How to photograph a silhouette and master the dark side of photography

A good photograph doesn’t always have every detail perfectly lit. Silhouette photography obscures the details and instead emphasizes shape and form. 

Photographing a silhouette isn’t necessarily difficult, but the auto mode on your camera won’t help you. In fact, automatic exposure is generally designed to prevent silhouettes. The best way to shoot a silhouette is to use manual exposure or exposure compensation, but you’ll also need the right lighting conditions. You can use any camera, including your phone, but mirrorless cameras and DSLRs will yield the best results. Basic editing software, like Adobe Lightroom or one of many alternatives, is also recommended.

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Lighting

A silhouette is created when the background is sufficiently brighter than your subject so that when the background is properly exposed, the subject goes completely black.

There are a number of different ways to achieve this. Outside, make sure your subject is between you and the sun, or frame them against a bright sky. You’ll need to shoot at the beginning or end of the day, commonly called the golden hour, so that the sun is low in the sky. Post-sunset is also a great time for silhouettes, but you’ll have to work quickly before light vanishes completely.

Working inside, placing your subject in a doorway or in front of a bright window another way to create a silhouette. 

Any light in front of the subject will make the silhouette harder to achieve. When shooting indoors, for example, turn off the interior lights and draw the curtains on any windows not being used to create the backlight. Outdoors, watch out for “natural reflectors” that could be bouncing light back into the scene, like water, windows, or white or light-colored walls and other surfaces.

While the light is most important, don’t ignore the rest of the composition. Take your time framing your shot. Avoid clutter and distractions. Silhouettes often work best when they are simple.

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Camera settings

If your camera supports it, we recommend setting the file type to RAW (check out the best RAW photography apps for your phone). This isn’t a requirement for a silhouette, but it will grant you more flexibility to tweak the image later compared to shooting a JPEG.

Next, switch to manual exposure or a semi-manual mode, like shutter priority or aperture priority. If you’ve never taken your camera off auto mode or aren’t yet comfortable in manual mode, aperture priority is probably the easiest way to go. This will let you set your aperture, while the camera controls the shutter speed automatically. Combined with exposure compensation, you’ll be able to fully control the look of the image. Most cameras, including phones, have some form of exposure compensation — see our guide on the feature for how to use it.

It may not be the most elegant solution, but the simplest way to figure out the proper exposure for a silhouette is to guess and check. Snap a picture and see how it looks — if your subject is too bright, simply turn down the exposure. If you’re using manual exposure, you can adjust either shutter speed or aperture; in a semi-manual mode, turn exposure compensation down to –1 to start, take another test shot, and continue from there.

If you’re more comfortable with your camera’s manual settings, you can jump-start this process by metering for the background. For example, when outdoors, point your camera at the sky, lock in the settings for a proper exposure, and then reframe the shot and take a test image.

Note: We recommend using a relatively small aperture, like f/8 or f/11, to keep your subject tack sharp and to create a deep depth of field, which keeps more of the photo in focus and is generally what you want in a silhouette.

The goal is to have a totally dark subject with a properly exposed background. Depending on the light in your specific scene, however, you may not get a perfect silhouette in the camera. Get as close as you can, and the rest can be corrected in post.

Hillary K. Grigonis/Digital Trends

Editing

Lighting conditions seldom being perfect, there’s a good chance you can further improve your silhouette by making some simple enhancements in editing software.

Open your images in your favorite photo editor. When working with a silhouette, your primary challenge will be fixing the contrast. If your subject was too bright in-camera, use the exposure, shadows, and blacks adjustment sliders to darken the image. The exposure slider will affect the entire photograph equally, while the shadows and blacks sliders will affect just the darker tonal regions. If your subject is dark but the background seems underexposed, as in the below example, you can raise the exposure, highlights, and whites sliders to make the image brighter. You may mix and match these techniques for the best overall result, both darkening shadows and increasing highlights.

For more advanced control, look to the curves tool. This will give you more granular control over the different tonal regions in the image. Or for expert-level enhancement, you can selectively darken or lighten specific regions of the image using adjustment brushes or dodge and burn tools — but this step isn’t usually necessary for the average silhouette.

Once you’re happy with the look of your silhouette, you can continue editing as you would a normal photograph, such as tweaking colors and cropping the composition. Increasing saturation, for example, may help your silhouette pop even more, while playing with the white balance and tint will alter the mood of the image, making it warmer or cooler.

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