Shooting Great Silhouettes

Successful Silhouette - Separation

Silhouettes are a great way to make effective photographs that can tell a story without showing too much detail to your viewer. By giving just hints of who or what you are photographing, you’re able to hold their attention and entice them to ask questions about what is happening. In this post, we’re going to look at four important considerations when photographing silhouettes.

Done by 6am, this woman makes her way home, Pics of Asia Central Vietnam Tour 2019

Look for the Light

The first step when photographing silhouettes is to find the required light. For a good silhouette, you’ll need strong light behind your subjects. It’s for this reason that sunrise and sunset are great times to shoot silhouettes. By exposing for the strong sunlight coming from behind your subjects, you’re able to render any surface not being hit by that light very dark, if not completely without detail.

Other places you can find this light are in areas where harsh sunlight is being blocked from part of your scene. Think about a city street for example. Buildings tend to block sunlight from reaching certain areas, so by placing your subject in shade with the sunlight illuminating the background, you can also create a similar type of lighting situation that you find at sunrise or sunset.

Now that you’ve found your light, you’ll want to expose for the highlights in that light. This will keep all the details in anything that the light hits while plunging anything in shadow into a deep shade of grey or, if the light is much brighter than the shaded areas, pure black.

A fisherman tidy's his boat after a night's fishing, Central Vietnam Tour with Pics of Asia, 2019

Find Your Subject

Once you’ve found appropriate light, you’ll need to find a subject. Subjects with distinct and recognisable shapes make the best silhouettes. This is because after you have removed all detail from a subject, we still need some clues as to what it is. For example, a car turned to the side or a tree are recognisable even just as shapes because they are somewhat unique as far as shapes go. A simple shape like a rectangular mobile phone or a lens cap could be mistaken for something else and doesn’t always make for a good silhouette.

Personally, I love to photograph people as silhouettes. There’s something about the movement and shapes they create that makes the dance of composition challenging and fun. When a person makes a recognisable gesture in a silhouette, our viewer gets enough information to understand that this is a person and that they are doing something. However, they need to fill in the exact details for themselves.

Wait for the Moment

When it comes to silhouettes, moments are just as important as they are in any other photograph. Your choice of moment when photographing a silhouette can, at its most basic level, mean the difference between a recognisable shape and an indistinct black blob. At its most complex, it can inform the viewer about the relationship between multiple subjects.

Consider this scene below. We can tell, simply from the postures of the people, that each one is working on something of their own. Nobody is focused on anyone else. They are only focused on the work they are doing. We can infer, then, that they are busy doing something.

Wait for the right moment when photographing silhouettes

No Overlap

When composing your silhouettes, it is important that you pay attention to overlapping objects in your scene. While your eyes may be able to make out the difference between a person’s blue shirt and the green wall behind them, once all of that becomes a detail-less black blob, that difference goes away. So, it is important not to have subjects overlapping each other or intersecting other objects in the background.

Look at the two images below. These were shot seconds apart. One of them successfully shows two people walking to work and the other shows what looks to be a rather large person and a tree with two trunks. The second image was made by moving the camera position slightly and waiting for the subjects to separate.

Failed Silhouette - Lumped Together

Successful Silhouette - Separation

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to the important parts of making a great silhouette photograph. Please sign up for my newsletter to get notified when new tutorials, photo essays, and projects are launched.