A silhouette is an image of a person, object, or scene represented as a solid shape of a single color, typically black, with its edges matching the outline of the subject and set against a lighter background.

Photographing silhouettes is a great way to convey drama, mystery, emotion, and mood to the viewer. The key to capturing a silhouette photo is to position your subject (the shape you want to show) in front of some light source and adjust the exposure in the camera to the brightest part of your image (the background), not the subject. That way, the subject will be underexposed (very dark, if not black).

There are many technical descriptions of how to get great examples of silhouettes. The key is to make your camera think that the brightest parts of the image are what you are interested in.

What is silhouette photography?

The silhouette photography definition is very easy to understand. Simply put, it is the art of taking pictures of subjects in front of the sun without using a flash. Basically, a powerful source of light and a subject ready to pose in front of your camera are the only things you need to start practicing. Of course, for more creative photography it is preferable to use natural light.

How to make a silhouette the right way

To make cool pictures, you need to know how to catch shapes and play with background light and camera settings. You can achieve nice results if you have a detailed, bright background and a clear and bold subject. For incredible silhouette pictures, you also need to switch your attention from the content and particularities of the subject to its outline.

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In silhouette photography, the pose and the angle matter much more than expression and color.

Making a sun silhouette is a rather creative task. In this photography style, you have a simple shape that calls on the viewer to construct the details in their imagination. Full of drama and secrecy, this style  allows the photographer to be a storyteller. That’s the art worth mastering. In this article, we also prepared for you tips and ideas for a beautiful silhouette photoshoot.

The basics of capturing cool silhouettes

Almost every object can be represented as a silhouette, but some are better suited for silhouette portrait photography than others. Choose something with a clear and recognizable shape that looks interesting enough to the viewer, even in two-dimensional form. Pictures of silhouettes cannot be based on the colors, textures, and tones of objects, so the shape must be distinct. Make your subject matter recognizable.

If there is more than one shape in the frame that you are going to present as a silhouette, try to keep the distance between the objects. For example, if you are doing silhouettes of a tree and a person, you shouldn't put the person in front of the tree or even ask them to lean on it, because then the objects will merge into one shape and the viewer will be puzzled as to what it is.

Also, while composing the shot, you might want to photograph silhouettes of people in profile, rather than looking directly into the frame. That way, more features (nose, mouth, eyes) will stand out, and the person will be more likely to be recognized.

The majority of cameras make adjustments to exposure levels in auto mode when you press the shutter button halfway (at the same time the focus is done). For this photography technique, point the camera at the brightest part of the image and press the shutter button halfway (and don't let go). Then move the camera back to include your subject in the frame, and then press the shutter button all the way down and take your picture. On most digital cameras, you will get a silhouette of your subject in this case.

That way you're tricking your camera in any lighting conditions into thinking that the brightest part of the image is the mid-tones, so anything darker will look like a nice deep shadow in the frame. You can use artificial light right behind your subject.

How to make a silhouette of a subject

Just capturing a nice shape is surely not enough to learn how to make a silhouette. To assist you in light silhouette photography, this section provides all the insights to make viewers confidently define silhouette on your images.

Silhouette Photography: The Art of Capturing Cool Silhouettes | Skylum Blog(3)Above all, the subject of silhouette shots itself matters. For such pictures, choose a strong and recognizable shape. Unfortunately, the color, texture, and tone will be neglected — so pay attention to how you combine outlines in a unified pattern. This is one of the main silhouette photo ideas. For example, include birds and trees in a photo with silhouettes of people and you’ll get a marvelous outcome!

Moreover, there are some ground rules, especially if you are shooting outdoors. First, the best photo can be captured at sunset and sunrise in winter at high latitudes. Also, if you have several subjects in focus, aim at separating them from each other in your silhouette pictures. And, of course, for photography silhouettes, you need to avoid overlapping of two subjects or a subject and a background at any cost.

