How to Photograph a Classic Silhouette

A sheep, in silhouette, grazes peacefully on the Látrabjarg Sea Cliffs backed by a golden sunset shimmering on the sea behind it.

Photos where your subject is in silhouette can be amongst the most evocative, emotive and highly compelling images you may ever make. The good news is that the recipe for making great silhouettes is actually quite straight forward. So, with a few basic concepts understood, you can be on your way to lifting your photography up to a new level of expertise.

The Unwanted Silhouette

The reality is that most folks make silhouettes without meaning to. Usually it’s because they’ve placed their subject (e.g., portrait) against a background that is brighter than the subject. Please take note, I didn’t say the background had to be particularly bright, just brighter than the subject. It’s a relative term. Even a mid tone background can produce a silhouette when your subject (e.g., rock, African American) is relatively dark to begin with.

One of Photography’s Great Lessons

It’s important to understand that the camera doesn’t recognize subject. It has no concept of whether you’re photographing a baby, a bar mitzvah or a birthday cake. And, when the composition includes a significant amount of background, is there any wonder that the camera may mistakenly believe that that’s in fact the subject of your photo. Just like the eye, your camera is attracted to bright, shinny things.

A Word on Relationships

Ever sat in a restaurant or cafe with your significant other half and been chastised for not paying attention? Even with the best intentions your eye wanders. What can it be? You love your partner, but you’re unable to fix your eyes upon them. For some reason you keep noticing things behind them. You become distracted and it’s hard not to be drawn towards those distractions.

Almost certainly you’re being drawn to bright, shinny things - whatever they may be. And, while on the rarest of occasions, it may be a pretty/handsome, young thing, it’s just as likely to be a light, a fluorescent sign or a reflective surface. And it’s even worse when you’re in an outdoor restaurant looking into the light.

The solution, when outdoors, is to position yourself so that you have the light behind you. This will ensure that your partner is lit and that you a drawn towards them, both visually and emotionally. When indoors just try to situate yourself in the chair with the darkest and most mundane view. Once again that should draw your eyes towards the one that you love. The result of which could be so much more than an engaging conversation. 

Barricades to Learning 

This simple lesson, about the relationship between subject and background, is such a crucial one that I often repeat it several times in a single session class and many more times throughout a multi-session photography course. By the end I can see that most folks don’t just understand the lesson conceptually, they are beginning to appreciate the significance it can have on their own photography.

There’s a simply reason I’ve learned to repeat this fundamental photography lesson, again and again. Some folks get it straight away, others don’t. I work hard to explain often difficult concepts in simple language that should be both easy to understand and relatively straight forward to implement.

The problem is that, because the information is presented in this way, some folks dismiss it as being unimportant. Their ego causes them to dismiss or downplay the inherent value in the information which, as a consequence, they soon forget. Thus my need to repeat it. It’s a shame that, while waiting for me to speak of shutter speeds, apertures and ISO they risk missing the real value I’m providing.

Protecting the Strong 

This is why I always try to avoid using the word basic. Some folks simply believe they are beyond such information. Which is why, when I want to hold folks attention at critical moments during a course, I replace the word basic with fundamental. It’s amazing how changing a single word elevates the perceived importance of the information amongst certain learners. And I wouldn’t want any one to fall behind.

The Glorious Silhouette

Now that we’ve discussed what causes the subject of a photo to fall into silhouette we can use this information to produce a silhouette when and where we want to.

It’s a simple matter of placing your subject against a significantly brighter background and allowing your camera’s light meter to be drawn to the background. All light meters are programed to record what they see as a mid tone which, of course, is great when you’re photographing a mid tone scene (e.g., Han Chinese man sipping tea on a green lawn in open shade).

The problem is when the scene you photograph consists of predominantly light or dark tones. In each case the light meter will direct your camera to expose so those scenes record as mid tones which, clearly, would not be correct.

The Deluded Photographer

By the way, when you hear folks talk about how their camera always produces correct exposures, slap them. They are either lying or totally deluded. Remember it’s not cameras, but people that make photographs. Can’t accept that basic truth. Fine, put a hammer on the table and tell it to build a house. Not working? Buy a hammer with the word Leica branded onto it. See if that helps.

With a background significantly brighter than the subject your camera’s light meter will almost certainly cause that background to be recorded as a mid tone. As a consequence your subject will also be recorded darker. And the brighter the subject the darker the shadows will record. That’s usually enough for your subject to record as a silhouette. Great when that's what you wanted, a disaster when it’s not.

This Tip is Pure Gold

In the days of film I'd often photograph a backlit scene, that I intended to record as a silhouette, by exposing one stop brighter than what my meter wanted so as to ensure the silhouette didn't photograph too dark. This tip should be very useful to folks photographing with their camera set to JPEG.

By the way a sure sign that the image, even a silhouette, is too dark is a loss of the perception of three-dimensional space. It's important that your subject at least appear to be separated from what is a distant background. The one stop extra exposure, above your meter's recommendation, is usually enough to overcome this problem. And remember, you're not actually overexposing. You're simply adjusting your camera's light meter to achieve the desired result.

Photographing an Iconic Silhouette

The above photo was made from the Látrabjarg Cliffs in far Western Iceland. I love the rim lighting effect around the sheep that's been caused by the intense backlight of the setting sun. It was a magical time and I had a lot of fun trying to keep up with this and other sheep happily grazing on the lush pastures in this most idyllic locale.

You’ll find the best silhouettes occur under the following conditions:

  • When the subject is backlit or photographed against a significantly brighter background
  • When the subject forms a graphic shape (e.g., gymnast doing the splits, severely pregnant mother turned side on to the camera)
  • When the background is colorful (e.g., blue sky, sunset or vividly colored wall)
  • A light grey or a near white background is often perfectly acceptable in a black and white silhouette.

I really hope this information proves useful and that you begin to incorporate the planned and well executed silhouette into your own photography on a regular basis, even in the middle of winter. The results will likely be very pleasing and, quite possibly, good enough to lift your portfolio up to the next level. If all else fails, at least I’ve got the relationship between you and your significant other half back on track.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru