Silhouettes are an intriguing form of art that stands out from others, due to its conveyance of a sense of mystery and drama that pique the interests of viewers. But silhouette shots are difficult to capture beautifully, often lucky occurrences or unintended results of badly underexposed photos or are they?

Image Credit: @airpig

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM

Leaving those misconceptions behind, silhouette photography is less complex than it seems. With a few tips, you’ll be ready to capture stunning silhouette shots that will leave viewers with more questions than answers.

Source for strong backlight

Light is the crux of photography and silhouette photography is no exception. The difference lies in how light is manipulated to direct focus towards a subject and make it stand out from the background, in a way that deviates from the norm. While common practice always teaches us to properly expose our subject, silhouette photography is all about underexposing our subject for a distinct and intense outline.

Having a strong backlight is crucial and also the easiest way to achieve a clear silhouette. A perfect source of light would be, to no one’s surprise, a sunrise or sunset, which explains why the beach is an ever-popular choice of location. But really, any strong light will give you great results.

Image Credit: @lightfactor92

Canon EOS 760D | EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM

Shoot manual

Photography in modern times is no longer exclusive to those who possess the right skills and knowledge. With Auto modes available, even beginners are capable of capturing decent shots. But what happens in Auto mode? Essentially, digital cameras feature a metering sensor which measures the brightness of a subject and automatically adjusts shutter speed, ISO sensitivity and aperture to optimize exposure. In other words, it ensures that the subject is well lit.  

Auto mode has its merits, but not in silhouette photography. Remember, it’s all about underexposing the subject to get a distinct silhouette. To trick your camera into doing so, place your focal point at the brightest area of the frame and press the shutter button halfway down. Keeping that position, recompose your image to frame your subject as you would like and proceed to capture your first silhouette shot!

Image Credit: @malvikabphotography

Canon EOS 70D | EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM

Know your camera settings

Shooting in manual gives you great control over your camera settings, which can be ideal… or intimidating. If technicalities aren’t your cup of tea and you’re unsure about what settings work best for silhouette photography, just remember this: Shoot with a small aperture and low ISO.

Having a small aperture gives you a greater depth of field to ensure that details, from background to foreground, are in focus. Not only that, maintaining a sharp focus is also a way of obtaining that distinct outline for an eye-catching silhouette.

Image Credit: @iamhenzydavid

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

Even at the same ISO value, some cameras perform better than others. But one thing remains constant: Keeping a lower ISO value results in lesser noise. Especially in silhouette photography where black fills up a fair amount of the frame, noise stands out more.

Image Credit: @keithliew

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

Go for distinct shapes

Great amounts of details are lost in silhouette photography. While the lack of details may exude a sense of mystery that draws in curious viewers, the total absence of details makes an image fall flat and lose its appeal. As such, it is the photographer’s responsibility to ensure that lost details are compensated for. An experienced photographer will ensure that silhouettes have a distinct shape that makes the subject recognizable.

When shooting silhouette portraits, subjects are advised to be dressed in fitting clothes that provide a distinct outline. Loose fitting clothes alters the shape of a silhouette and lack clues for recognition. To compensate for the loss of facial expressions, try directing subjects to express emotions through big movements and poses. If you’re going for a close-up, how about capturing a side profile instead of face on?

Image Credit: @k3ith.loh

Canon EOS 6D Mark II | EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

Isolate your subjects

Another key aspect of strong and distinct silhouettes is to ensure that the background is clear and uncluttered. The loss of details in silhouette photography leaves viewers with no clue on the difference of distance between the objects and the camera. Hence, it is important to ensure that your subject is isolated from any distractions in the background.

Image Credit: @yongtecklim

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II | EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM

The same applies to group photos! Subjects huddling together will create a mass of black that is indistinguishable. Direct them to position themselves parallel to the camera for an uncluttered background and to stand with little spaces in between them.

Image Credit: @js_praxis

Canon EOS 600D | EF-S10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM

Get creative

Silhouette photography is interesting, but it may not be for everyone. If the lack of details does not appeal to you, try retaining details by only partially underexposing your subjects. A gentle touch of light that provides a subtle glow of radiance, while the sense of mystery still lingers.

Image Credit: @wzhxx_

Canon EOS 70D | EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

Due to the fluidity of movements in people, they are a favourite subject of silhouette photography. While movements are a great indication of life that contrasts beautifully with the muted genre that silhouette photography is, still objects are capable of creating equally compelling shots with their lines and structures.

Image Credit: @desss_l

Canon EOS M6 Kit (EF-M18-150 IS STM)

What we do not know will always induce curiosity, but also intimidate us A perfect description of silhouette photography. While luck is often a part of photography, photography is essentially about learning to work with our equipment and our environment to achieve desired shots. What seemed like lucky shots can actually be replicated with the right source of light, camera settings and positions of subjects.

If you can’t wait to grab your gear and head off into the sunset for a shoot, be sure to tag your photos with #CanonSG for a chance to be featured!