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How to Take Silhouette Photos: Easy Techniques and Tips

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Chasmac has traveled extensively and taken photos along the way. The pictures in this article are his own.

Silhouette Photography

The aim of silhouette photography 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, creating an effect that can be 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

How to Take a Silhouette Photograph

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.

High Shutter Speed Means Low Camera Shake

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

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

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.

Solar Eclipse Photo

This is an example of nature setting up the shot. The photo below is of a partial solar eclipse (90% of a total eclipse). All I had to do 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 was 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

Fisherman silhouetted against reflected light from river.

Fisherman silhouetted against reflected light from river.

Black and White

As the subject in a silhouette 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 above the light source wasn'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 enhance 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 easy to associate black and white images with views that evoke scenes of centuries past.

Again, the clouds appear more dramatic than they were 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

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 contrast sharply against the much brighter sky.

Silhouetted cloud and landscape

Silhouetted cloud and landscape

© 2012 Chas Mac


Chas Mac (author) from UK on August 01, 2017:

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.

Hippie Untiet from Wisconsin on July 30, 2017:

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?

Chas Mac (author) from UK on October 22, 2012:

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

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on October 22, 2012:

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.

Chas Mac (author) from UK on March 02, 2012:

Yeah, me too, laziam. Thanks.

laziam from Philippines on March 02, 2012:

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

Chas Mac (author) from UK on March 01, 2012:

Thanks SG. It's much appreciated

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on March 01, 2012:

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