How to photograph stunning silhouettes like a pro

Chad Verzosa

Photography offers many surprises. At some point in your journey, you’ll likely end up with happy accidents, such as unintentionally capturing backlit silhouettes.

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Photo by Mohamed Nohassi

But what if you want to purposefully photograph these shadowy figures? The good news is that you don’t have to rely purely on chance to capture them. We'll show you just how easy it can be to capture stunning shots with just a few simple tips.  

01. Find a good light source

To create a silhouette, your subject should be between yourself and the light source. Also known as backlighting, this technique reduces your subject to a black outline with its details obscured by shadow.

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Photo by Florian Pérennès

One of the best sources of light, of course, is the sun, especially during golden hour. Since the sun is at its lowest on the horizon during this time, it produces richer, more dramatic outlines. Everything also seems more magical when you combine silhouettes with the backdrop of a golden sky. The contrast they create together makes everything look striking and even otherworldly.

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Photo by Karl Magnuson

Of course, you can also easily capture silhouettes at night—against the moonlight, a twilight sky, a street lamp, or even neon street signs.

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Photo by Chris B

As long as you’re against the light source, you’re sure to capture a silhouette. Just remember, the brighter the light source, the higher the contrast and the sharper the details that will be produced.

02. Capture distinct outlines

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Photo by Brandon Wong

When you photograph silhouettes, choose subjects with outlines that are easily recognizable. Avoid subjects that look like big black blocks in your photo. Instead, look for figures in poses that give away clues as to what they are—limbs that are outstretched or a profile shot that clearly highlights their posture.

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Photo by Tobi Oluremi

When asking your subjects to pose, try asking them to exaggerate the space between their bodies—with arms in the air or legs in a wide stance— so that their body parts easier to distinguish. This way, your viewers don’t have to guess if they’re looking at a human figure or an inanimate object.

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Photo by Simon Shim

03. Unclutter your background

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Photo by Dieter Kühl

Keep your background as simple as possible to make the image easier for your viewers to process. This is crucial, especially since they have to look at outlines that lack any distinguishable features.

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Photo by Jordi Ganduxe

If there are additional objects in the background, this might further confuse viewers about what they’re looking at. Keep your image clean. If you have more than one subject, space them out evenly so that they don’t clutter your shot. Don’t give your viewers a headache trying to decipher what’s in the photo.

04. Keep everything sharp

Since you're not including the details of your subject, you'll need to make their outlines look sharp. To keep everything in focus, try using a small aperture and creating a larger depth of field.

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Photo by Rene Bernal

One way to do this is to set your camera to Aperture Priority. The value you select will mostly depend on the amount of available light you have, but somewhere between f/8 to f/16 usually works. If you have sufficient illumination, then use f/16. However, if it’s getting a little bit too dark, use f/8, instead.

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Photo by Shane Stagner

Thankfully, in Aperture Priority mode, you don’t need to worry about shutter speed because the camera adjusts it for you. Just try not to go below 1/60th of a second. Otherwise, you’ll start seeing motion blur which defeats the purpose of keeping everything sharp.

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Photo by Joshua Earle

Apart from producing a deep focus, using a narrow aperture also limits the amount of light coming into the camera. Consequently, you’ll have better chances of creating darker silhouettes because the lens doesn't pick up enough light from the dark areas of the photo.

05. Use the correct metering mode

Most modern cameras are actually so good at metering that they automatically compensate if your subject is backlit. So, instead of producing a silhouette, the object you’re photographing ends up properly exposed—which isn't what you want in this situation.

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Photo by Javier Allegue Barros

To prevent this, switch your camera to spot metering. Doing so allows you to pinpoint precisely where you want your camera to read the exposure from. Once you’re in this mode, point your camera at the brightest part of the scene and half press your shutter. Afterward, recompose your image and press the button all the way to take a photo.

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Photo by Clark Young

You can also try the same process using center-weighted metering. The only difference is that, in this mode, the camera reads the light that's concentrated at the center of the frame. Therefore, this is the best option to use if you're going for partial silhouettes. Since it covers more area in the frame, it can read exposure off of your subject as well as the ambient light. Consequently, it tends to retain some of the details you’d otherwise lose if you used spot metering.

06. Bracket your shots

Sometimes, you’ll encounter tricky situations where you just don’t know how to set your camera to get the right exposure. There are times when your image looks too bright even when your settings are correct. If you have this issue, then consider bracketing your shots.

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Photo by Emily Morter

Bracketing is a term used for intentionally creating an overexposed and underexposed shot on top of the regular image your camera took. This allows you to have more options to choose from as far as exposure is concerned.

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Photo by Heather Emond

To enable bracketing, simply press the automatic exposure bracketing button on your camera. Once it’s activated,  it will then ask you how many photos you’d like to take. In most cases, three frames should suffice. Once you’ve selected the number of images you need, click the shutter three times (or more depending on how many you chose), and you'll have the same amount of frames with different exposures.

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Photo by Matt Sclarandis

Exposure bracketing works best with static objects. Since you’re taking photos of the same scene, you’ll want every image to look the same apart from the variations in the exposure.

07. Adjust contrast in post

When you review your photos after your shoot, you may encounter silhouettes that aren’t as dark as you want them to be. Thankfully, you can quickly make adjustments to your work by using your favorite editing suite.

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Photo by Ban Yidö

Once you load the image on your editing app, crank up the contrast until your subject starts to lose detail and is almost entirely black. Feel free to adjust the shadows and highlights as well until you’re satisfied with the result. Of course, there are times when you want to retain some of your model’s features for partial silhouettes. If so, don’t set your contrast too high.

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Photo by Samuel Zeller

Once you’re finished setting your contrast, you can now change the exposure and color correct your image. Make sure you don’t forget this step, or you might end up with hues that look overly saturated and unnatural.

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Photo by Tom Chen

However, if your photos require a lot of editing due to inconsistent lighting, there’s a possibility that making these drastic changes to your exposure will produce too much noise. The best way to avoid this is by shooting raw.

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Photo by Jehyun Sung

By now, we’ve given you plenty of tips on how to photograph silhouettes, but the most crucial piece of advice that bears repeating is looking for a good light source. You don't have to rely on natural sources to achieve this, so get creative and train yourself to find silhouettes in unexpected places. Sometimes thinking outside of the box can produce the most dramatic images.