Mastering Silhouette Photography

Most of the time you want to take the time to properly light your subject, soften the shadows, and make sure its features are clear and recognizable. But photography is an art, literally a light picture, and sometimes you will want to use the special properties of the form to creative advantage.

One such technique that can add a striking look to your portfolio is to add a few subjects in silhouette. These are photographs that show only a dark contour of your subject against a lighter background. Using silhouette can exercise your design sense and spice up your body of work.

Since your camera was designed to capture images of your subjects rather than leave them in the dark, you will need to put some work into “tricking” your camera to take a good silhouette image. Nevertheless, the results are well worth it. Here's how.

Find a good candidate

Silhouettes work best with subjects with interesting shapes that stand out against the background. Choose something that will be recognizable even though we can only see its contour. Or pick something that has an unexpected shape so that you can surprise us when you reveal its origin. Again, your design sense will come into play here, and you will want to do some experimentation to find subjects that lend themselves well to this kind of photography.

Silhouette Photography

No Flash, Please

It may seem obvious, but if you don't want to cast light onto your subject, make sure you aren't using your camera's flash. In fact, in most photography, knowing when and when not to use a flash distinguishes the pros from the amateurs, who tend to keep the flash on even when it will have no effect on their photographs at all.

It’s All About The Back Light

In order to get a crisp silhouette, you want to make sure the lighting behind your subject is substantially greater than the light from the front. The silhouette will be formed by forcing the camera to base the exposure on the bright lighting coming from behind your subject, so that it will essentially ignore the light reflecting off the subject itself. Bright skies make a nice backdrop for silhouettes. Also, if you've ever photographed someone standing near a window, you may have already taken a silhouette by accident.


Make sure to arrange your subject or subjects so that you get a shape that is pleasing and what you were aiming for. More than one subject together in a scene can confuse the result or lead to some unexpected shapes. Of course, this can be used to your advantage. But even then, you should be aware of the effects of mixing contours and how they may be interpreted in the final product.

Auto Exposure Tricks

Your camera probably has an auto exposure feature that automatically guesses the required exposure for a shot when you partially press the shutter button. This feature takes into account the various levels of intensity within the frame and tries to find the level that will properly expose the subject in the center of the frame.

While it would seem that this feature would make it difficult to snap a silhouette picture, you can actually use it to your benefit. Instead of framing up your subject, focus on the brightest spot around you, the sun, a bright light, a white wall, and then hold your shutter button part-way down while you return the focus to your subject. The auto exposure will be set to photograph the bright spot and your subject will come out in silhouette. You have to be creative when taking nonstandard photographs.

Experimenting With Camera Controls

If your camera offers manual controls, then you can find your own settings for taking silhouette photographs, and you'll have the luxury of putting together a palette of exposure techniques to achieve the effects you want in different scenarios. Just remember that your objective is to expose for the background light and keep light off your subject, and you should always get good results.

Experimenting With Focus Tricks

Even though exposure is the star of the silhouette show, you can get some powerful effects by not focusing too sharply on the subject of your silhouette. Of course, most of the time you'll want a hard outline, but sometimes a blurry, out-of-focus silhouette will be the twist that makes your image speak.

On automatic cameras, you can use a trick similar the exposure trick mentioned above. When you press down on the shutter button, make sure to focus on something closer or farther away than the subject of your silhouette, and then frame the shot they way you want it. Of course, if you have manual controls, you can simply adjust the focus until you get the desired effect.