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Capturing a Silhouette

Photography Tips - Technical

December 8, 2023


As a people-centered photographer, it’s very important to me to properly expose the people I photograph! From the best lighting & location, proper exposure is key. However, there are times when it’s fun to push the creative envelope – if you will – and try something new…like silhouettes!

But first…what exactly is a silhouette?

According to good ole Merriam-Webster, a silhouette is “a picture of the outline of an object filled in with a solid usually black color; the shape or outline of something seen against the light.”

So, in order to capture a silhouette, you must have LIGHT! If we go back to elementary science class, we know that when you put something in front of a light, it casts a shadow. Try holding a flashlight and putting your hand in front of the light. You will see the shadow of your hand away from the light. Now, pretend the flashlight is the sun. When the light is directly behind your subject (or people), the part of their body that is away from the light is in the shadow (or black).

Let me explain how I got the image above! We were finishing up a family session at sunset. We were in a field where the sun was setting (behind the family). In order to get a good, clear silhouette, I knew that I needed my family to have as much light behind them as possible. So…I had them walk to the top of the hill (where this was taken). I was shooting from a lower perspective so that more sky or light would be behind them.

Why??? Well, let’s imagine if I could see trees or land behind this family. It would’ve all been heavy and black. You wouldn’t have been able to see their outline if other objects (trees, plants, land, etc.) were in the way. The cleaner the background, the better, when it comes to creating a silhouette.

When I framed the shot, my goal was not to make sure that my people were properly exposed! For once, it was fine that my people were completely dark and underexposed! That was the point! 🙂

Here were my settings for these shots:

Camera: Canon R6

Lens: Canon 85mm f/1.2 L

Settings: Aperture – f/2.5 ISO – 2,000 Shutter Speed – 1/640

My settings could’ve looked different, but I kept them close to what I was shooting with just prior to these shots (when I was trying to expose properly). I kept a low aperture because I just always shoot with low apertures, and from a distance, you can still get everything in focus with a lower aperture. My ISO was higher (2,000) because it was basically dark outside at the time of this photo. I made sure my shutter speed was as high as possible because I wanted to capture the kids doing fun jumps without them being blurry. A low shutter speed would’ve made the jumps very blurry.

Those images were taken in an open field up on a hill. Here is another example on flat ground in a tunnel in mid-day!

In the tunnel picture, the main light source is simply the daylight at the end of the tunnel. I can get away with creating a silhouette because the tunnel is pretty long, and no other light can get to the subject from the other side. That means that all of the light floods in from that one direction (think about the flashlight example again). If you look at this image, you’ll notice that light is able to come through all around them – even between their feet on the ground. That is an example of not having other objects or distractions in the way. That is a key to a great silhouette – a simple background where the light can shine on one side and create that great shadow that defines the subject’s outline.

I personally love using the sun as the main light source for creating a silhouette. However, any large light source will work! I challenge you to play around with it! Put your subject – a person, stuffed animal, empty chair…whatever – in front of a light source. Make sure the background is simple and clear of other distractions. Shoot away! 🙂

I hope this is helpful! If you have any questions about creating silhouettes or any other photography-related question, I’d love to hear from you! Thank you so much for being here!!

Interested in photography coaching? You can view details HERE. Have a great day! ~Ashlee 🙂

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