Of the many different techniques that photographers use, the backlit silhouette is perhaps one of the most emotive. It has the power to transform a mundane scene into something powerful and beautiful. Ironically, when we first get into photography, one of the most often-repeated mantras from non-photographers is, “don’t shoot into the sun”. Listen to them and you will miss out on a huge range of potentially beautiful images.
The most commonly-used light source for a silhouette is, of course, the sun; however, you can use any bright light source: a flash gun, house lamp, even a full moon.
A silhouette is a subject lit from behind to become just an outline (c)Jason Row Photography
The secret is to make the subject go dark or black and bring out details in the back light.
One of the biggest problems when taking silhouettes today is the fact that modern cameras are generally so good at getting the exposure right, they tend to automatically “correct” any backlit scene, adding exposure and detail to the subject or foreground. So how can you counter this tendency for overcorrection? The simplest solution is to shoot manually.
What you are looking for is an interesting subject with a strong direct light source behind it. For outdoor photography, this will be most often – but not exclusively – the sun. When you frame your shot, you have several options. The first is to hide the light source directly behind the subject. Secondly, you can use the light source as part of the composition. Lastly, you can position the light source just out of frame. Each has its own technical and compositional merits, but each can also throw up potential problems; for example, with the light source in the frame you can get lens flare, causing a degradation of the image contrast.
Here the subject has been used to shield the sun (c)Jason Row Photography
Once you have decided on our composition, you now need to work out the exposure. This may seem tricky, but there is one technique that works well in most cases, and that is to expose for the sky. Rather than point the camera at your subject and take an exposure reading, point at an area of the sky that will be in the final frame and measure the exposure from that. From that reading, increase the exposure by one to one and a half stops. So if you are shooting at f11, you can open the aperture to f8. This generally will expose the sky perfectly and throw your subject into a deep silhouette. Of course this is not always 100% accurate, and if you are finding it difficult to get your subject dark, you can try to bracket the exposure. This involves shooting a range of exposures around the metered exposure. For example if your metered exposure is 1/125 sec at f8, you would shoot at f5.6 to f11 in half-stop units. Within this range, you will almost certainly find the perfect silhouette.
Metering for the sky is a good starting point for exposure (c)Jason Row Photography
In addition to getting the exposure right, you may well encounter issues with focusing. If you find that the autofocus is hunting for the correct spot, line your autofocus point up with an edge between the silhouette and the backlit. If this fails, consider focusing manually. Another tip is to shoot the images in RAW format. Not only will this give you latitude to play with in post production; it will also mean that you can set your white balance later, to get a more dramatic color look. This is particularly helpful when shooting sunset silhouettes, where the auto white balance can try to correct the yellow-red color of the ambient light. With RAW, you can set this back to a more suitable setting.
Try to avoid using filters when shooting a silhouette. The bright back-light can induce flare, especially with a filter added. If you are shooting toward the sun with the sun in the frame, avoid using a telephoto lens or longer exposures. There is anecdotal evidence that direct sunlight can damage sensors, although I have not experienced this.
Of course, even the most engaging silhouette will fall flat if the composition is poor. Some compositional tips that you can try include; putting your subject and light source on opposing thirds, using reflections or ripples in water as leading lines, or using a window or door as a framing device. Composition is as important to a silhouette as the subject itself.
Here is the horizon is on the upper third to improve composition (c)Jason Row Photography
Silhouettes are wonderful, evocative shots that every photographer should have in his collection. At first, shooting them might seem complicated, but by following the steps in this article and of course by practicing and practicing some more, you will soon learn how to tame the light and get the perfect silhouette.