This week we will talk about creating silhouettes.

Silhouettes are created when the background is considerably brighter than the subject and you expose the image for the background and not the subject.

In this post we will cover 4 different situations where you can easily create silhouette picture.

But before we begin there are 3 important things to consider when shooting silhouettes:

  1. Shape – In a silhouette you only see the shape or outline of an object, not the details – so it’s important the subject have a distinct recognizable shape, sometime, especially with people you will want them to pose in a very exaggerated pose so the shape is recognizable and they don’t become a shapeless blob in the photo.
  2. Background – because there is no detail in the subject the background details become much more important, make absolutely sure to get your background right.
  3. Focus – if you focus on the subject the background may be blurred (and remember all the colorful details are in the background), if you focus on the background the edges of the silhouette can be blurry – you can choose what you prefer or you can use the hyperfocal distance to get them both in focus.

Sunset Silhouettes

Warning: Don’t look directly at the sun, especially trough an optical viewfinder, even at sunset (electronic viewfinders and live view are safe). Don’t point the camera at the sun for more than you absolutely have to, especially in live view mode but also when the shutter is closed.

Using the sunset as a background for your silhouette shoot is easy:

  1. Take a shot of the sunset without your subject
  2. Make sure you like your sunset image, check the image is not over exposed and doesn’t have any blown highlights
  3. Use exposure lock or manual mode to keep your camera on the settings you used for taking the sunset image
  4. Place your subject in the frame, compose and take the shot

Remember to work quickly, during sunset the light can change pretty fast.

Silhouettes against the daytime sky

The sky during the day is pretty bright and you can use it as the background of a silhouette – especially if your subject is in the shade.

This is best done if there are some clouds (because we want details in the background) but not if its completely overcast (because we want the sky to be bright)

For this example I’ve placed our good friend the toy lion on a light stand, set the camera to spot metering mode and took a picture basing the exposure only on the lion and I’ve got this:

You can see the sky is completely blown out (actually this is not a bad white background product shot) this is a good start because the same brightness difference that over exposed the sky will under expose the lion and create the silhouette, here is the same photo but this time metering for the sky:

They sky are no longer bright – because we metered on the sky they became “middle brightness” – the lion is not yet a silhouette because we have too much light (after all, we are outside in the day time and there’s not a could in the sky), to turn this into a silhouette we need to load this into an image editor of some sort (I’ve used the free and open the curves window:

The important thing is that even with the sky too dark and the lion too bright the sky is still much brighter than the lion, we drag the point at the lower left corner of the curves graph to the right – this means “make everything that’s darker than this pure black” – drag it along the bottom until the subject is completely black.

Now, to fix the sky we drag the top right edge of the graph to the left, this will make the non-black parts of the image brighter (just stop long before the sky goes pure white).

This added a bit of noise to the image (because I worked on the JPEG, it would have been much better if I used raw) so I’ve used the “reduce noise” option of (that is pretty bad, but good enough for this image that only had a little bit of noise) and this got me this:


Creating silhouettes in a “studio”

I don’t have a studio, but I do have a living room I can use when no one else is home – I’ve used some toys for the background, I’ve place a flash without any diffuser at full power very close to the background and set my camera to correctly expose the background.

I’ve placed a toy giraffe as far from the background as I could, this means that the flash-subject distance is much grater than the flash-background distance and that means the subject get’s very little light (remember the light falloff post?).

Right out of camera I’ve got this image:

There’s still a bit of detail in the giraffe, I could use curves or levels adjustment to make it completely black but I like it the way it is

Silhouettes with a pure white background

And last but not least, silhouettes against a pure black background – this combines the studio silhouettes above with the white background technique I’ve talk about in the past.

I’ve just set the camera so the giraffe came out completely black with an off-white wall behind it (as far away from the wall as possible) and I’ve place my flash near the wall pointed at the area behind the giraffe, I’ve than set the flash power to the minimum required to over expose the wall so it’s completely white (by taking a few test shots) and I’ve got this:

There are some parts of the background that aren’t pure white, but they aren’t touching the giraffe and so are easy to fix (or crop), for the next picture I’ve painted them white and use the level adjustment to make everything that isn’t pure white go black:

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