Silhouette is an old art-form that is used to move emphasis to shapes and outlines. Origin of Silhouettes is a matter of debate, with some theorists going all the way back to vanished civilizations. My first serious encounter with silhouettes was when I saw some photographs by Henri Cartier Bresson where the main subjects were just black shapes. Before writing this article, I discussed the first encounter of silhouettes by some other photographers. I got quite a collection of answers with the top three interesting being – the silhouette of the queen on postal stamps of England, the silhouette of Beethoven in an old painting, the all too cliché photograph of the arch (in silhouette) framing the famous Taj Mahal

Silhouette of Pines

(Silhouette of Pines on a hill-top)


The basics

Silhouettes are very simple to create. The aim is to showcase the outline of a subject against a bright background.

Set the camera to whatever metering mode you like and then meter the scene. It should be bright. Now position the subject in your frame and capture the exposure at the same settings that the meter suggested earlier. The background should be very bright. The subject should be many shades darker than the background.

Common mistakes which beginners make while trying to capture silhouettes are –

  • Metering when the dark subject is in the frame is the most common mistake. This will change the exposure settings and can brighten up the subject. If you have to do this then use a spot-meter to take readings from the bright area or underexpose to darken the subject.
  • Using Auto-Mode is yet another common mistake. What this does is that sometimes to compensate for the dark subject, the in-camera flash fires. This can light up the subject spoiling the photograph. Even if the subject is not lit up significantly, the flash can still brighten up the dust particles floating in the air, between the camera and the subject, reducing the overall contrast of the photograph.
  • Boosting up the ISO is also a mistake that should be avoided. The dark silhouettes are very prone to noise. Use the lowest ISO when trying to capture these. Do not use Auto-ISO either. Sometimes the ISO may get boosted even before you notice.


Silhouette is not Posterization

Quite frequently, artists confuse silhouettes with posterization. Though in their initial days, posterization might have caused many dark photographs to appear as silhouettes but these are two very different things. See this for more information on posterization – Posterization


Silhouette of side profile

(Silhouette of side profile captured using an inexpensive compact camera. The scene was metered by pressing the shutter release button half-way down and then the model moved into the frame for the shot)


Some ideas

  • Try capturing dry trees in front of bright sky.
  • In front of a setting sun on a sea-beach, tall coconut trees or large rocks make interesting silhouettes.
  • Side profiles of faces too look very beautiful (as in the photograph above).
  • Street scenes can look beautiful when silhouettes are combined with reflections and shadows. Try searching on internet for such photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliot Erwitt.


Twin Trees

(Exposure compensation of -2 EV was used. To get the dark blues, further daylight correction was used. Learn about this here – Balancing Act (in Color) )


Get Artisty

For beautiful silhouettes try these –

  • If your subject has beautiful outlines, show them in front of a simple but bright background. Too colourful a background will take away the impact from the beautiful outlines.
  • If your background is beautiful and that is what is the main focal point in the photograph, then highlight that. The silhouette should simply complement the background. Too complicated silhouette will reduce the impact of such a background.


Dry Tree

(Dry trees captured in front of a setting sun on the hills. Since the subject can’t be moved around before calculating the exposure, an exposure compensation of -1 EV was set to get the perfect silhouette and the gradients in the background)

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