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How to Take Silhouette Photos - Easy Techniques and Tips

Updated on January 6, 2014

Silhouette photography

In silhouette photography, the aim is to take photos that render the subject as a dark, featureless silhouette against a bright background. Silhouette photography is all about shapely outlines. The detail is absent from the main subject because it has been deliberately kept too dark for any detail to register in the final photo. This focuses the viewer's gaze on the shape of the outline. The effect can be quite dramatic and atmospheric.

Taking silhouette photos is easy with just about any camera, and the following photos are simple examples of silhouetted subjects taken with basic camera equipment.

Sillhouetted Thai spirit house
Sillhouetted Thai spirit house | Source

Basic technique of silhouette photography

The basic technique of taking successful silhouette photos is simple and straightforward. Have the source of light behind the subject. This puts your subject in dark shadow and takes advantage of your camera's inability to correctly expose for both the dark subject and the light background.

If you expose (meter) for the dark subject, the background will be completely over-exposed and the subject will have unwanted detail - you certainly don't want that effect, if you're going for silhouettes.

On the other hand, if you expose for the bright background, the subject will be completely dark and featureless, and it will contrast sharply with the bright background - which is exactly what you want.

Mount Nantai in Japan, silhouetted against the remaining rays of sunlight after sunset
Mount Nantai in Japan, silhouetted against the remaining rays of sunlight after sunset | Source

High shutter speed - low camera shake

Another bonus is that the intense brightness of the light source, especially if it's the sun, allows you to use a very high shutter speed, which eliminates, or at least reduces significantly, unwanted hand-held camera shake. This in turn,enables extra sharp outline detail to be captured.

Any remaining subject detail in the image can easily be removed with photo editing software.

Solar eclipse

This is an example of nature setting up the shot. .This photo is a partial solar eclipse (90% of total). All I had to do as the photographer was be in the right place at the right time to press the shutter button. This shot wouldn't have been possible without filters and other equipment, if it hadn't been a cloudy day. The clouds acted as natural filters. Without them or suitable filters over the camera lens, the remaining 'slice' of sun would have been too strong and ruined the whole shot, and probably my eyes too.

Although the main subject is the eclipse, and the photo recorded the event successfully enough for basic (non-specialized) equipment, it's the clouds that steal the show visually. They look dramatic when backlit and also provide a natural frame around the subject.

Partial solar eclipse
Partial solar eclipse | Source

Black and white

Fisherman silhouetted against reflected light from river
Fisherman silhouetted against reflected light from river | Source

Black and white

As the subject in a silhoutte shot is rendered completely black, it should come as no surprise that black and white photography is well suited to this style, and often increases the dramatic impact of the scene.

In the photo here, the light source isn't direct sunlight, but reflected sunlight from the river. The choice of black and white and the relatively small size of the subject in the frame enhances the loneliness of the scene and the solitude of the fisherman.

Silhouetted castle ruins

This is a view of a silhouetted Scottish castle ruin. A subject like this is an obvious candidate for black and white treatment. It's always easier to associate black and white images with views that evoke scenes of centuries past.

Again, the clouds appear more dramatic than in reality due to them being backlit by the sun. They contribute to the overall brooding atmosphere that we expect from Scottish castle ruins. That's especially true of this one, Bothwell Castle, in central Scotland, a castle that has seen its fair share of murder and intrigue.

Scottish castle ruins silhouetted against a stormy sky
Scottish castle ruins silhouetted against a stormy sky | Source

Landscape silhouette

In this final example, the cloud is opaque enough to block out the sun completely and becomes a silhouetted subject itself, as well as a natural filter. The landscape below is also silhouetted and the outlines of the trees and pylon are contrasted sharply against the much brighter sky.

Silhouetted cloud and landscape
Silhouetted cloud and landscape | Source


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    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 4 months ago from UK

      You'll still have light spilling on to the profile so it won't be a true silhouette. Might be an interesting effect though. - But don't blind your model.

    • Hippie2000 profile image

      Hippie Untiet 4 months ago from Wisconsin

      Going try this with some slide film. I will have someone facing my projector. Project a image onto their face. I'm going to be on their profile side all set up. Set the aperture down 2 stops. Just to get a little underexposed. How do think that would work for a silhouette?

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 5 years ago from UK

      Sounds great! I wish you better luck this time Austinstar. Thanks for your comment.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      I love silhouette photography. One of my best photos was a silhouette, but the subject was so far away that the photo was unusable. I only had a second to take the shot and I was on a boat at the time so I got camera shake. I've been wanted to set that photo up again under controlled conditions.

      Hopefully, I will get to do that this December for the 12/21/2012 big Mayan party in Cancun! I'll be attending that event as well as fellow hubber RealHousewife.

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 5 years ago from UK

      Yeah, me too, laziam. Thanks.

    • laziam profile image

      laziam 5 years ago from Philippines

      thanks for the tips! i love taking silhouette pictures -- one of my favorite subjects. :)

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 5 years ago from UK

      Thanks SG. It's much appreciated

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 5 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Very good information for taking silhouettes. You have some very good pictures here. Voted up and sharing. Have a good day! :)