How to shoot a perfect silhouette

One of my A Year With My Camera students asked how to shoot a silhouette, in our private Facebook group this week. It's a good question, so here goes:

The problem

Your camera doesn't know you want the subject silhouetted. It will be trying to get everything exposed brightly, not realising you want your people to turn into shapes:


If you leave your camera on auto mode, it's very hit and miss whether you will get the black outlines you want.

The solution

Silhouettes work best when you have a very bright background. You need to force your camera to expose the background (usually the sky) correctly, not the silhouetted shapes. 

In this shot, the people are exposed correctly, and (because it was very bright) the sky is completely overexposed:

people correctly exposed.jpg

If you force the camera to expose the sky correctly, you will get the silhouette effect:

24mm, ISO 200, f22 (which gives the star burst sun), 1/250th

24mm, ISO 200, f22 (which gives the star burst sun), 1/250th

You have 3 choices:

1. Use spot metering

If you force the camera to meter from only one small area of the screen, of your choosing, and you choose the blue sky, then you will get the exposure you want.

2. Use exposure compensation

On aperture or shutter priority modes, if you dial in minus 2 stops of exposure compensation, you should start to see the silhouette effect. You might need more.

3. Use manual mode

If you need more than minus 3 stops, or you like to have more control, use manual mode to tailor the settings exactly how you want them, knowing you are aiming for your subject to be thrown into complete shadow. 

emma headshot 800.jpg

Join A Year With My Camera here

My online workshop for complete beginners explains why the camera gets it wrong in situations like this, and gets you up and running off auto modes in 6 weeks. It's free and you can get started here:

Click here to subscribe