A Starter Guide to Portrait Silhouettes

I don’t remember exactly when I fell in love with silhouette photos, but I do know that I never tire of them! There is something about seeing a new silhouette on the back of my camera for the first time that still makes my heart pound a little. I love incorporating them into my photo sessions to give people that extra something special. Silhouettes have a timeless feel to them, and a way of evoking the strongest emotions. However, they might not be something you have ever tried, and may seem intimidating at first! So here are some tips to get you started on taking some beautiful silhouette photos!

1. Look for contrast. This is the key to silhouettes. Your background needs to be brighter than your subject in order to have your subject be dark, and the background still bright. Your background can be the sky (look for the sun, this is the brightest spot), a window, water, a lamp, anything that gives off or reflects light. Be creative!

2. Get down low. If you want to use the sky as your background, your subject needs to be above you in order to have the sky behind them. If you have visibility all the way to the horizon (like you might at the beach) you and you subject can be on the same level, and you can sit or lie down in order to have the sky behind them. Otherwise, look for a hill and have your subject at the top of the hill while you shoot from the bottom.

3. Shoot at sunset for dramatic colors. Wait, wait, and wait some more. The colors will be the most dramatic the last half hour before the sun goes below the horizon.

4. Don’t rule out midday silhouettes. When the sun is higher in the sky it can be harder to shoot so that it is behind your subjects, but it can be done. Hills are especially helpful in this case.

5. Expose for the background. If your camera is in auto, it will likely automatically change the exposure to try and brighten your subjects. Try shooting in aperture priority and metering off of the sky, or switch to manual and lower the exposure a little more if needed. Underexposing a little will make sunset colors more dramatic.

6. Look for shapes. Silhouettes take away some of the things you usually rely on in a photo, like facial expressions. Find a way to tell the story through the shapes and poses instead. Flowy, dramatic clothing can make interesting shapes. Stay away from baggy or ill-fitting clothing as it can make the silhouettes less defined and less flattering. Have your subjects interact or create movement (spin with a flowy skirt, hold hands, lean together and kiss, etc) but make sure they stay far enough apart that each person is well defined.

7. Don’t be afraid of clouds. It might seem that the clouds will hide the sunset from you, but embrace them! Look for dramatic cloud formations, and even use them as a compositional element.

8. Get close, and go wide. Shoot at a variety of focal lengths for different effects. Closeups can show off details, while wide shots can create a dramatic landscape for your subject.

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