We have already covered this topic on our first ever Newsletter, in February 2012. Since then our subscribers list has grown a lot and requests to talk about this again were frequently received. Silhouettes can result in extremely powerful photographs. The contrast between the bright and dark parts of the image will always be attractive to the human eye.
The most important thing to guarantee a great silhouette shot is is that the background is brighter than the foreground. Usually, silhouette pictures are taken against the light source, as in this picture by Steve McCurry (right) taken pointing the camera against the sun. But not always that needs to be the case.
Silhouettes can even be taken at night and indoors. As long as the background is brighter than the foreground creating contrast, it should work. (Image below left, by Bruno Barbey)
In the main image above, the church façade was frontally lit by the sun while the man in the foreground was in the shade. This situation created enough contrast for the silhouette. The metering has been done pointing the camera to the background, the brightest part of the scene.
An important factor to get the effect right is correct exposure. Correct does not mean that the light meter will point null (zero). Silhouette pictures are often underexposed (light meter on minus) having predominantly shadows.
Trying to find the easiest way to control exposure, I came up with a quick “rule”. which I’m now sharing with you all: With a DSLR camera on Manual more, you can start by setting your ISO, then choose an average aperture like f/5.6 to f/8 for example. Finally, adjust the shutter speed in order to get your light meter on zero (null) to start with. Take a picture and see how it looks.
If your image is too bright, that means you need less light, so start clicking your shutter speed dial to the right, two or three clicks at a time, and take another picture. Repeat this until you think your image is dark enough. That works the same for the aperture dial if you prefer as well.
On the other hand, if your picture comes out too dark, click the shutter speed dial (or the aperture one) to the left. Again, two or three clicks at a time, always checking how your pictures are, until you are satisfied with the result.
So the quick rule is: If you need more light, click dial to the left. If you need less light, click dial to the right (either the shutter speed or the aperture dials).
Observe to make sure this is happening with your camera. When you click to the left on your shutter speed dial, the shutter speed gets slow, therefore more light will get into the camera. When you click to the right you are increasing the shutter speed, making it fast, therefore less light will get into the camera.