Lighting tips

When it comes to lighting in front of your subject, you need to forget most of what you know about normal photography and start thinking backward. When shooting silhouettes you need to make sure that most of the light comes from the bright background rather than from the foreground - or in other words, you need to light your subject more from behind than from the front. A sunset or sunrise indoors is ideal for this purpose, the background against which you can photograph your subject (really almost any bright light source behind the subject will do).

Light plays a crucial role. You need to know how to use light sources correctly. What works for silhouette images is simply putting the subject in front of a light source. But note that there should be as little light as possible right in front of your subject.

Silhouette Photography: The Art of Capturing Cool Silhouettes | Skylum Blog(4)The sun is the most common source of light for making great silhouette photography. There’s even the whole subgenre frequently referred to as sun. However, it’s possible to use artificial light and backlight for silhouettes too. It’s common to capture people or sunset types - but other sub-genres, like landscape or camera silhouette, also deserve your attention.

Getting the right lightingis tricky. To capture a stunning sun silhouette, basic photography rules with spot metering don’t work. What you need is more light in the background than in the foreground. For capturing great images, don’t direct your lens right to the sun. If you do, the light can fall on the subject and ruin the whole shot. However, lack of light is also a problem. In this case, the background turns totally grey.

In short, seek a balance of light in your pictures.

Photography expertise

To make sure you have the photography expertise needed for taking silhouette images, check your knowledge in our previous posts:

Last but not least, don’t underestimate the role of proper post-processing equipment for your experiments! Our Luminar Neo photo enhancer contains all the features necessary to create nice sunset silhouette photography. In Luminar Neo, you can give a nature or a people silhouette the right sharpness and dramatic effect. Check out our easy-to-use and multifunctional photo editing software by clicking here.

Once you choose an image from the gallery, you’ll access the whole editing panel in Luminar Neo. In it, you can choose among ready-to-use presets and instantly compare the image before and after editing. They can add the contrast and sharpness you’re looking for. While working with a silhouette of people, consider playing with the sliders in the Dramatic section.

Alternatively, the Accent AI 2.0. tool will smartly adjust any photo within a second.

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Recommended equipment

To catch a cool shot, choose a nice camera, buy some filters, and take a tripod with you. Here are some of the silhouette photography settings.

The best camera for creating cool pictures is a DSLR. Even though it’s hard to catch a completely black silhouette with one, you can adjust the settings manually for a better effect. Your smartphone or a point-and-shoot camera can also do a great job. But DSLR is more helpful to take a great picture with simple subjects, so you can achieve a silhouette or a minimalist landscape silhouette. A mirrorless camera is also a good option, especially if you’re working with a sunset silhouette. With any camera, you need to learn how to change the angle and post-process your image in a photo editor.

Moreover, you can use filters during the photoshoot. For example, you’ll surely need UV filters while working with a beach silhouette or a camel silhouette in the desert. Blocking extra sunlight from a shot, these filters significantly ease your job at the editing stage. If you want to make a camel silhouette, carrying a circular polarizer will also be helpful, as it will protect from glare, haze, and sand.

Finally, a tripod is needed to make a self-portrait or a camera silhouette caught by your smartphone.

Types of silhouette images

Sunset silhouette

It is among the most popular plots for silhouette photography, and it’s not a surprise. Doing a photoshoot at sunset is a great decision for any type of photography. The key advantage of sunset is that the sky is naturally brighter than any subject in the foreground. Moreover, it is a nice plot by itself.

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To use the colorful sky in the best way, consider shooting a sun silhouette when the sun is as low as possible. Getting closer to the horizon, your picture gains additional brightness, depth, and intensity. So, a couple of minutes before or after it touches the horizon is your golden time.

Black silhouette

The most tempting silhouette images fall into the genre of black silhouette photography. The secret behind their magic is the dramatic effect caused by the totally black subject and the extremely bright background.

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To create a black silhouette, consider increasing the contrast in a photo editor at the post-processing stage. In fact, that’s the easiest way to achieve the smooth black colorand create a sharp contrast with the background colors.

