at silhouettes and wondered how to shoot them yourself?
And the secret to getting a crisp, beautiful silhouette involves a lot more than simply exposing for your sky. How and where you choose to place your subjects will go a long way in helping you take a shot that stands out and looks fantastic!
Check out these tips for shooting silhouette photography.
1. Your Gear
You can shoot a silhouette with any camera or lens, as long as you can switch into manual mode.
When shooting a silhouette, you will focus on the subject, but you’ll expose for the backlight. In auto, your camera will try to expose for the overall ambient light and you’ll probably end up with a lighter image than you wanted.
So this is an instance where YOU need to be the boss!
2. What to Shoot
I think this is the most important aspect of silhouette photos.
When we put a subject in shadow, we capture only shape, and very little (if any) detail. So it works best if our subject has interesting and well defined shape and lines.
Bare trees, suburban rooftops, the city skyline, a wheat field at sunset, a cat perched on a fence, bird on a wire, and of course, people… these are all examples of subjects with sharply defined form.
3. Posing & Shape
When we photograph people in silhouette, if there is no separation between their limbs and their body, our photos will end up looking more like, well, shadowy blobs! People need to pose in a way that ensures there is separation between their limbs and their body, so that we can see the lines of their body.
Even better, capture them in action… two people swinging a child between them, children jumping with arms and legs outstretched, cartwheeling, dancing, kissing, an adult holding a child in outstretched arms over their head, composed so that we can see the child’s happy profile.
With that in mind, when shooting any close up silhouette portrait, it makes sense to capture them in profile so that we can see an outline of their features.
Remember, avoid the blob!
4. Positioning Your Light
Bottom line, your subject needs to be backlit.
This can be through natural light (the sun or the moon!), street lights, car lights, firelight, candle light, and so on. If using natural light, the best time to do this is at sunrise or sunset, when the sky is awash with stunning colour.
Or you could shoot indoors, with your subject backlit by natural window or door light, or through the use of lamps or other lights.
As long as your background is lighter than your subject, you can create a silhouette shot.
Also, a silhouette doesn’t have to mean the subject is entirely black. A little detail is ok, and sometimes a well placed sliver of light can create a very artful shot. But you want your subject to be at least under exposed enough so that most detail is in quite a bit of shadow, if not completely.
5. Simplicity Always Wins
Simplicity is key.
Too many elements and it just becomes chaotic and our sharply defined subjects will need to compete for our attention.
With that in mind, negative space works beautifully.
Also consider your perspective. If you’re shooting a sunset or sunrise silhouette, make the most of that incredible colour, and let the sky take up at least 2/3rds of the frame.
6. What Settings to Use?
As we mentioned above, you need to be in manual for this shot.
Set your aperture to f/2.8, or the widest aperture your lens will allow.
Then choose a shutter speed and ISO balance that along with your chosen aperture, will expose for the background.
If you’re shooting handheld, you’ll need a shutter speed at least fast enough to freeze the motion of camera shake. Likewise if your subject is moving (eg. a child doing a cartwheel), you need an even faster shutter speed to freeze that motion.
If your camera has inbuilt flash, make sure it’s turned off!
You’re in manual mode for a reason… to expose for the background, so you don’t need your camera’s flash sticking its busy body head up and taking over!
7. Where to Focus?
Focus on the subject, not the scene behind. Bear in mind your auto focus may struggle due to the low light, so if you find it hunting and not settling anywhere (or where you want it to!) Just switch to manual focus!
You may need a tripod if your settings dictate you need a shutter speed that is too slow for handheld, or for the motion of your subject. But speaking of focus, that’s another reason to use a tripod.
If you do need to switch to manual focus, and like me your eye struggles to recognise tack sharp from barely acceptably sharp (!!) when looking through the lens, try this…
Pop your camera on your tripod, and compose the shot through the viewfinder. Once you’re happy, switch to live view mode, zoom in to where you want to focus, and then use the manual focus ring to determine when you’ve achieved a sharp result on your subject.
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