Besides being extremely difficult to spell out correctly, “silhouettes” are one of those highly desired photography techniques. It is so popular that it might compare its popularity with “bokeh”, but personally speaking, I rather stick with the fancier silhouettes. Today we’ll be talking a bit in depth of this fun technique, and by the end of this brief photography article, I am pretty sure that you’ll have a clearer understanding of how to do Silhouette Photography and take captivating photos every single time.
Table of Contents
What is Silhouette Photography and When to Use It?
First thing’s first, let’s start by understanding what a silhouette is all about. If you look inside a design dictionary you’ll might find a generic and very dry definition that states something like “dark area outlined against a lighter background.” This is true, and it helps out to understand one simple thing; silhouettes are the big contrast of a huge amount of light against a smaller figure that isn’t lit enough to see details inside it. That is nice for understanding a silhouette, but when do you need to use it? That is a very good question, and it should be used in the following creative scenarios:
- Whenever you want to transmit a sense of drama or mystery to the audience. This is very much achieved with hazy or rainy backgrounds. In other words, backgrounds that give a negative space but that doesn’t have bright colors.
- Whenever you want to convey emotions or transmit a mood through your photographs. This is very easy to illustrate with sunsets, and especially with sunsets on the beach. All those exploding colors make a fantastic background for your shots.
The aforementioned backgrounds are great alone, but they can be even more interesting when juxtaposed with the shape of something. In various cases, that something is a human element, which implies a storytelling factor that makes every photograph more interesting than just the simple landscape or space.
Equipment for Silhouette Photography
Covered the concept behind silhouette, we can start talking about some technicalities. Or in other words, about the gear that you need for capturing some marvelous silhouettes with your camera. We’ll talk about achieving them with your phones later on.
- Camera: Any camera that allows you to shoot in manual mode will be fine, we’ll talk about setting the exposure to be silhouette-friendly in a bit.
- Lens: Oh boy, you are gonna love this! You can basically use any lens out there because silhouettes are related more too slow (or small) apertures rather than fast (big) aperture values. And you know that a single extra stop of light can increase the price in a lens by quite a large amount of money.
- Filters: You don’t really need filters, but maybe a polarizing could reduce some undesired reflections, especially those that come from the water under harsh sunlight situations.
- Tripod: Same logic as the filters, since silhouettes (as we are going to see in a bit) have less to do with long exposure and more with freezing the moment, it is not that necessary to have. Maybe a monopod could give you more freedom while still keeping things steady for you.
Camera Settings to Use for Silhouette photography
Now let’s start talking about what we are here for, the adequate settings for silhouette photography! But first of all, don’t forget about the definition of a silhouette, remember, dark shape outlined against a brighter background, correct? Sweet!
- ISO: Overall you’ll be shooting a very bright scene, so ISO values will span from 100 to high as 200, maybe 400 but just for very limited situations. For average silhouettes, 100~200 will be just fine.
- Shutter Speed: By definition, silhouettes need to be a very well defined object or subject that is outlined against a bright background. Therefore you will not want to have moving subjects, so long exposures will be discarded for now. Anything between 1/60 to 1/500 or even 1/1000 of a second will work fine for you. There isn’t an exact recipe when dealing with exposure, so experiment a bit, but a value between that range will be quite right for you.
- Aperture: Here comes the best part, the aperture. In order to keep your subjects or objects very dark, you need to shoot at small apertures, therefore something between f/11 to even as far as f/22 will work perfectly for you. Some lenses, especially zoom lenses, are capable of achieving f/32 when extended to the fullest, so keep that in mind. Even your kit lens can achieve very small apertures. This helps to darken subjects while still keeping the background well lit, but remember, your subject should be against a decent amount of light.
- White Balance: Some people like to have a golden look when shooting silhouettes, especially on the beach. I’m more of the opinion of shooting in Auto White Balance, but only if you are shooting in raw.
- Shooting in Raw: And speaking of raw, there is a huge reason why should always shoot in raw format (or at least in raw+jpeg if you don’t feel that secure yet). It allows you to decide certain values of your photograph during the development stage, especially white balance. Shooting with a fixed white balance could not render the best results since they respond to specific temperatures. Raw allows you to control several values that will make your silhouettes gorgeous!
Composing Your Silhouette Photography Shot
Exposure is just a small percentage of the real success of a photograph. The big deal is composition, so keep in mind that you should always compose in accordance to silhouette’s definition. Since you are using a negative space filled with simply outlined subjects or objects try to compose wider frames that will allow you use that negative space like a canvas. Shooting indoors is harder if you want to achieve silhouettes so start trying with the outdoors, where you have plenty of sunlight.
And speaking of sunlight, avoid shooting with the sun directly hitting your camera because this could severely damage your eyes, and your sensor as well. If you don’t trust us, watch this.