Silhouette of people

If you think that silhouette images include only natural subjects, we’re here to correct this misunderstanding. The silhouette of people type occupies a major part of the silhouette photography genre. And it goes far beyond catching a classic love silhouette.

Silhouette Photography: The Art of Capturing Cool Silhouettes | Skylum Blog(7)For chasing people's silhouettes, you shouldn’t necessarily go outside. In a room where light enters through a window or door, there’s an opportunity to take a dramatic image.

Here are basic tips for making a nice pictires of people:

  1. People silhouettes are cooler when you show people’s profiles. Keep details visible to make the image more interesting. The more lines and shapes you can recognize in your images, the better.
  2. When shooting a full body, make a cool silhouette by maintaining the principle of proper distance and distinct lines between the body, arms, and legs.
  3. A black silhouette of a family looks nice when everybody holds hands (maintaining space between) or when parents hold children above their heads.
  4. Capture the action. You can always get cool silhouettes when people are jumping and dancing. In this context, the ideas from the love silhouette genre might be helpful to boost your imagination.

Love silhouette

To make an incredible love silhouette, ask the couple to move toward each other, slowly dance, hold hands, or kiss. Though you won’t show the details of their facial expressions, the viewers will inevitably feel the romantic vibe.

Another important thing is to maintain distance between the people. For any silhouette photography, the golden rule is to add as many peculiarities to the shape as possible. If separating people ruins the overall mood, consider capturing in a more open area. This will make the slightest details of the outline visible.

For a stunning love silhouette, ask a couple to hold hands and make a celebratory gesture with their free hands. At a wedding, a bride’s bouquet or a bottle of champagne will work great for creating the mood.

Beach silhouette

For those living close to the sea, try a beach silhouette. Don’t miss the chance to enjoy the incredible vibe of an empty beach and practice awesome photography!

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Since finding an open area is among the key recommendations for silhouette photography, shooting a beach silhouette is one of the best solutions to this problem.

One idea for a beach silhouette is to take a photo of a child jumping in the sand. Moreover, it’s nice to capture groups of people in the water or playing volleyball. To create something new in the beach silhouette genre, be creative with the sunlight and catch nice poses.

Landscape silhouette

This sub-genre is probably the most sophisticated one of silhouette photography. Offering a variety of plots and opportunities, it enables you to reveal creativity but challenge to capture your subject properly. Due to the complexity, landscape silhouette photography is not as popular as other types, such as beach silhouette photography.

If you have problems finding an open area, don’t hesitate to ask your local community for recommendations. You can get advice from a Facebook group, a meetup workshop, or a professional photographer.

Mountain silhouette

This type of photography is a sub-genre of landscape photography that photographers often practice. Consider giving it a try.

To catch the mystical shape, use these tips from Nikon. Keep the horizon straight, don’t let other objects overlap the mountain silhouette itself, and use a tripod.

Black and white silhouette

Basically, anything can be turned into a black and white.

Silhouette Photography: The Art of Capturing Cool Silhouettes | Skylum Blog(9)Recently, Lloyd Fox from the iPhone Photography School revealed eight secrets to turn silhouette pictures into a black and white silhouette. Among his useful insights, consider playing with the light streaks and discover the hidden settings in your camera for beautiful black-and-white silhouette photography.

For basic knowledge of how to make picture black and white, check out our recent blog post.

Camera settings for silhouette pictures

The most important thing to pay attention to is exposure. To create cool silhouettes, meter your exposure against the brightest part of the background, not the subject. Moreover, you’ll need to turn off the flash. When taking a photo, you should work in P mode (program mode), A mode (aperture priority mode), S mode (shutter priority mode), or M mode (manual mode). In automatic mode, many digital cameras typically fire the flash. So, use a manual mode and never forget to meter your exposure. When we want to see all the tonal values of the sunset silhouette pictures, we can use a technique called bracketing to create HDR or high dynamic range.

Because of that, setting your camera in manual mode is a must for this style of photography. Examine our photography cheat sheet for an understanding of how to work in manual mode. Meter your camera using the brightest part of the background and choose the appropriate metering mode: you can capture cool silhouettes using both spot and centered metering.

