How To Take a Stunning Silhouette Photo

Inside: Learn how to shoot a stunning silhouette photo in 5 easy steps with your DSLR. iPhone silhouette photo tutorial also included!

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Last year for my birthday all I asked for was a nature hike with my family.

They obliged, and we hiked a small summit near our home. The grade to the top was steep, but short. My kids found rocks to haul up and at the summit we were rewarded with a beautiful view and freshwater pools where they tossed their stones.

Minus the water, it felt like we were on the surface of the moon.

I had my trusty camera with me, of course!  As the sun sank lower, my anticipation grew.  I knew the best light would come as the sun set.

I couldn’t wait to capture the perfect silhouette photo.

5 Simple Steps To a Stunning Silhouette Photo

I’ve broken the process for taking a great silhouette photo down into 5 simple steps:

Step 1 to a Stunning Silhouette Photo: Find a Location With Open Space

Great locations for silhouette photos include the beach, the top of a hill or an open field – anywhere with lots of open sky and not a lot of trees, houses or other objects in the way.

I took this silhouette photo on the beach.

Step 2: Find The Best Light

The easiest time to capture a silhouette photo is in the evening when the sun is low, and after sunset.

To capture a great silhouette photo the light needs to be behind your subject.  Place your subject between your camera and the setting sun.

Silhouette photos are easiest at this time of day because the light is getting softer. Shooting into softer light is easier than shooting into direct sun.

Also, as the sun goes down the sky becomes more vibrant!

I took this image as the sun slipped below the horizon.

Step 3: Get As Low As You Can

Here’s a pullback of the spot where I took the photo above.  It’s hard to see the difference in elevation, but the kids were up higher than I was. I was positioned in a lower spot, on my back.

You gotta do what you gotta do to get the shot! 

Get as low as you can.  You may need to lie on your back to get low enough.

Pin this for later!

Step 4: Expose for the Sky

To expose for the sky, you’ll need to shoot in full manual or a semi-automatic camera mode.  I always recommend manual mode.

If you need help with that, check out this post on how to use your DSLR camera.

Don’t be afraid to shoot in manual mode!  For silhouette photos, it’s the best option.

If you want to use a semi-automatic camera mode, I’d recommend Shutter Priority so you can choose a shutter speed high enough to avoid motion blur.

If you’re in shutter priority mode you’ll need to set your exposure for the sky, then use the exposure lock feature on your camera so the exposure won’t change when you focus on your subject.

In my opinion, that’s more cumbersome than manual mode.  And manual mode will allow you to tweak your exposure as the light changes while the sun goes down.

The light will fade fast at sunset!

Here are the steps to expose for the sky:

Step 1: For the most precision when you set your exposure, I recommend spot metering mode and single point focus.  Point your camera at the sky, but not at the sun.  Place your focal point on a spot in the sky that’s blue.

Step 2: Adjust your ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed until your camera meter is a 0 or somewhat underexposed (below 0).  You may need to underexpose to get your subjects blacked out.

Step 3: Once your exposure is set move your focal point to your subject and take a test shot.  If the sky looks good and your subjects look like blacked-out silhouettes, you’re ready to go!  If not, adjust one of the legs of the exposure triangle to darken your exposure a bit more.

Step 5: Isolate Your Subject

This is easier said than done with kids, but if you have more than one person in your photo, encourage them to give each other a bit of space.

You’ll have best results when you can see each person’s distinct features.

If your subjects are too close together they may look more like a blob than people!

This principle also applies to the subject’s environment.  I love how in the photo below my daughter is isolated from her the ground beneath her.

PRO TIP: Ask your kids to jump, dance, walk and move.  You’ll get more photos where you can see the entire body and their limbs are more likely to look distinct.  But be sure your shutter speed is fast enough to capture the motion.  In this photo my shutter speed was 1/640.

I love this image BUT the houses and trees on the horizon line “ate up” my daughter’s feet.  The image would be stronger if I could see more of her feet.

Pro Tip:  If you notice anything distracting along the horizon line, remove it in Lightroom.

I used the healing brush in Lightroom to remove a cell phone tower in the distance.

A small distraction removed keeps your eyes focused on the subject.

How To Take An iPhone Silhouette Photo

An iPhone silhouette photo is a bit simpler to take, but the camera phone’s capabilities are limited. An iPhone is more challenging to use in low light, so still subjects work best if you’re shooting after sunset.

Step 1: Place your subject with the light behind them. Face your phone toward the sunset (or light source).  Get down as low as possible.

Step 2: Tap your finger on the sky to set your exposure.  You can drag your finger up or down on the iPhone screen to brighten or darken the photo.  Adjust the exposure until your subjects look blacked out.

Step 3: Snap the photo!  Edit the photo on your phone to give it more pop.  Lower the shadows and increase the contrast so the silhouette areas are nice and dark.

I took this silhouette photo with my iPhone. 

The next time you’re out in nature with your family be sure to stick around for the best light at sunset and remember these five steps to create your own stunning silhouette photo:

Find a Location with Open Sky

Put the Light Behind Your Subject

Get Down Low

Expose for the Sky

Isolate Your Subject

Check out my Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet for Beginners: