A silhouette can be defined as a dark image against a lighter background. Aside from this definition, they represent so much more. There's something about these photographs that are so eye-catching. Maybe it's just my artistic side coming out but I love the simplicity, the mood, and the dramatic emotion that a silhouette offers. They depict so much mystery and can leave you with unanswered questions that can only be explained by your imagination.

I spent a week at the Outer Banks and it was there that my little obsession with silhouettes started. With the perfect beachfront view and the extra time on my hands, I thought I would learn how to capture the "perfect" silhouette. And now I can't stop taking these photographs. In learning this technique, I realized that silhouettes take strategy, planning, and a little bit of experimentation. With all my tinkering around, I came up with five key elements that can help create that "perfect" silhouette:

  1. Great Contrast between the Background & the Subject. To achieve great contrast, you'll want a bright background and an underexposed subject. You can either create it or take advantage of what's around you, like a bright cloudless sky or a sunrise/sunset.
  2. A Bright Clean Background. Your background is going to be your blank canvas and it should produce a lot of light. Also consider de-cluttering your background. Make sure that your subject will stand out and not get lost in any commotion.
  3. Underexposed Subject. Your Subject should have little to no light falling on them and should always be in front of your light source. To achieve this, you will want to use your background to back-light your subject. (Back-light is when your light source is behind the subject. Your light is going to hit you, the photographer, and the back of the subject.) 
    • Make sure to not use flash. This is especially key if you have your flash on automatic as your flash will try and compensate for the lack of light.
  4. A Strong Subject with Clear and Recognizable Shapes. A silhouette will turn your subject into a two-dimensional figure, so you will want to choose wisely. It should be interesting, so envision retaining great lines and accentuating the shapes.
    • If your subject is a person, take the photograph using their profile instead of shooting straight on. This way you get the features on their face.
    • If you are photographing more than one subject, make sure that there is space separating them so you can clearly see each individual and they don't blend into one another.
  5. The Correct Exposure. This is probably the trickiest but also the most fun part about capturing a silhouette. This is where you get to experiment. The main things to think about your exposure are: 
    • Have your camera focus on the subject so it's crisp and clean. 
    • Meter for your background. Exposure should be based on your background and not your subject. You can achieve this by spot metering or just estimating by dropping your meter down one stop. 
    • Create a large depth of field (a good default f/stop would be between f/8 - f/16). You want to make sure that your whole image is in focus.

In the end your image should convey great contrast and great form.

There is no exact science, so have fun with it and see if you can capture a great silhouette!!!

Here are some of my favorite silhouettes:


© Stephanie Marie Photography