Check out our guide. Here are simplified instructions for capturing a sun silhouette:

  • Set the ISO to a low value. If you choose a high ISO, your pictures will have excessive noise. The lowest ISO setting differs from camera to camera, so simply choose the lowest possible ISO.
  • Choose the proper shutter speed. If you see that the subject appears too bright, try to stop down your shutter speed. At the same time, a faster shutter speed makes it possible to capture a completely black silhouette.
  • Adjust the aperture to the light. Choosing a larger f-number maximizes the depth of field, which makes extremely sharp silhouette images so the aperture matters. A higher f-number reduces chromatic aberration. In other words, a narrower aperture contributes to a sharper focus in pictures. At the same time, f/8 and lower introduces a starburst effect, which can also look interesting.

Manual focusing is also helpful, as it allows you to prefocus a shot before taking the actual photo. Nail the focus on your subject and use the exposure to get a cool silhouette.

For final adjustments, change your exposure compensation. For this, set the exposure value (EV) to something between -1 and -3. This is all about camera settings for silhouette photos.

Creative ideas for an unusual people silhouette or a nature silhouette

Ideas relevant for a sun silhouette

Generally, experiments with a sun are based on playing with light. Changing the angle introduces a contrast between dark and bright tone in images. The mood portrait silhouette photography also changes.

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The subject and the lighting are the basic tools for experimenting with silhouette photography.

The bracketing technique is also worth trying while working with a sunset silhouette. Described in detail by Fadzai Saungweme on Digital Photography, this method entails taking multiple pictures in the same place at different exposures to capture all the details of silhouette sunset pictures. With a fast-moving sun silhouette, you should adjust this technique to the light. You can use exposure bracketing, stacking (focus bracketing), or ISO bracketing. Feel free to experiment! The classic way to use bracketing is to shoot three images: an evenly exposed image, a picture that’s slightly underexposed, and one that’s slightly overexposed. You will be able to combine underexpose shots with any other.

A partial silhouette is also a nice idea for experimentation. Decorating just a part of your subject with a cool silhouette and leaving the rest under the light, this type of image may look even more interesting than a complete sun silhouette. So don’t limit yourself to capturing only a classic sunset silhouette. In addition to experimenting, give a try to partial silhouette pictures and see how incredibly multidimensional your subjects become!

By the way, don’t hesitate to use your gear as a subject. The camera silhouette is a niche genre that is steadily becoming more popular. Consider the right exposure settings.

Finally, try shooting subjects from a low angle. The secret behind most cool silhouettes is choosing surroundings where the background occupies the major part. The lower you shoot, the more space behind the subject you’ll capture.

An incredible example of a sun silhouette

Here are some of the silhouette picture ideas. Since this genre is quite popular, it’s hard to create a unique plot and reveal your artistic style. To make something unusual, get inspired by these cool silhouettes. In this section, we’ve chosen the most breathtaking examples of a sun silhouette to inspire you to rush out and chase the light! Be inspired by these silhouette examples.

Silhouette of a woman standing against the backdrop of a mountain silhouette

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Sunset silhouette of a man with a bottle and a party hat

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Silhouette of a man with a camera silhouette

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Camel silhouette against a mountain silhouette

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Camera silhouette with a man capturing a photo of a deer silhouette

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Partial beach silhouette of a man standing on the shore

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Final note: post-processing a silhouette

To turn an average image into a cool silhouette poses photography, don’t skip the editing stage! The basic adjustments you need are saturation and contrast. In particular, you’ll need to increase the saturation, sharpen the contrast, and intensify the blacks.

Luminar Neo allows you to do this in a simple and professional way. Pay attention to the filters that can help you soften a black silhouette. Luminar Neo can assist both those seeking a magic button to make fast adjustments and professionals who are used to editing photos in Lightroom. Luminar Neo contains all the features you need for expert post-processing and quick editing. Try it by clicking here!

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