Silhouettes make for wonderful images. But often they are more accidental than anything else. Silhouettes can make us think of a grand journey as we travel or a romantic meeting under the stars. So how can we create silhouettes at will when creating travel images?
What mode to use
We want to be using Manual mode. If we use Auto, Tv (shutter priority) or Av (aperture priority) the camera will be attempting to find settings that bring about optimal exposure. Proper light exposure means the subject is well lit without any bright highlights or deep shadow to hide details. But what makes a silhouette so special is that our subject is so poorly exposed that we have a deep shadow. So Manual mode is our friend here.
Where to focus
If your camera has selectable AF points, then select the sky or another bright source of light. Remember we want the subject to be underexposed for silhouette photography. Since the camera sees underexposed sections as unwanted, we have to trick it. Selecting a brightly lit point may be enough to get a silhouette. But sometimes if we try to take a photo without adjusting the light metering, the camera may default to Matrix metering. As a result, the camera will increase the light exposure in the darker sections.
Adjusting the light meter
Metering is how the camera senses the scene to determine how to set its exposure. So we need to set the camera’s metering system depending on the placement of the subject. Spot metering usually works best here. Using spot metering, the camera adjusts light exposure based on a single (or multiple) autofocus point location. So if I select an autofocus point on the background sky, the subject in the foreground will remain dark because the camera is ignoring it for the purpose of exposure adjustment.
Consider the shutter speed…
Increasing our shutter speed while using manual mode is another way to capture a silhouette. When we use higher shutter speeds we’re letting less light enter the camera to activate the sensor. As long as the background is brightly lit then we should get a great silhouette of our foreground subject. It’s still a good idea to use spot metering even if we use a fast shutter speed to keep the camera from adding light exposure to the foreground.
… and the depth of field
We also want a large depth of field when shooting silhouettes. When the subject is de-emphasized due to lack of lighting the background stands out that much more. An ecstatic greeting of the morning sun on the beach is a classic travel photography image. And in that image, we want a nice detailed beach, surf, and sky as well as a sharp silhouette. Therefore, we need to consider the depth of field of our scene. Depth of field is how much of a scene is in sharp focus. And the way to adjust depth of field is to narrow our aperture setting. The lens aperture is the size of the hole that lets light onto the sensor of the camera. The setting is slightly counter intuitive; lowering the aperture number actually mean the opening is getting larger and vice versa.
So using larger aperture numbers such as f/8 and above will ensure the hole stays small. And this in turn gives us a nice large depth of field so we get a sharp silhouette and detailed background. A small aperture like f/1.8 would give us a sharp silhouette but the background would become blurred and indistinct.
The pose makes a huge difference
If the subject is a person then we should also consider the pose. When posing, the subject should be on a side profile or both shoulders squared to the photographer. Because we don’t have light to fill in the details in a silhouette, we need to capture the maximum amount of posture details possible. And that only comes by seeing them from the side, front, or back. Otherwise the pose will likely be messy and indistinct.
What story are you trying to tell?
Don’t forget that the pose is tell the story of the image. What emotions are we trying to convey in our imagery? Do I want to create a sense of pensiveness in my sunset over a city skyline? Then my subject should have a thoughtful pose. Perhaps something relatable to most audiences like looking out over a bridge at the setting sun.
What if we want to create a more romantic feeling? Nature works very well here, especially if we can cover a large expanse of forest, the sky, mountains, the ocean, etc.
Silhouettes are one of the best ways to create the sense of a long or upcoming journey. And that’s what travel is all about, of course! A sunset silhouette makes us think of a long day on the road. And a sunrise silhouette creates the idea of a journey just begun.
Silhouettes are extremely beautiful and iconic travel photos. But they’re a bit tricky to capture and it takes some practice to pull them off. But once you’ve mastered the techniques of adjusting light metering and focus points in manual mode, you’ll definitely be hooked. Happy shooting!