Tips for Shooting Killer Silhouette Photos

My wife Tori and I are suckers for a good silhouette. While out photographing, we are always scanning the environment for a good silhouette opportunity. We don’t nail every attempt, but over the past few years, we’ve picked up some simple tips that increase our chances of achieving a killer silhouette shot. If you want to execute a jaw dropping silhouette, put these tips to practice and chances are, you’ll accomplish your goal!

First things first. Probably the most important thing to know when attempting a silhouette is separation. Your subject must stand out from the background for a silhouette to work. Contrast is huge, that’s why in most of our silhouettes, you’ll see our subjects placed in front of an open sky, usually with the sun somewhere behind them. This makes it much easier to pull off a true silhouette.

Once you’ve found a good location that separates your subjects from the background, posing becomes the next thing we look to. Since silhouettes are typically just black shapes, it’s important to position your subjects in a way that you can see their features. This makes it obvious to viewers what they are looking at.

We typically have our couples kiss, but in slow motion. That way we can capture that moment right before their lips meet, which still allows their profiles to be seen. Once the subjects lose the separation from each other, they become just one big black blob.

In the shot above, there was a perfect area for our subjects to stand. Your eye tends to go straight to the couple because the two big trees lead right to them, and the rest of the scene is dominated by very detailed lines, so the contour of their bodies stand out even more.

Make sure to set your aperture so you have a large depth of field, allowing all the details to be in focus as well. I shoot most of my silhouettes with my 35mm lens and I try not to go lower than an aperture of f/8.

The best time of day for a silhouette is around sunset. This provides many more opportunities. If there are awesome clouds in the sky like those in the photo above, even better! The setting sun turns those clouds that beautiful orange color and adds to the overall appeal of the image.

In the photo above, I made sure to get super low to the ground in order to change my angle so the couple was high above the hill line. If I had shot this from a standing position, only their heads would have been higher than the black hill, and it wouldn’t have worked out as nicely as it did.

In some situations, I’m not able to place the couple above the horizon line (which would make the bright sky the backdrop) or there are just too many obstacles. In this case, I really wanted all the trees in the shot, so I had Tori squat behind the subjects and hold a flash with an off-camera trigger attached to it. This creates an awesome rim light around the couple and separates them from the dark tree behind them.

Using a wide angle lens for silhouettes is my favorite! It gives a better perspective to our subject’s surroundings. If I wasn’t using a wide angle lens in the photo above, the viewer wouldn’t be able to get a feeling of how big the trees were compared to the couple, taking away some of the dramatic feel from the image. And once again, I saw an opening in the trees that I knew would be a perfect spot to place our subjects, so I had them walk slowly across the scene while I waited for the right moment. They stand out even more because their shape is so different than their surroundings, allowing the viewer’s attention to move straight to the couple.

We got lucky in the shot above. Normally, it wouldn’t have worked out since she has an equally dark object behind her (the branches), but since the sun is lighting up her hair and creating a rim light separating her from the branches, it worked perfectly.

Imagine this shot with her feet down and their heads together… It’d be one black blob sticking out of a hill. Instead, we had Eldine jump into Keith’s arms and throw her feet up in the air, which makes it much easier to understand what’s going on.

Here’s a good example of using something other than the sky to separate the subjects from the background. From where we were standing, the sun was creating a beautiful light across the lake. In this case, it was bright enough to create a nice silhouette.

This is one of my favorites, even though it could have been done better. The dark cloud behind the couple makes it so they don’t stand out as much as they should. What I should have done was to have Tori pop a flash off behind them so a rim light would separate them from the background more than they are.

If the flash is held just right, the light will reflect off of their faces and show a little more detail. The reason why we used a flash in this photo is because the majority of their bodies were below the horizon line, so it would have been a couple heads and shoulders sticking out of the hill.

Put these tips to use and we can almost guarantee a killer silhouette shot will ensue!

About the author: Brett Benham and his wife Tori are a wedding photography team based out of Yucaipa, California. Visit their website here. This post was originally published here.

  • Guest

    If you’re going to all the trouble of giving tips on silhouette shots you might consider explaining the proper exposure tricks to get the effect. How you meter and expose the shot is every bit as critical as the posing and composition tips

  • Matthew Neumann


  • Pete Charlesworth

    It is pretty easy… switch to evaluative metering and shoot the lowest
    iso possible while being mindful of the shutter speed… if shooting
    without a mono or tripod, then the shutter-speed needs to be over
    1/200th. Shoot RAW, and watch your framing.

  • rtfe

    that top one reminds me of a velvet painting or an airbrush job on the side of a van for some reason

  • Prophotog

    Here’s the technique:

    1. Set camera at f/8 or lower and at 1/100 shutter speed.
    2. Take a picture.
    3. Check on screen: Is the picture exposed correctly?
    4a. Yes: You’re done.
    4b. No, too bright: Increase shutter speed by dialing the shutter speed dial. Go to step 2.

    4c. No, too dark: Decrease shutter speed by dialing the shutter speed dial. Go to step 2.

  • fahrertuer

    Why not nail it in the first try?
    -meter the sky near the sun (or close to the brightest part of the image)
    -make sure your subject is underexposed at least 2 stops
    -check up on the LCD

  • Tobert55

    im using spot metering to meter the sky.. then i underexpose by 2 stops.

  • slvrscoobie

    And your doing all this while the couple is walking / kissing and missing other opportunities?

  • Dave Melges

    Beautiful silhouettes. Wow, I’m reading all the comments below on how to meter them, and it reminds me of a bunch of mechanics arguing about how to fix a car so they can go to a store that’s right next door, lol.

    Do yourselves a favor…if you want to shoot these kind of ARTISTIC and DRAMATIC lighting photos, DUMP YOUR SLR. It’s a dinosaur technology and it’s overdue for an asteroid extinction.

    Get a LIVE VIEW CAMERA…one with LIVE VIEW in the VIEWFINDER. Put your camera on manual, all the time, set your aperture to where you want it for sharp pictures, and just dial in the shutter speed, the WHOLE TIME WATCHING YOUR EXPOSURE CHANGE in real time.

    No more shoot/review/shoot/review/shoot/review. You get it right, right now, and move on.

    Get a SONY SLT….I can’t remember the last time I reviewed a pic to check for exposure or white balance…or used RAW for that matter…I think it was in 2009.

  • fahrertuer

    Give me a decent EVF on par with the OVF of an SLR and you might have a case.

    The last few I’ve tried (Sony NEX7, Sony Alpha 35, Panasonic GH2 and Fuji X-Pro1) didn’t convince me.

  • lidocaineus

    You do realize that every SLR/dSLR has had an exposure meter that works in real time through the viewfinder, right? And that you use it to when you shoot in everything from manual to fully automatic? And that the screens on LiveView cameras are probably some of the worst things to use for judging exposure, since many screens used on cameras (LV or not) are not designed for accurate representation of exposure, especially in the shadows and details? I guess you could just use a live histogram, but… uh, that’s the same thing as the exposure meter in the SLR/dSLR camera.

  • Dave Melges

    You do realize that you don’t know what you’re talking about, right? I haven’t used a light meter or a histogram in YEARS, and my percentage of correctly exposed images DESTROYS anyone using an SLR, for the simple reason that the SLR has no idea what you’re trying to shoot. It’s GUESSING. In fact, it thinks EVERYTHING is medium gray.

    And you do realize that SONY SLTs ARE designed for exact and perfect representation of exposure, so you obviously haven’t shot one.

    Without fail, every DSLR shooter who’s ever tried to make your argument in person, is embarrassed to find out, after scrutiny, just how often they chimp…..REVIEW THE SHOT THEY JUST TOOK…because with an SLR, you have no idea if you got it right, until you REVIEW IT.

    On the other hand, I never, EVER review images for exposure or white balance. Never.

    Now you can be honest, and admit you’ve never shot the cameras you’re talking down about…..or you can admit you just didn’t know how to use them. But you can’t say it doesn’t WORK, cause I’m here telling you I shoot about 1.2 million pics a year, without EVER using a light meter. EVER.

    And shots like silhouettes, or shots TOWARD a light source, no matter how clever you think you are, are pretty much impossible without doing a shoot/review with an SLR, but they are dial and shoot and get it right with an SLT.

    And who is WE? I shot film…I’ll tell you how we did it, WE BRACKETED…..these are NOT film cameras. Fortunately, we don’t HAVE to let the camera GUESS anymore. Your film comment is about as bone-dumb as anything I’ve ever read. Of course BEFORE we had modern tools we used ANCIENT tools. We used to skin animals with rocks too, should we do THAT today?

    Good grief…shoot the cameras and learn the technology BEFORE you run your mouth.

  • Dave Melges

    I can completely understand if you have a personal preference for an OVF.. whatever makes people the most comfortable.

    In my experience, if you shoot live view, FULL MANUAL, for any extended period of time, you come to realize that the viewfinders job is NOT to look like reality, like an OVF is. It’s supposed to look like the picture you’re GOING to take. Reality is easy, you just lower your camera…..seeing the shot BEFORE you take it is invaluable, and you can’t do that with an OVF.

    If you change your definition of what makes a viewfinder valuable, the EVF is much MUCH better than an OVF.

    If you shoot Live View, Full Manual, day in and day out for a month, and then you try to shoot with an SLR, you suddenly realize you were always blind before.

  • fahrertuer

    You’ve sounded somewhat credible until you mentioned shooting 3300 images a day

  • lidocaineus

    Your entire argument could be summed in one sentence: you, or the person using the SLR/dSLR, didn’t know how to use the exposure meter on the camera.

    Did I say using an SLT doesn’t work effectively? Nope, so stop acting like I’m saying that. What I *AM* saying, is that if you know how to expose using the built in light meter in a traditional dSLR, you’ll get the exact same results without even having to look down at the LCD screen. How do I know this? Because I rarely, if ever, look down at the LCD to check exposure, and yet somehow, I get correctly exposed photos, whether going for a silhouette or not.

    Know how to use your exposure meter is more than just making sure the needle is in the center. You have to know what exactly that means with relation to your camera body, the lens, and what mode your exposure meter is in. Are you spot metering? Matrix metering? Average weighting? Do you have a specific exposure goal in mind? Are you using exposure compensation? Does this lens over expose in certain situations and not in others, ie, when shooting into a light source? Yes, it takes awhile to understand how exposure works on your camera, but once you do, you rarely, if ever, need to look down after the fact.

    I don’t appreciate you putting words in my mouth. Stop being so defensive just because someone disagrees with your insulting, blanket statement.

    Also you never need to check for white balance? Of course not. Who even does that anymore in this day of RAW shooting?

  • Matthew Neumann

    Jesus, Dave. Get off your high horse. You have no idea what you’re talking about, and just sound ridiculously pompous.

    No one said your fancy little Sony SLT can’t do what you’re describing just fine. But your notion that SLR shooters can only chimp their way to a proper exposure is – to be blunt – idiotic.

  • Dave Melges

    So you’re saying I DON’T shoot 3,300 images a day? lol

  • Dave Melges

    You’re missing the point. Which is common, when you’ve only tried ONE way, and not BOTH ways. You’re intentionally ignorant…but if you’re happy, I don’t care, I just don’t like letting people mislead OTHER people.

    Anyone can get the “correct” exposure. We’re talking about art. Where AVERAGE and CORRECT are often NOT the goal. And yes, it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to accomplish something creative, without seeing it. Which means you either VIEW it, or REVIEW it, And that’s not complicated. Whether you LIVE PREVIEW it, or CHIMP it, or adjust the RAW later (which is a waste of time with live view) or choose between bracketed images, AT SOME POINT IN TIME YOU HAVE TO SEE THE IMAGE AND MAKE A DECISION BASED ON SEEING THE IMAGE.

    With live view, you do that FIRST. Which is better, which also is NOT complicated.

    People who haven’t used Live View and Full Manual extensively can sometimes have a hard time understanding this.

  • Dave Melges

    I’m sorry, but it’s not an insult, it’s simply the truth. You can NOT do something creative without seeing the image. What is IDIOTIC, is suggesting that you CAN.

    You either Live Preview it.
    Or you REVIEW it.
    Or you ADJUST it in RAW after SEEING IT.

    But one way or another, you do have to SEE THE IMAGE. With Live View, you see it FIRST, which is infinitely better. NOT being able to see it before you shoot it, means that you DEFINITELY HAVE TO DO ONE OF THE OTHER STEPS. There is no way around it….

    You will not KNOW if you did it right, until you SEE THE SHOT..

    If you’re going to try to tell people you’re “so goooood” you don’t have to see it, YOU’RE the one full of yourself.

    I’m not trying to insult DSLR shooters, but watch them…watch pros….the only one’s NOT reviewing, are shooting sports on AUTO. Which is fine…some situations don’t require CREATIVE EXPOSURES…but silhouettes and sunsets sure do, lol.

  • lidocaineus

    Um, from what I can tell, no one here is arguing with you about whether you can get the exposure you want from SLTs. The only person here who’s acting ‘intentionally ignorant’ appears to be you. For example, you simply ignored everything I said about placing the exposure needle in the center, which explicitly addressed what you’re referring to a technically correct versus, well, what I think you’re referring to as your desired exposure. But now you’ve gone completely off the rails and are ranting about chimping, live previewing, adjusting RAW after the fact as some sort of waste of time (??), and I don’t really understand what you’re saying any more.

    Here’s a piece of advice for you: try and understand what the other person is saying before you go off the handle, otherwise you just drag a discussion down into fruitlessness.

  • Jun

    Love all the photos. They are so beautiful. Especially 5th one. The big dark side and bit of sky with the silhouette is so poetic to me.

  • Dave Melges

    Exactly. I shot YOUR style cameras for years…now I’ve shot MODERN cameras for years. I know both sides…I shot film for YEARS. You just need to catch up a bit on technology before you talk about this. You don’t get it yet…..someday, near future, MORE people will be on Live View cameras than on SLRs…its not like that’s a guess, SLRs rate of growth is almost zero now, mirrorless is doubling every year…..the arguments in these forums will tip, and you’ll finally have to break down and try to UNDERSTAND IT.

    Imagine how hard it was for me to explain this to people TEN YEARS AGO, lol….today it should be easy, SLT is just plain better. You can shoot an SLT like an SLR if you want, you just can’t do the REVERSE.

    One camera does both, one camera only does the OLD WAY. Pretty simple math.

  • Brett Benham

    You guys both have solid points, but at the end of the day, all that matters is if a) I got the shot and b) if my clients like it.

  • lidocaineus

    Why do you keep trying to imply things that weren’t said? Did I say SLT or mirrorless is not the future (or the past, since SLT’s not a new thing)? Why do you keep implying that I’ve never used an SLT or mirrorless? Fact: no LiveView screen, even the new Sony OLED-based ones, can cover the same dynamic range as an OVF. Every single review says this. Every. Single. Review. Add in the fact that when you use them in person (which I have) you can easily see the difference in terms of viewfinder brightness, when you, you know, LOOK at them, and you get the reason why many people dislike them. Fact: SLTs and their associated EVFs have a number of advantages vs OVFs you must weigh when considering a purchase.

    But who cares? The only thing that matters is this: I was disputing your ridiculous claim of not being able to get a well done silhouette through traditional SLRs without constantly playing “check the histogram”. I called you out, you had no sane response, and now you’re trying to derail the conversation into a million different tangents about SLTs. If you actually want to speak to the original point I’ll be happy to continue. If you want to keep going on your SLT crusade (which no one is even really arguing against), you may as well save your keystrokes and go chase after windmills.

  • Matthew Neumann

    Laughing….out….loud. What a joke.

    You can’t do something creative without seeing the image? Ok…so….all those fantastic photographers that made names for themselves before digital cameras even existed….they were just….guessing?

    No. Simply…

    There are plenty of quality photographers that simply *know* light. Sorry that that’s so hard for you to comprehend. Many photographers can accurately estimate an exposure simply by looking at the light and knowing what they want the image to look like. Add on top of that the metering available in modern cameras, knowing your metering modes, and it amounts to the fact that no, a good SLR photographer does not -need- to chimp their photos to know they got it right. They do it because they can. Not because they have to.

    What I think is hilarious is how convinced you are that what you see through your live-view mode is a 100% flawless representation of perfect exposure. I’m sure you’ve *never* made adjustments at all to any of your pictures that you thought were perfect in live view, right? Don’t bother trying to say you haven’t – no need to lie.

    Anyway, you go ahead and keep using your live view camera as a crutch rather than learning light properly. Oh, and you should CAPITALIZE a few more words. I couldn’t quite figure out what you were trying to EMPHASIZE.

  • Ryan

    your facebook photos are awesome

  • Greg

    Haha yeah, I don’t get all this light meter bollocks. Yes when you only had one shot at getting right and couldn’t check until you got to the lab, but what’s the harm now you can see the result straight away of trial and error.

    That coupled with photoshop magic, makes it far quicker to use trial and error and a bit of patience.

  • James Taylor

    Haha! “You can NOT do something creative without seeing the image”