When I was a kid, my family would go to the Danbury State Fair in Connecticut every summer, and one of the rituals of those trips was that my brother and I had our portraits done by a silhouette artist. The artist used nothing but a piece of black paper and a pair of scissors to create a perfect likeness of our profiles. Having the patience to sit still when I was nine or 10 years old, while surrounded by the enticing chaos of a state fair, was not easy. But his renderings were fascinating and eventually led to my interest as a professional photographer in the creative potential of silhouettes.

Silhouette photos are beautiful and memorable, and anyone can take them if you know a few simple techniques.

Silhouettes make bold photographs because they strip away most of the obvious visual identifiers such as texture, volume and surface detail, leaving you with little to identify a subject other than its shape. Typically, the only color in a silhouette photograph is in the background. The subject itself is cast as stark black or black with subtle and mysterious shadings of color.

The beauty of this approach is that when you reduce subjects to a silhouette, you often reveal details and patterns that are otherwise overlooked—the complex rigging of a commercial fishing boat, for example, as in this image…

One of the nice things about shooting silhouettes is that you can get great results with almost any camera, including a smartphone camera. That’s good news because you’re likely to already have your phone with you when opportunities for great silhouette photos unexpectedly arise.

The subjects that work best are those that have an instantly recognizable outline—trees, sailboats, birds and animals and, of course, people. Again, any subject that is opaque and can be photographed against a bright background will work, but the bolder and more familiar the shape, the more dramatic your photos will be.

As I drive around town doing my daily chores, I tend to keep a mental notebook of things I think will make an interesting silhouette. One afternoon, I noticed some strange construction equipment on a highway bridge, so I got up before sunrise the next morning and went back to photograph it in silhouette against the colorful dawn sky. It’s one of my favorite shots, and the seagull landing on a lamppost really helped me out.

Landscape silhouettes shot at sunrise or sunset can look particularly dramatic if the main subjects are surrounded by sky and water. Midday is a tough time to find good silhouettes because everything is evenly illuminated. Here’s a photo I took at Cypress Gardens (sadly, now closed) near Winter Haven, Florida.

I shot the harbor scene shown below as the sunset was igniting the sky and harbor. The harbor in Stonington, Maine is fittingly called Burnt Cove!

While the sky is certainly the most available bright and colorful background for silhouettes, it’s not the only one. You can also use water (the ocean, a lake, a creek), a brightly lit brick wall or colorfully-painted wall in a city, a sunlit meadow or even the bright neon lights of Times Square. I shot this photo of a mother and son peering into a giant glass wall at the Mystic Seaport Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut.

Want to try silhouette photography? Whether you’re using a phone, tablet or stand-alone camera, the key is how you set your exposure.

The Perfect Silhouette Exposure

The secret of creating bold silhouettes is simple—place an opaque subject (any subject that doesn’t pass light) in front of a bright background and set your exposure for the background. That’s it!

There are two ways to accomplish this exposure setting. The simplest is to just leave your camera in the “program” or “auto” mode, meter only the bright background and then use your camera’s exposure-lock feature to set that exposure. You’ll still be able to set your focus where you want it. Here’s how:

  • Stand-alone cameras. If you press the shutter-release button halfway down and hold it there, that will lock the exposure.
  • Smartphone. Most have a built-in exposure and photo-lock feature that you activate by tapping and holding the area on the screen that you want the camera to meter (and set focus for). The iPhone for example, has an AE/AF lock and when you tap and hold an area on the screen, a yellow box pops up to show you it’s active.

If you’re photographing a sailboat against the sunset, for example, aim your lens away from the subject (and away from the sun) and meter just the bright sky. Then aim the lens to compose the scene you actually want to capture, and press the shutter release the rest of the way to take the picture. Result: The camera will be set to expose only for the brighter background, leaving the rest dark and in silhouette.

In this shot of the two women talking at the beach, I metered only the sky behind them and locked in that reading.

Word of caution: Many cameras lock both focus and exposure simultaneously when you press the shutter-release button halfway down. There are, however, provisions to give each of these locks its own dedicated camera button—so that you can lock exposure and focus independently of one another. That way you can set exposure for the background but still focus on the subjects of your silhouette. Check your manual to find out how to do this on your camera. You’ll still fire the camera using the shutter-release button, but you can use another button (such as the * button) to set the exposure. Each camera is different.

If your subject is approximately the same distance from you as the bright background (if they are both at focus “infinity,” for example), you won’t need to do this. But if they are at very different distances, you’ll have to separate the exposure-lock and focus-lock features so that you can lock the exposure and then focus the lens. Once you get the hang of this, it won’t seem difficult.

The second exposure method is to switch your camera to the “manual-metering” mode—if your camera has one. In this mode, you can meter the bright background, recompose the scene, then focus on your main subject and shoot—the exposure will remain locked. That’s the purpose of the manual mode, in fact, so that you can meter a specific area and the camera won’t try to override your settings when you create your final composition.

Whichever method you use, check your device’s screen after you’ve shot a few frames to see whether the subject is black (or nearly so) and the background is well exposed. If you’re seeing any detail in the subject that you don’t want, use your exposure-compensation feature (even most phones have that feature now) to set minus exposure compensation (try “-1” to start) and see whether that gives you a more dramatic silhouette with good contrast.

It’s OK if some light spills onto the subject.  The silhouette doesn’t have to be absolute. Often in my silhouettes, I can see a small amount of subject surface detail that actually adds interest.

Caution: Beware “the merge.” When this happens, part of the subject’s shape merges into a dark area of the background, ruining the integrity of the silhouette. If you find this occurring in your shots, try changing your shooting angle slightly by kneeling or moving to the left or right. Adjusting your position by just a foot or two vertically or horizontally might free up those merged details and surround your subject with a bright, clutter-free background.

Finally, I usually give my silhouette photos a little extra dramatic pop by tweaking them in editing. You might bump up the contrast a bit and saturate the colors. (If you use Photoshop, you can use the selective color tool to darken the blacks.) I also crop, if needed, to strengthen the composition. If you’re shooting with a smartphone, you may have a comparison grid that you can select so that you can see several versions of each composition and choose the most dramatic frames.

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs courtesy of Jeff Wignall, used by permission.