When Shooting Against The Light Makes Sense – Creating Silhouettes

Thai dancer silhouette
Veiled Thai dancer silhouetted against the light

Ever taken a photo of someone only to discover the result is a photo of a black outline of your subject against a bright background? Congratulations! You’ve just taken a silhouette photo!

After making this mistake several times, most of us quickly learn not to shoot directly into the sun. As a matter of fact, we’re told to keep the sun behind us. But purposely taking silhouettes can be fun and result in some dramatic images. So, rather than ‘fix’ our mistake, why not learn how to use it to our advantage?

Silhouettes are commonly caused when your camera adjusts exposure to the bright background, rather than on your subject.

Samples of Silhouette Photography
Two silhouette photos

Due to their simplicity, silhouettes are a wonderful way to convey drama and mystery in a photo. Best of all, they’re really quite simple to create. Basically, you’ll want to place your subject in front of a strong source of light. Doing so will cause your subject to be underexposed to the point of being very dark, if not black, against the lighter-colored background.

You can create a silhouette of almost anything, but to be successful, it’s important to choose something with a distinct, recognizable shape. Put some thought into choosing your subject beforehand, and try to imagine what the resulting shot will look like.

Lampost silhouettes
Lamp posts silhoueted against the sky

Location is also an important consideration when photographing silhouettes. When choosing a location to shoot, try to ensure that you have a lot of open space. The goal is to avoid extraneous elements that could clutter your shot, and distract from your subject.

Perhaps most important of all, you need to make sure that you have more light behind your subject than in front of it. The easiest way to start is by placing your subject directly in front of a strong light source – the sun, a lit window, or even a lamp. However, your subject doesn’t necessarily have to be directly in front of a light source. What’s important is ensuring they’re positioned so that they truly stand out from the background.

B&W Boat Hulls
Silhouette of boat hulls in black & white

Finally, to produce the best silhouette shots, make sure your subject is in focus. This will ensure that the edges of the silhouette are crisp and distinct.