Photographing Silhouettes

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Great Blue Heron Silhouette
In most of my posts about getting proper exposure of subjects outdoors I've suggested that there are a significant number of practices that will help you get your subject properly exposed. However, if you want your subject to be silhouetted against a colorful or dramatic background, you need to toss all that advice out the window.  In fact, when lighting conditions become "poor," I often start thinking about about photographing silhouettes, and then all of the sudden my lighting conditions may become good again.

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Sunrise and Trees
To photograph a silhouette, you need a relatively high contrast situation, which means that you will be better off if your subject is back-lit--that is, with the sun in front of you.  This will make the background very bright.  Then you want to base your exposure on the bright background.  Since your subject is not lit from the front, it will become very dark compared to the background in your photograph.  There are a couple ways to do this: the "right" way and a "quick and dirty" way.

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Mockingbird Silhouette
The Right Way: This is the best way to get a silhouette when your subject is relatively stationary.  When shooting subjects that may move at any second, I would try the quick and dirty way first.
  1. Change your shooting mode manual and your metering mode to spot meter, and I would also use a tripod to make things even simpler.  
  2. Zoom in on the brightest part of the scene you want in your photograph.  Use your manual controls to set that brightest pat of the scene to be the exposure you want.  I'd recommend beginning at +1 stop, unless you know you want it differently.  I often want a fair amount of depth of field when shooting silhouettes, so I often begin at ISO 100 and somewhere between f/8 and f/16, then set my shutter speed to give me +1 stop exposure compensation.
  3. Now recompose, make sure you're focused on your subject, and fire away.
  4. Check your preview screen and histogram to see if you achieved the results you want, and adjust your setting and take more pictures if you are not happy with the results you have.
The Quick and Dirty Way: I use this method when I find a subject is in just the right conditions for a silhouette photograph, but I'm nervous that those conditions may change before I can do it the "right" way.  This may be a situation where I see a bird in the right light, but he looks like he may fly away any second.  Or it may be that it's a cloudy day, and the sun has broken through the clouds to give me just the right light, but in just a few seconds the clouds will again cover the sun.
  1. Leave your camera settings the way you have them, since you don't have time to change.  But know an understand how they are set so that you can quickly adjust.  When not in manual mode, I am usually shooting in Aperture Priority mode with matrix/evaluative metering.  So the following instructions are what I do when my camera is set this way.
  2. Make a quick guess about your lighting situation.  In particular, you want to know how large the silhouetted portion will be in your image relative to the bright portions.  If it will be relatively small, you may be able to shoot with no exposure compensation.  If it is relatively large, you may need make adjustments--perhaps as much as -1 stop.  This is because your camera's light meter is trying to average all the exposure values in the frame to come up with what it thinks is right.  The larger the dark portion of your image, the more the camera will try to raise the exposure to make it properly exposed.  If it's very small in the frame, your light meter's reading will be much more weighted toward the brighter parts of your image. 
  3. Make sure your subject is in focus and start shooting.
  4. Check your preview screen to see how well you guessed at the proper exposure.  If you were off, make further adjustments and try again.  Over time, you'll find that your first guesses will be more accurate.
  5. If your subject is still where you want it, and if you have any doubts about your "quick and dirty" results, try the "right" way so you can be sure you go home with the results you want.


  1. Once again..thank for the tips..and then there's "cheating" set your D5000 scene to silhouette ;-)

  2. Ooh, and thanks for the "cheat!" I don't have that particular cheat on my camera.


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