Photographing silhouettes is a relatively simple technique, but it can provide you with some of the best images in your portfolio

Beginner

A silhouette is a dark shape and outline of an object visible against a lighter background and is a technique used in photography for centuries.

Photographing silhouettes can give you striking, punchy shots with a graphic element, some of which could end up being your best work. Not only can photographing silhouettes give you impressive results, but their commercial appeal is broad, too - and what's more, they are straightforward to create.

Monochrome silhouette portrait by Rui Caria - 1/400s | f/28 | ISO 100

How to capture a silhouette with your camera

As hinted above, to photograph a silhouette, you need to have a darker subject than the background. Usually, for photographers, this will come in the form of directing a camera at a significant light source, such as the direction of the sun or an artificially illuminated backdrop with the subject (what you want to form the silhouette) in the foreground or mid-ground of the frame.

Photographing silhouettes during the golden hour is particularly popular due to the range of yellow and orange hues you can incorporate as your background. When it comes to the actual silhouette, something with an unusual or interesting shape generally makes for the most compelling subject. For example, wildlife, architecture, people and transport are excellent silhouette shapes.

Red deer in Richmond Park, London at Sunrise. Photo by Martin Griffett - 1/2900s | f/5.6 | ISO 500

What settings do I need to dial-in?

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to the settings you need to capture a silhouette; it'll entirely depend on the situation at the time.

However, most often, it's pretty straightforward. As you'll have a significant amount of light in your frame, you don't usually need to work with long shutter speeds or very low f-stops. This makes it ideal, too, if you're hand-holding the camera as you won't run the risk of camera shake, and instead, you'll have strong, sharp images captured with fast shutter speeds. Take a look at the settings in the captions for the shots in this article to get an idea of the settings used for silhouette photography.

People walking from the staircase to the platform towards Eiffel Tower in Paris viewed in silhouette with yellow colour of sky in the background. Photo by Arhamnly - 1/1000s | f/10 | ISO 200

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What makes silhouette photography so appealing to image buyers?

Whether for wall art, editorial or commercial use, silhouette photography is often a popular choice for all those types of customers.

A silhouette shot's clean, strong and zestful look can add a dynamic focal point (and talking point) to a room for someone looking to hang an image on their wall. For editorial and commercial customers, the crisp and dynamic nature of the image means they can be used for all sorts of things. From book covers (and the abundance of solid colour blocks that make overlaying copy on your photos easy) to eye-catching advertising campaigns, you could even see them on product packaging or merchandise.


The sun rises over a Stupa, Bagan, Myanmar. Photo by Jethro Stamps - 1/1000s | f/4 | ISO 100
A steam locomotive is seen in silhouette hauling its train across a gorgeous pink sunset. Photo by Ian Duffield - 1/500s | f/18 | ISO 500

What about post-production? Is there anything else is should consider when photographing silhouettes?

As you're only working with a certain amount of elements and colours in the frame, silhouette imagery tends to be less demanding in terms of post-production work compared to other types of photography. However, it's worth looking at some areas to get the best out of your silhouette shots.

For example, increasing contrast can add more punch to your shot if your image is a little hazy. Or, if you took your photo during the golden hour, some colour correction may be needed to avoid too strong a colour cast. In this scenario, cooling down the temperature will help. Overall, it's entirely up to you how much work you want to do in post-production, or any at all, but it's worth taking some time to experiment with what looks best.

It's also worth converting your image into monochrome to see what it looks like - silhouette images in black and white can be awe-inspiring.

Applying only a small amount of adjustments to your images in post-production, such as in Lightroom can significantly enhance their appearance