Inside: Learn how to shoot a stunning silhouette photo in 5 easy steps with your DSLR. iPhone silhouette photo tutorial also included!
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A Silhouette Photo In 5 Simple Steps
Last year all I wanted for my birthday was a nature hike with my family.
They obliged, and we hiked a small summit near our home. The grade to the top was steep but short. My kids found rocks to haul up and at the summit we were rewarded with a beautiful view and freshwater pools where they tossed their stones.
Minus the water, it felt like we were on the surface of the moon.
Of course, I had my trusty camera with me. As the sun sank lower, my anticipation grew. I knew the best light would come as the sun set.
I couldn’t wait to capture the perfect silhouette photo.
I’ve broken the process for taking a great silhouette photo down into 5 simple steps:
Step 1: Find a Location With Open Space
Great locations for silhouette photos include the beach, the top of a hill or an open field – anywhere with lots of open sky and not a lot of trees, houses or other objects in the way.
I took this silhouette photo on the beach.
Step 2: Find The Best Light
The easiest time to capture a silhouette photo is in the evening when the sun is low, and after sunset.
To capture a great silhouette photo the light needs to be behind your subject. Place your subject between your camera and the setting sun.
Silhouette photos are easiest at this time of day because the light is becoming less harsh and is much softer. Shooting into softer light is easier than shooting into direct sun.
Also, as the sun goes down the sky becomes more vibrant!
I took this image as the sun slipped below the horizon.
Step 3: Get As Low As You Can
Here’s a pullback of the spot where I took the photo above. It’s hard to see the difference in elevation, but the kids were up higher than I was. I was positioned in a lower spot, on my back.
Get as low as you can. You may need to lie on your back to get low enough.
Pin this for later!
Step 4: Expose for the Sky
What does “expose” mean? How does one “expose” for the sky?
Here’s a quick explanation:
Exposure is the amount of light captured when you take a photograph. If too little light is captured, the image will be “underexposed” (too dark). If too much light is captured, the image will be “overexposed” (too bright).
When you expose for the sky, this means you’ll tell your camera to read the light coming from the sky, rather than from your subject. Instructions are below.
For a more detailed explanation of how to set your exposure please see How To Use Your DSLR Camera.
To expose for the sky, you’ll need to
shoot in full manual mode
switch to spot metering mode
switch to single point focus
Don’t be afraid to shoot in manual mode! For silhouette photos, it’s the best option.
How To Expose For The Sky
Step 2: Adjust your ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed until your camera meter is a 0 or somewhat underexposed (below 0). You may need to underexpose to get your subjects blacked out.
Step 3: Once your exposure is set move your focal point over your subject.
Your in-camera meter should shift far toward the negative, meaning your subject will be underexposed. That’s what you want for a silhouette photo.
Focus your camera by depressing the shutter button halfway, and take a test shot.
If the sky looks good and your subjects look like blacked-out silhouettes, you’re ready to go! If not, adjust one of the legs of the exposure triangle to darken your exposure a bit more.
Step 5: Isolate Your Subject
This is easier said than done with kids, but if you have more than one person in your photo, encourage them to give each other a bit of space.
You’ll have best results when you can see each person’s distinct features.
If your subjects are too close together they may look more like a blob than people!
This principle also applies to the subject’s environment. I love how in the photo below my daughter is isolated from her the ground beneath her.
Pro Tip: Ask your kids to jump, dance, walk and move. You’ll get more photos where you can see the entire body and their limbs are more likely to look distinct.
Be sure your shutter speed is fast enough to capture the motion. In this photo, my shutter speed was 1/640.
I love this image BUT the houses and trees on the horizon line “ate up” my daughter’s feet. The image would be stronger if I could see more of her feet.
Pro Tip: If you notice anything distracting along the horizon line, remove it in Lightroom.
I used the healing brush in Lightroom to remove a cell phone tower in the distance.
A distraction removed keeps your eyes focused on the subject.
How To Take An iPhone Silhouette Photo
An iPhone silhouette photo is a bit simpler to take, but the camera phone’s capabilities are limited. An iPhone is more challenging to use in low light, so still subjects work best if you’re shooting after sunset.
Step 1: Place your subject with the light behind them. Face your phone toward the sunset (or light source). Get down as low as possible.
Step 2: Tap your finger on the sky to set your exposure. You can drag your finger up or down on the iPhone screen to brighten or darken the photo. Adjust the exposure until your subjects look blacked out.
Step 3: Snap the photo! You can edit the photo on your phone to give it more pop.
I took this silhouette photo with my iPhone.
The next time you’re out in nature with your family be sure to stick around for the best light at sunset and remember these five steps to create your own stunning silhouette photo:
5 Steps To Stunning Silhouette Photos
- Find a location with open sky
- Put the light behind your subject
- Get down low
- Expose for the sky
- Isolate your subject