Photography Lessons Twentynine Palms: Silhouettes

January 25, 2016
photography lessons
Twentynine Palms Photography Lessons Part 2: Silhouettes


Photography Lessons in Twentynine Palms

Part 2: Silhouettes

We started off our series on photography lessons with a post about equipment. I fully intended to follow up with a post on some really important basics like how to focus (and we’ll get to that)! For now, I thought it would be nice to start with something fun to get you motivated to start practicing with your manual settings! If you need more guidance beyond these mini photography lessons, consider checking out my one on one mentoring sessions!

Last week I posted this silhouette picture of my own boys and it got a great response so I’d love to teach you how to get this effect in one of our first photography lessons! Silhouettes can be a great way to show the universal beauty of a moment.  When we see a silhouette of children playing or a couple proposing or a family standing on a mountain top, it elicits a feeling that it could be us, or our children.  While a silhouette portrait captures a real person or real people it is a beautiful type of art that can represent a truth or a feeling or a moment for so many different people. See… photography lessons can be fun!

photography lessons
Candid childhood moments

In today’s photography lesson I am going to cover three things you need for a great silhouette – 1) the right location, 2) the right settings, 3) the right posing.

The Right Location

The ideal location for a silhouette is a clean horizon line with nothing behind your subjects but a nice bright light. If you’re light is the sun, its going to need to be sunset or sunrise when the sun is close to the horizon so it can be directly behind your subjects. If there is anything at all behind your subjects, it will not be a perfect silhouette. You can see in the image above of my boys, that this is not a perfect horizon because there is a hill in the background that goes up higher than the bottom of their feet. I loved the picture so much I fixed that in editing by darkening the part of their lower legs and feet that had not been included in the original silhouette.  That worked here but often it will not. The top of a big hill or rock is often a great spot for getting a clear horizon as seen in this beautiful engagement shot reenacting a couple’s proposal. This was at the top of a big hill with nothing but blue sky and setting sun behind them!

photography lessons
Beautiful engagement silhouette

Don’t forget, the light is just as important as the horizon line! A nice layer of clouds dotting the sky can be beautiful but if its a solid mass of dark clouds covering the sun, there may not be enough light to achieve the silhouette effect. That’s what happened here! Sometimes a silhouette just ins’t in the cards for a particular session.

Too dark for a silhouette! Try again another time if it looks like this.

The Right Posing

The second thing you need for a good silhouette portrait is the right posing. If you stand your family at the top of a mountain and ask them to put their arms around each other, you will end up with a huge black blob on top of a mountain. For a successful silhouette you need distinction! Each member of the family must be standing completely in their own space so that you can see every last detail outlined. In the portrait featured at the very top, I love how you can see the little girls pony tail on top and the little boy kicking his leg. I also like to connect my families even though they need to be distinct. To achieve this I usually ask them to hold hands or ask someone to stretch their legs from one rock to another, connecting the image in that way.

photography lessons
Digital Photography lessons Part 2 Silhouettes

The Right Settings

You’ll need to understand a little bit about your camera to appreciate this part of the lesson. If you don’t have any idea how to use your camera in manual yet, stay tuned…we’ll get to each piece of the puzzle in future photography lessons. You can also sign up for my one-on-one mentoring opportunities and I will quickly get you up to speed! For those of you who understand the basics, this photography lesson will give you an overview of how to achieve a silhouette.

You’ve now stood your family or couple or kids on top of a rock or on a very clear horizon line, you’ve got the sun behind them, and you’ve got groups posed with distinction. Now how do you get the people black and the background bright? As with most things in photography the answer is in how much light you allow into your camera! Here you want to “meter” for your background light. That means you let in enough light to try to accurately capture your background rather than your subjects.  In a normal (non silhouette) portrait,  you will be metering for your subject because your first priority is making your people look right! That often leads to missing out on some of the beautiful clouds or sunsets you see in the background. (I often think this is one of the most exciting things about a silhouette, you get to keep that beautiful background!)

So if you’re metering for light instead of people, that means you need a lot less light coming into your camera. The thing you’re trying to capture accurately is already very bright! How do you reduce the light coming into your camera? There are a few ways. The first thing I do is turn my ISO down to 100.  I also set my aperture at an appropriate number based on the number of people in my picture (how much do I want in focus). If its a family of 5 for a silhouette where they are all in a line, I might go with aperture around 5 or 6. Then I take a trial shot. How is it looking? Are my people looking black?  Because I already have my ISO down as low as it can go, and I want my aperture to be correct, shutter speed is the only tool I have left to reduce the amount of light entering my camera.  If my people are not black yet, I INCREASE my shutter speed until they are!  

If you have a decent editing program, you can also finalize your silhouette look in post processing by bringing down your blacks or lowering your exposure but a silhouette done well can look really great straight out of your camera too!

I hope you’ll try this out this week and post or send me your results from these photography lessons! Have any questions or ready to sign up for a one-on-one mentoring session? Send me a message at [email protected]. Looking forward to seeing all of your beautiful silhouettes!



See! Now I thought the light had to be behind THEM! Which is tough when they move at ALL, because the sun has to be RIGHT behind them and they have to cover ALL of it for that trick to work (although I do like it… the 2 times I’ve ever managed to make it work.) lol!!

This way seems MUCH easier 😉

Yes! Sun behind your subjects! You have some wiggle room as long as you keep them between you and the Sun. You can see in my examples you can’t actually see the Sun because it has dipped below the horizon a bit. That is probably when it works best so you just have the glow of it and not a spotlight behind your subjects! A nice high rock works well when the Sun hasn’t quite bit the horizon yet but it is lower than the rock.