How to Shoot Silhouette Photography

Silhouettes lack detail, but, when composed skillfully, they impart a powerful sense of drama. See more camera stuff pictures.
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You don't have to be an Alfred Hitchcock aficionado to appreciate the appeal of silhouettes. In photography, skillfully composed silhouettes convey a powerful, dramatic visual message. Your primary subject is shrouded in darkness with little or no detail visible, but a shadowy outline tells a dramatic story.

If capturing a subject with little detail sounds like it's at odds with everything you've learned about taking pictures, you're right. Silhouettes are a result of striking contrast in a picture, but creating these kinds of images means breaking the rules of proper exposure. In other words, silhouettes are a way to blast apart normal picture-taking protocol with your rebellious creative spirit.

You can manipulate many scenes to create a silhouette. You'll just need to maneuver yourself so that a bright light source, such as a sunset, stadium lights or another form of illumination, is behind your subject.

Because silhouettes inherently lack almost all of the color and detail of non-silhouetted pictures, these kinds of images rely heavily on strong, clever composition. Sharp focus is important: A crisp, recognizable shadow makes the picture easier to process visually.

Your camera's automatic modes will likely produce mixed results when you're trying to capture silhouettes. Auto modes are calibrated to take pictures with even, consistent exposures. Silhouettes, on the other hand, require very strong contrast and exposures that your automatic camera's brain would consider incorrect.

However, many point-and-shoot digital cameras are equipped with a sunset mode that's designed to let you take pictures of the bright, colorful skies that often accompany sunrise and sunset. Sunset mode often works quite well for capturing silhouettes, maintaining an accurate exposure of the sky while darkening objects in the foreground.

If your camera has sunset mode, be sure to check out your manual for more details on this feature. In some cameras, the sunset mode boosts color levels [source: Macworld] to make the sky more dramatic, which may or may not be helpful depending on the picture you want.

Not sure how to capture silhouettes using your camera? Keep reading to learn some helpful techniques. We'll help you craft dreamlike, powerful silhouettes -- and creepy shadows that would make even Hitchcock proud.


Silhouette Photography Tips

Simple composition and identifiable outlines help maximize the effect of silhouettes.
Simple composition and identifiable outlines help maximize the effect of silhouettes.

There are many ways to create silhouettes, but one thing is for sure -- you have to turn off the flash first. If your flash pops, your subject won't be a dark shadow. After you disable the flash and before you start tinkering with your camera's manual settings, try using your auto mode.

Almost every digital camera lets you lock the exposure and focus by depressing the shutter button halfway. This is a very useful attribute for silhouettes. For example, if you point your camera at a person standing in front of a sunset, you can tilt the camera toward the top of your subject's head, lock the focus and exposure, and then recompose the picture. In doing so, you're exposing the picture more for the bright sky than the much darker subject, ensuring a nicely saturated sunset with a dark subject that's sharply focused. If you have a hard time getting the autofocus to lock onto your subject in the harsh light, switch to your camera's manual focus setting before you lock the exposure.

If the auto mode doesn't work well for your purposes, check to see if your camera has an exposure bracketing feature. Exposure bracketing tells your camera to take three pictures in quick succession at three different exposure levels. One is the camera's best guess as to an accurate exposure for every part of the composition, one is underexposed and the other is overexposed [Canon USA].

Exposure bracketing is designed to help you snag at least one usable image in a scene with very bright and dark areas. You simply shoot with this mode and then pick the exposure you think is best after you're done. Bracketing also makes it easy to capture partial silhouettes, in which you reveal a little detail in your blackened subject by choosing a brighter exposure.

Your camera's manual or shutter priority modes may also come in very handy. These modes let you control shutter speed with ease. A faster shutter speed means a shorter, darker exposure, while a longer shutter speed makes a brighter picture. So, if your subject is too dark or too light, just change the shutter speed with a quick twirl of your finger.

Now that we've tackled some of the technical aspects, head to the next page to read about general advice to keep in mind when composing silhouette photographs.

General Advice for Shooting Silhouettes

A carefully composed silhouette might combine brilliant color and elegant shadows into a single, powerful picture.
A carefully composed silhouette might combine brilliant color and elegant shadows into a single, powerful picture.
Jupiterimages/© Getty Images/Thinkstock

When shooting silhouettes, remember that recognizable subjects are vital to your compositions. If the shape of your subject is too abstract, the image may not be as engaging (or recognizable) to your audience. For example, if you want to create silhouettes of people, encourage your subjects to wear dark, form-fitting clothes. Light-colored clothes make it harder for you to capture very dark shadows, and loose clothes are a distraction because they make it more difficult for viewers to recognize human forms in your composition.

Be creative with your pictures. You don't always have to center the silhouette; you can use dark, shadowy edges to frame your primary subject. Or you can incorporate a silhouette on just one edge of your picture -- doing so will shift the weight and balance of your compositions, giving each picture a very different visual aesthetic. Don't worry about rules; just keep trying new angles and perspectives.

The further you push your experiences, skills and imagination with regard to silhouette images, the more fun you'll have. So, no matter which subjects you decide to use for your silhouettes, experiment and don't be afraid to try wild ideas (even if they might not result in usable photos). The more you pit your picture-taking knowledge against tricky lighting situations, the more competent you'll feel with your camera and photography in general.

Related Articles


  • "30 Examples and How to Photograph Silhouettes." Aug. 16, 2009. (Jan. 19, 2011)
  • "Camera Metering & Exposure." (Jan. 19, 2011)
  • "Silhouette Photography." (Jan. 19, 2011)
  • Johnson, Dave. "Photograph a Silhouette." PC World. May 11, 2009. (Jan. 19, 2011)
  • Johnson, Dave. "Learn Exposure Basics with Your Camera's LCD." PC World. Jan. 11, 2010. (Jan. 19, 2011)
  • Moynihan, Tim. "Camera Basics: Sunset Mode." Macworld. Oct. 18, 2010. (January 19, 2011)
  • New York Institute of Photography. "How to Take Great Photographs of Sunsets." (Jan. 27, 2011)
  • Rowse, Darren. "How to Photograph Silhouettes in 8 Easy Steps." (Jan. 19, 2011)
  • Schneider, Richard. "Photography Exposure Basics." (Jan. 19, 2011)