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A layman’s guide to shooting silhouettes

A layman’s guide to shooting silhouettes

How can you create simple shots with bags of impact? Find out in our layman’s guide to shooting silhouettes.

A layman's guide to shooting silhouettes

Are silhouettes easy to photograph?

As long as you have the right conditions, shooting an effective silhouette is relatively simple – and the results can be stunning. They’re a great device when you start to get more creative with your photography.

What makes a good silhouette?

Strong and simple shapes, often coupled with bold colours, are the main factors. A really good silhouette will be instantly eye-catching and moody, making you want to look at it again and again.

What subjects create good silhouettes?

Strictly speaking there isn’t much that you can’t silhouette, as long as you stick to the concept of simple shapes. Buildings, mountains, people, animals and any other object with a familiar form can be used within your image.

The key to good silhouette shots is to make sure the object or objects you are silhouetting are dynamic and recognisable within the frame. If the silhouetted shapes are indistinct, muddled or overlapping each other too much, the composition probably won’t work. The idea is to find an arrangement where you can tell what the objects are just by their outlines.

How do I shoot an effective silhouette?

You need strong backlighting to compose your main subject against. For powerful and vibrant colours, this is generally best achieved at sunset or sunrise. However, you can create a silhouette against any bright background, so you can even create them using flash lighting. Neon signs or shop windows can provide a good source of backlighting in an urban setting.

Doesn’t the use of backlighting make exposure difficult?

It would certainly be tricky if you were trying to retain detail within your main subject – but because a silhouette is all about allowing the main subject to fall into shadow, it’s easy! All you need to do is expose for the background.

It’s useful to work in Live View so you can see how well your main subject darkens, and use some minus exposure compensation if you need to enhance the effect. Typically this will be around -1 stop. Working in Live View will also help you see how clear your subject is against the background and check that you’ve got the edges nice and sharp. Recompose the image if the shape isn’t distinct enough.

What’s the best technique for getting the silhouette edges sharp?

If you activate autofocus, the camera’s AF system will try to pick up on the area of greatest contrast; in theory this will be the edge between the silhouette and the background, and you’ll get the sharpness you want. However, sometimes AF can struggle slightly in low-light situations, especially in Live View; in this case, switch to manual focusing.

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