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(Last Updated On: April 8, 2020)
Home Composition Sunset Silhouette Photography - A Complete Guide

Sunset Silhouette Photography – A Complete Guide

(Last Updated On: March 20, 2020)

You’ve seen those spectacular sunset silhouette photos, the ones with a mysterious silhouetted subject watching the sun dip below the horizon. They’re emotionally moving, and that makes them a great photographic subject. So, how do you capture those stunning silhouettes?

Let’s start with the basics, and then we’ll take a look at some great silhouette photography tips, and also answer some common questions.

image of people and trees silhouetted against the setting sun

What is Silhouette Photography? 

Silhouette pictures are where there is a dark subject that is photographed against a bright background. With a sunset silhouette, the bright background is the setting sun. The subject of the photo doesn’t have to be a person; it could be birds or even something like a boat or a structure. The challenge with sunset silhouettes photography is that you have to create unbalanced exposures in your photo. The subject will be dark and lose its details, while the sunset background will be properly exposed. 

Watch Our Video on How To Take Silhouette Photos

What Time Should You Shoot a Sunset Silhouette? 

This is a common question and a great place to start. The best time to capture a sunset photo is during what is called the “Golden Hour.” That refers to a short stretch of time where there is increasing warmth to the color tones as the sun nears the horizon. It lasts until there are those gorgeous early evening cool hues with just a hint of brightness that lingers in the background. This is the perfect time to capture those amazing colors in your photo, and to take advantage of the golden hour, you want to get to your location and get set up so you’re ready when the perfect time arrives. 

How to Pick the Right Spot?

Finding the right spot for sunset photography depends on the mood you want to create and the subject you plan to shoot. In general, you want to choose an open space, so that the silhouette really stands out against the sunset. 

mountain top sunset silhouette shot
Think about your subjects’ outlines and try to find open spaces when choosing a location, such as this mountaintop shot

But more importantly, you have to carefully consider your subject. You want to start thinking about your subject’s silhouette, their outline. It doesn’t matter what their facial expression is, because that won’t be seen. Start thinking about your subjects in terms of their outline. Part of creating silhouettes is thinking about creating an interesting outline. When using human subjects, you have to consider how you will pose them in the foreground of the sunset. Minor things like how their limbs are positioned can create big differences in the outline. If you’re using more than one subject, it’s best to avoid overlapping them since you’ll only see their combined outline. 

Posing Your Subjects for Silhouette

Where and how you pose your subject can determine how crisp your silhouette is in the photo. Here are a few photography tips for getting the right pose:

silhouette photo of a couple with two kids and a dog
Posing your subjects well means thinking about their outlines, and making sure there is space between multiple subjects
  • The first photo tip is that you want to get yourself positioned, and then pose your subject. You want to make sure that the parts of your subjects you want silhouetted are above the horizon line. If you’re going to have the entire body silhouetted, you’ll probably need to get lower and angle the camera up. It might help to use a wide angle lens to capture more of the scene–for example, if you want to also include a pier or something other structure. On the other hand, a zoom lens can help to just silhouette the subjects. It might help to use a camera with 18 – 55 mm lens, which allows for some zoom as well as for a wide enough angle to capture the entire scene if that’s what you prefer.
  • You also want to place your subject in the optimum spot so that they stand out from the background. Remember that the viewer needs to be able to clearly see who and what is in the photo just by looking at the outline.
  • If you’re shooting a closeup of your subject’s head, ask him or her to turn their head sideways, so you can capture the profile. 
  • One of the most important photography tips if you’re taking a full body shot is that you’ll want to create distinct lines and separation between the subject’s arms and legs.
group of people silhouetted against the sunset
A wider angle lens can help capture more of the scene, and when shooting multiple subjects, make sure there is some space between them to highlight their outlines
  • Encourage couples to kiss or even dance, but make sure there is some space between them. If they’re kissing, have them bring their heads close together, but not touching. That way you get both of their profiles, and there will be enough space between them to create distinct silhouettes. 
  • If you’re shooting a family, have them line up and hold hands so there is enough space between them for distinct outlines. You might ask mom and dad to kiss, while the kids look on. 
  • If there’s a young baby in the family, have dad lift him or her up above his head. That creates space between them, but makes for a lovely silhouette. 

Camera Settings for Sunset Silhouette Photography

The camera settings for sunset silhouette photography are critical. Here are some photography tips for getting the exposure just right.