About the Famous Rule of Thirds
There is a very high chance that by the time before you even opened this brief article on silhouettes photography, you’ll have already heard about the Rule of Thirds. This isn’t a rule persé, but more of a good compositional advice. The rule of thirds is super easy to achieve, and it can be by your side during your whole life.
Imagine four lines crossing your frame in the following way. Now, do you see how these four lines intersect in four points? By placing your element (or elements) of interest near (or perfectly) just one of these 4 intersections, you’ll manage to make a visual impact like never before. This creates tension and adds a whole different layer of narrative to your photographs.
Don’t get confused, I’m not saying that you should stop making photos with your main subject or object in the very middle, I’m just saying that there are other ways of placing your subjects. Rules are meant to be broken, yes, but only when they will result in something aesthetic and pleasing. The best way there is for properly breaking a rule is by mastering it to quite decently at first.
Composition might be a little bit tricky if you don’t have the proper guide, fortunately it is easier to learn how to compose than learning how to expose. However this might be true, it is via composition that truly meaningful photographs are able to make an impact, otherwise they would only be perfectly exposed images with no soul.
Silhouette Photography in Black and White
Black and white photography is more than just a timeless and beautiful format, it is a utilitarian creative decision too. Black and white conveys messages in a more effective way than color (in most cases) due to its absence of color. What? Yes, color tends to distract sometimes our playful minds, therefore black and white photographs are more efficient when transmitting messages to our brains. This is easier to spot when working with colors that doesn’t get along so well.
Black and white is no longer an inside camera job, it is a post-production decision made while developing a raw file. If you shoot directly in monochrome in your camera, you’ll get a color raw file, and a desaturated jpeg. If you are just shooting in jpeg, well, please allow to give you my condolences. This particular camera modes only desaturate light hitting the sensor, hence the flat tones.
Since black and white is a post-production task, you could compose with black and white in mind by looking for clean silhouettes that have a lot of light and just a tiny element being outlined by the contrast of it against the light. The great pro of black and white versus color is that you can kick up the contrast way further than in color. In color, stuff starts to look funny very much earlier than in black and white. Heavy pure white against almost pure black always gives a Zen sensation, almost drawn from graphic design.
If you want to get creative, you could even make AI-generated images with the same technique. By playing with the contrast between the dark and light shapes, you can create stunning visuals that look like they came straight out of a graphic design program.
Doing Silhouette Photography with iPhone
On the contrary of bokeh, silhouettes aren’t that complex to capture with a phone. All you need to do is have control of your phone’s camera and never stop thinking about photography. It is just the tool that changes, but the same light principles apply to an old pinhole camera or the latest iPhone on the market.
Follow these simple tips and you’ll capture great silhouettes with your iPhone (or pretty much any phone):
- Pick subjects that have a very strong and easy to relate shape or form. This way you’ll guarantee that the viewers will know exactly what your photograph is all about. Pick a person or a tree rather than a blobby rock for example.
- Remember this, always remember that you need to have a beautiful blast of light juxtaposed against a shape; so shoot towards that strong source of light.
- Use simple backgrounds that will give you beautifully flat negative spaces.
- Use a burst mode on your phone’s camera in order to capture your images, remember that silhouettes have little to do with slow shutter speeds.
- Use a camera app that allows you to shoot nor only in manual mode but raw as well
And Speaking of Apps
There are plenty of photography apps out there, however not all are the greatest of them all. Here are the best iPhone photography apps that you could get in 2019:
- Halide ($5.99): This camera app has a beautiful User Interface that comes with a smart thing, it is very comfy when using it with a single hand. It comes with photography related features like depth of field, focus peaking and absolute control over exposure. That means that you can set up your ISO and shutter speed. It renders histograms and captures in raw format.
- Obscura ($4.99): Less interface smart than the previous one, but comes with various filters and film simulations that will make your silhouettes look gorgeous right in the app.
- ProShot ($4.99): This app has an amazing interface that will make your shooting experience quite pleasing. And it also allows you to shoot in manual mode while keeping some raw files on your pocket!
You don’t need all of them, just pick the one that suits your needs better. We don’t have to say that investing a couple of bucks in a photography app like this is not really an expense right?
Here we shared with you the things that you need to know about light in order to capture great silhouettes. Obviously this will need your own creativity, otherwise will just be some plain concepts stored in your brain. Get out and practice until your batteries drain out and keep on practicing.
Also, you can capture amazing silhouettes in the night using the northern lights or the milky way as your background. I have linked to both these articles so check them out to capture great silhouettes shots in the night.
There is no other way to learn how to master this stuff if you don’t go out and shoot! By the way, I learned how to spell silhouettes correctly after writing this piece!