I’m known to be a silhouette addict.
I don’t pretend to have the best method, there are probably better ones, but this one works for me so I thought I would share.
Here is my recipe in 4 steps:
1. Location / Environment
The first thing is to face a strong source of light (the sun is an easy one!). Your subject should be in between you and the light source so that his/her body is blocking the light. This is what will produce the silhouette effect (black body over a well exposed background).
To have a nice silhouette, you need an uncluttered background. Get on top of a hill to have the sky as your only background, or on a beach… wherever you won’t have any distracting elements so that your subject in the only focus.
In this tutorial I will show a few examples of outdoor silhouettes, but you can also practice inside by using a window or an open door as your light source.
2. Your Settings
Switch to Manual mode (you can also use Priority or Aperture modes and lock exposure, but Manual is really the easiest way). Select spot metering.
Use your middle focal point to meter off your background (the sky, for example). Choose your settings to get proper exposure.
After that, you can forget about your meter and completely focus on your composition. Do a test shot to ensure your background is properly exposed.
The fun thing with silhouettes is that you can do them at any hour of the day, as soon as there’s enough light.
You will see a lot of sunset silhouettes, partly because it’s an easy time for this (the sun is very low, so it’s easy to catch it at the same level as your subject) and because the colors are gorgeous at that time of the day.
But you can also practice silhouettes in full daylight. The contrast with a bright blue sky is stunning.
Two examples from a sunny summer afternoon:
Warning: Including the sun in your composition can be very dangerous. By looking directly at the sun through your camera you can potentially damage your eyes (and possibly damage your sensor too). So if you try this, snap very quickly, don’t look more than a few seconds.
I’ve also been asked about how to achieve that star burst effect. It’s very easy. Choose your narrowest aperture (f/22 if you can), and to increase the effect, you might also partially block the sun.
Finally, you can obviously practice silhouettes without using the sky as your background and without including the sun in your composition. In the following example, I used the water of a lake as my background. You can see from the color of the water that the sky was still blue (it was taken in the middle of the afternoon).
The post-processing will vary a lot depending on the type of silhouette you’re making.
Most of the time, you’ll need to increase contrast (to darken your silhouette) or even add blacks (like in my last example above). Adding clarity will help defining the outline of your silhouette. And adding some saturation will help you get richer, intense colors.
There it is everyone! Now go and practice! You’ll soon find out how easy it is to master silhouettes.
There is a French version of this tutorial on my blog here if you want to practice your High School French! (Did I mention that silhouette was a French word ?)
Yes, this is a linguistic tutorial too! Lol!