I just love taking silhouettes - they are dramatic yet simple, and they always seem to stand out in a group of photos. And the best news? The are actually pretty easy to do! You just want to keep a few key things in mind when taking your shot to get the image you are going for :)
So let’s get crackin’ with the steps to an awesome silhouette!
Now, there are a few steps to this, so I've created a cheat sheet for you that you can download and print out. That way you'll know exactly what to do and when to do it! Just click the image below to download.
STEP 1. SHOOT INTO THE LIGHT
For a great silhouette, you want to make sure that you are shooting into the light, with your subject between you and the bright background. Unlike any other types of images we want to make sure that there is no light hitting our subject from the front: we want all the light to be at the back, behind our subject. You also want your background to be nice and bright - a dull background won't give you such a great silhouette.
STEP 2. CHANGE TO SPOT METERING
For a silhouette, we want to make sure that we expose for this bright background, and not for our subject. This will keep our subject nice and dark, whilst keeping the background nicely exposed. If you are shooting on evaluative mode, the camera will try to even out the exposures - making the background a little bit too bright, and lifting the shadows of our subject. But we don't want that! For a silhouette we WANT our subject dark and underexposed. To combat this, change your metering mode to SPOT. This tells the camera to meter for just a small portion of the frame, in this case, our background.
STEP 3. METER FOR THE SKY
Now we want to tell our camera which part of the scene to meter from, so hold your camera up and meter from the sky, not your subject. For Canon users, the metering point is ALWAYS your centre point, so just hold the circle that you see in the middle of the frame over the brightest part of the sky (if the sun is in the frame, just to the left or right of the sun, not over the sun itself) For Nikons, you can meter off your active focal point - so wherever the circle is on your viewfinder, that's your metering point - again just hover that over an area of bright sky.
If you are shooting in manual mode, just dial in your settings and then frame your subject! Your meter will jump about but don't worry about that - you'll be perfectly exposed for taking a silhouette. (Tip: If you are shooting children, get your settings dialed in BEFORE bringing them into the frame!) Easy peesy, lemon squeezy as my six year old says.
If you are still shooting on any of the semi automatic modes, like aperture priority, then it's a little trickier, but not much. Meter from the sky, but this time, your camera will set your exposure for you so we want to to tell it not to change exposure when we move our camera to frame our subject. For this, we use the Exposure Lock Button. On Nikon cameras the button says “AE-L/AF-L” and is on the back right-hand side of the camera, while Canon’s is an Asterisk (*) but is also on the back on the right hand side. Simply hover your meter point over the sky, press the button, then frame your subject as you want. The exposure should stay the same and not change as you move the camera.
STEP 4: . MAKE SURE YOUR SUBJECT IS ISOLATED
Camera settings dealt with, it's now time to make sure that our silhouette looks good. It's really important that you make sure that your subject is clearly defined. Remember, you are only going to be able to "see" the subject by it's outline, so if you have three people huddled together all you are going to see is one big black blob, and that ain't going to impress anyone. Keep everyone separate - or at least enough that you can make out what is in the frame! Ditto for any other objects in the frame - move your subject away from trees or anything else that could merge with them.
Remember, you can grab a cheat sheet with everything you need to do right here:
5. GET DOWN LOW
You want to get as much of your bright background behind your subject as possible, so get down low! (Get on your tummy if need be) This stops your subject from merging with the horizon.
6. KEEP HORIZON LINES IN THE BOTTOM THIRD
Similar point to number five, we want to keep as much of the sky in our frame as possible, and get a nice composition, so keep any horizon lines in the bottom third of the image.
7. HAVE FUN WITH IT!
Silhouettes are a great time to try something different - get your kids to jump up the air, or dance, or have an adult throw a small child in the air. Remember to keep the outline clear and defined so you can make out what the silhouette is of!
8. ENHANCE IN PROCESSING
If you have Lightroom or Photoshop Elements, you can really make your silhouettes pop by just a few tweaks in processing! If your silhouette isn't dark enough, you can pull down the sliders for the blacks and shadows, so that the silhouette gets nice and dark. I also add in a little contrast and clarity, which helps define the outline (but not too much) If you are shooting with a beautiful sky behind you, you can so go to town on your saturation (no pesky skin tones to worry about!)