Photo by Nabil Naidu on Unsplash
If you’re interested in taking pictures with a bit of mystery and drama, you need to learn how to take silhouette photos. Silhouette photography is great for adding a certain moody mysteriousness to your portfolio. By taking pictures of your subject in front of a light background to create a silhouette, you facilitate a deeper connection within your image.
Silhouettes can be fun, they can be dark, and they can leave the viewer curious for more. But to take the best silhouette photos, you need to learn the basics. Today you’re going to learn how to take silhouette photos anywhere, at any time, like a true professional. We will go through a whole heap of awesome tips that you can use to impress your friends with your awesome silhouette photographs.
It’s All About Light
One of the most important things for taking silhouette photographs is that you make sure the light comes from behind. Silhouette photos are a bit tricky, and you need to throw out most of what you know about lighting and photography. In this case, you don’t need to light your subject from the front. The light must be stemming from behind the subject.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s just the way silhouette photos are done. You definitely don’t need your flash and you don’t need any lights set up in front of the subject. You can almost always use the existing light, so long as it is in front of whatever you’re taking a picture of.
Timing Is Everything
To make the most of natural light, consider what time of day you’re taking pictures. The best silhouette pictures are almost always going to be early in the morning or later in the evening. In other words, at dawn or dusk.
Because you’re shooting at a time when the sun is at its lowest, not only will you get either a spectacular sunset or sunrise in the background, you’ll also get brilliant light shining right behind your subject. If you want to make spectacular silhouettes, shoot while the sun is low.
The reason it’s less effective to shoot in the afternoon is that the sun will be at its highest point in the sky. The concentration of light will be spread over your scene from above, rather than at a single angle. At dawn or dusk, the light is only coming from one direction and you can orientate your subject more accordingly.
Hiding the Sun
Since you’re probably shooting silhouette photos at either dawn or dusk, you can get a greater silhouette effect by hiding the sun behind your subject. Let’s say for example you’re shooting on a beach while the sun is setting over the water. Have your subject stand directly in front of the sun for a perfect silhouette.
If you don’t hide the sun, you could experience issues like lens flare or large white spots in your photos. Remember that the sun is pretty bright, so if it’s not hidden, your camera sensor is getting an overload of light. Plus, we’re talking about silhouettes. The best silhouette is with your target blocking the main bulk of light.
Plus, you almost always get unique shadows stretching towards the camera lens. You can play with the shadow by changing the angle at which you’re taking the picture. For example, if you’re down on your knees with the camera pointed up for dramatic scale, the shadows will look bigger and more imposing. These shadows even work to direct the eye of the viewer to your subject.
The Low Angle
Speaking of angles, the low angle is almost always better when taking silhouette photos. Remember you’re not going to get any details of the person’s face or the color of the clothes they’re wearing. They will be completely black in the picture. Taking a photo from a low angle will make them look larger than life, and not in an unappealing way.
Low angles also allow you to get a better shot of the surroundings with your subject. You can incorporate the clouds, the beach, or wherever you may be shooting. You’ll get a larger panorama, with your silhouetted subject dominating the shot.
Although you can take silhouette photos anywhere, we recommend seeking out open space. Location does matter if you want a striking silhouette. If you take a quick scroll through your social media feed, you’ll see all the best silhouette photos are in an open area like a beach, a field, or somewhere with plenty of empty space.
The reason for this is that too many things in the photograph can be distracting. You don’t want cars and trees and buildings taking attention away from your subject. Somewhere flat, somewhere along the ocean, or somewhere without a lot of interference. This ensures that your main subject is the focus of the silhouette photo, with a great open background behind them. It’s just more dramatic this way.
Focus On Composition
You don’t always need to take pictures of people. With silhouette photos, you can take pictures of anything. The one thing you want to focus on is the composition. Whatever your subject is, make sure it’s a distinct and recognizable shape that will immediately appeal to the viewer.
Also, if you have multiple subjects in the photograph, make sure each is separate and sharp enough that they don’t blend in with other aspects in the picture. For example, a couple standing too close together in the picture could merge into one indistinct silhouette. Make sure everyone is standing far enough that their individual features are noticeable.
Additionally, your subject will be bolder if you have some contrast between them and the background. You don’t want most of the photograph to be shady because it detracts from the immensity of the subject. Try to have most of the frame filled with the background light, with your subject bold and dark against it.
How to Take Silhouette Photos
When it comes to actually taking the silhouette photo, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first thing you want to do is position yourself properly. Forget about your subject and the background – get yourself set up first. Once you’re situated with the sun in front of you, have your subject get between you and the sun and direct them to the right spot.
Secondly, get your subject to pose before you start taking photographs. You want them to pose in such a way that their outline can be clearly seen in the photograph, and so that they really stand out from the background. Don’t be afraid to walk around your subject, to get a stool for a higher vantage, or to even lay in the dirt to shoot upwards at an extremely low angle.
The Best Camera Settings for Silhouette Photos
Every professional photographer will recommend that you shoot silhouette photos in manual mode. This is the best way to get a stunning silhouette. In manual mode, you can adjust your settings to be ideal. You can also meter the background light to get the best exposure. It’s sometimes great to underexpose your shot to turn your subject into an even darker silhouette.
We recommend using a small aperture so that every single thing in your picture is in focus. You also want a massive depth of field to convey vastness. But the main thing really is that the silhouette is sharp and in focus. Without focus, the whole picture can fall apart with undefined edges and reduced clarity.
For silhouette photos, the lens isn’t that important. But it could be helpful to use a fixed prime lens between 35mm and 50mm. These lenses are sufficient in capturing light even if your eyes can’t see it.
And finally, pair your prime lens with a circular polarized lens filter. This will allow you to create even more contrast and saturation. With one of these lens filters, your silhouette pictures will be even more epic because of the contrast between the silhouette and the lighted background.
The best silhouette photos involve space, definition, and separation. All your subjects should be clearly visible as bold silhouettes against a vast background. Silhouette photos look better in open spaces, where you can create a dramatic background. You almost always want to shoot either at the beginning of the day or at the end when the sun is at its lowest point.
Remember to keep your subject between you and the sun, and even have them hide the sun with their body for greater effect. If you’re doing headshots, have your subject turned to the side so that you capture their silhouetted profile. Body shots should always focus on distinct lines and separation between your subject’s limbs.
At the end of the day, it’s not that hard to learn how to take silhouette photos. Focus on everything you’ve learned today and you’ll be just fine. Remember that practice makes perfect and you can always fix small mistakes during post-processing.
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