sunset silhouette image of a man on the beach
The perfect camera settings will produce subjects that are almost completely black background that is perfectly exposed
  • Shoot in Manual Mode: Because of the unbalanced exposure settings, you’ll have to use the manual mode and adjust specific settings; 
  • Lower Your ISO: ISO is the setting that affects your camera’s sensitivity to light. You would think you would want to increase the ISO as it gets darker, but keeping it low will prevent noise (a grainy appearance) in your photo. Noise will be really obvious will all the black in your photos, and so when you ‘go dark’, you’ll usually want an ISO around 100 – 200. . 
  • Use a Fast Shutter Speed: You need this so that you can avoid motion blur in your images. You want to underexpose your subject, and so, you should start with a shutter speed of 1/125 if the subject is still, and 1/250 if the subject is moving. 
  • Higher f-stop: You usually want your aperture set to f/8 or higher for two reasons–1) you want a large depth of field to capture details, and 2) you want to reduce the amount of chromatic aberration that shooting into the sunset can produce. Using a higher aperture setting will help ensure you get the outline of your subject as well as the surrounding scenery. 
  • Meter Off the Sky: First, your meter mode should be set to ‘spot’ or ‘centered.’ But then, you want to trick your camera by metering off the sky. Don’t point it directly at the sunset, but pick the next brightest part of the frame. Press the shutter halfway down, and then, while holding the shutter in that position, recompose your photo and take the shot. 
  • When Shooting in Automatic Mode, Use Aperture Priority Mode: This is the A or AP setting on the camera’s dials. When you set it to aperture priority, you can point your camera toward the sky, and see the light meter when you press the shutter halfway down. That will allow you to set the aperture. 
  • Use Exposure Compensation: If your subject is still not dark enough even after adjusting your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, try using exposure compensation. This feature lets you tell your camera to let in more or less light depending on the situation. Generally, you’ll want a setting of -1 to -3 EV (exposure value), but it’s always wise to experiment to see what works best for your particular situation. 

There will be some variability with these settings depending on your specific scene, but in general, these settings will help make your subject entirely black, while still seeing the deep colors in the sky. 

image of a soldier soldier saluting the setting sun
The camera settings should produce an almost all black subject while maintaining the colors of the sky during sunset

Focus on the Subject

Though your exposure settings are adjusted for the background, you want to focus on your subject. If your camera has an automatic back-button focus, you can center the focus on the subject and hold down the AE-Lock button or the * button while you compose the shot. That will give you a crisp, clear silhouette with a properly exposed background. 

Use Burst Mode to Capture Movement

Whenever possible, you want to capture movement in your images. Birds flying or families playing together, for example, can make for compelling images. Burst mode will help you capture perfectly focused images of moving subjects. This mode causes your camera to take a series of images in a row. That increases the chances that one of them will be perfectly focused. 

bird silhouette
Burst mode can help you capture silhouetted subjects in motion

Use Bracketing

Bracketing is when your camera takes a series of photos–usually three–to help you capture the perfect exposure. One shot is taken at the settings you’ve metered for, and then a second one is taken one stop over those settings, and a third is taken one stop under what you set according to your meter readings. That gives you three options to choose from, and it increases the chance that you’ll get a photo of a nearly total silhouette–meaning the subject is almost black. The other shots will likely be of partial silhouettes, though depending on the subject, you might prefer that, because you can see some detail. 

Should You Shoot High or Low? 

The optimal time for shooting this kind of photo is when the sun is low in the sky, so you can often capture your subject’s silhouette by shooting at a level angle. But, if you want to capture your entire subject in silhouette, you might need to get down and shoot at an upward angle. If you’re shooting from a high point, you might end up angling the camera downward slightly to capture the silhouette of a landscape feature in the foreground, for example. 

Hiding the Sun Behind Your Subject

This technique can help you get a darker silhouette, and it can help prevent the sunset from blowing out (making white) large parts of the photo. You also get lens flare–a haze across the photo–when you’re taking photos directly against the sunset, and by hiding the sunset behind your subject, you can avoid this problem too.

sunset silhouette photo of a couple embracing
Hiding the sun behind your subject enhances the darkness of the silhouette

This technique can also help you create interesting shadows. If your subject is narrow, like a standing person), you’ll have shadows coming toward you. You can make these longer by getting down on your knees (or lower), and these shadows create nice leading lines that direct the viewer’s eye toward the subject. 

These techniques can help you catch those stunning sunset silhouette photos that are so compelling. You can capture silhouette sunset images that any professional photographer would be proud to get. By shooting in manual mode, using an aperture setting of f/8 or above, using lower ISO settings, and a faster shutter speed, you’ll capture the perfect unbalanced exposure necessary for these images.

Bracketing your images, shooting in burst mode, and hiding the sun behind your subject can help you avoid common problems and capture movement that creates such interesting images. Additionally, posing your subjects with sufficient space between them, picking an interesting spot that is more open, and shooting during the golden hour will all enhance the appeal of these photos. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How to avoid glare?

It will help to take the camera out of Auto White Balance mod. If this mode is on, you risk losing the warm colors of the sunset. By shooting instead in ‘cloudy’ or ‘shade’ mode, and telling your camera to warm things up, you’ll get better images. 

How to keep the silhouette clear?

By shooting during the golden hour and making sure your subject stands out from the background, you can keep your silhouette clear. You also may need to crouch down and shoot upward so that your silhouetted subjects stand out clearly. 

How to create emotions and expression?

The great thing about silhouette photography in general is that you give the viewer hints at the story behind the photo, but you leave it to their imagination to fill in the details. For example, the silhouette of a lone person walking on the beach could tell a story of sadness or peacefulness, depending on the viewer’s imagination. That makes for very emotionally compelling and expressive photo possibilities. It depends in large part on how you pose your subject and the outline you create.

How to create an unbalanced exposure?

To do this, you’ve got to meter on the background and set your camera’s aperture, ISO, and shutter speed accordingly, but you’ll focus on the subject and not the background. That combination will create a properly exposed background with a sharply focused silhouetted subject (with no details). That is the key to an unbalanced exposure. 

Catherine Gaither
Catherine Gaither
Catherine Gaither is a professional bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.

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