Monson Photography | Photography Tips: Sunset Silhouettes

Photography Tips: Sunset Silhouettes

May 13, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Due to so many of my clients requesting beach sessions, I have had the privilege of witnessing some of THE most spectacular sunsets over Lake Michigan.  The sky erupts in a glorious splendor of colors, which vary, depending on weather and time of year.  I am especially grateful for these opportunities, because, even though my home is a mere 5-minute drive from the lake, chances are I would be too caught up in my own little world to get out there and experience these breathtaking views.

One of my FAVORITE photos to create is the silhouette. There is just something special to me about creating an image in which the main subject is identified by only a black shape, yet somehow still conveys personality.  There is no better backdrop for these stunning photos than the sun setting on the shores of Lake Michigan. 

Though I have created a few family or husband/wife silhouette images, I particularly like to photograph high school seniors in this style.  Most of my seniors have a particular hobby or interest, such as sports or music, which have made for some very dynamic silhouette photos:


Clark (42)Clark (42)

Above:  f/10 @ 70 mm, 1/250, ISO 800


Below, FYI, this is called a "horn pop", for all you non-wind instrument folks.  I learned that during this session after a very embarrassing attempt to explain to this talented girl what I wanted her to do. 

Another FYI, I offer making a fool of myself to my clients at absolutely no extra charge.

Above:  f/11 @ 50 mm, 1/1000, ISO 500


Above: f/8 @ 55 mm, 1/1000, ISO 200


But if it's not an option to include an item that represents an interest, we try to do something else that is equally unique.

In the photo below, the girls laughed so hard, trying to perform the "right" jump for our image, while holding hands.  Seeing them have such a great time was just priceless.

Above: f/8 @ 50 mm, 1/640, ISO 640


The image below was from a particularly awesome senior session in which my client had a very specific beach location in mind.  We ended up climbing down the steepest sand dune I've ever set my bare feet upon (don't get me started about the climb back up; I thought I was going to need an ambulance - ha ha!), grabbed some incredible beach photos, and then Hannah announced she was "game" for going in the water.  We had a blast "playing mermaid", and then I looked at her gorgeous, long hair and THIS popped into my head:

Above: f/14 @ 50 mm, 1/2500, ISO 500


It took a few tries to nail the timing of the hair flip as well as adjusting my camera settings to achieve the look we were going for, but I had positioned Hannah so that the sun would reflect nicely on the water and I might end up with a little flare.  Stepping down to f/14 created the starburst-like sun and corresponding reflections, and a high shutter speed of 1/2500 froze the action of the water spray from her hair.  I ended up at ISO 500 in order to leave just enough light on the rest of the scene.  LOVE the way this turned out.

And speaking of the sun, it was the session below that inspired me to put that huge, glowing fireball to good use, positioning Kalei so that the setting sun would flare right through her open arm as she played the violin.

Above: f/14 @ 55 mm, 1/400, ISO 500





1. Silhouette images require backlighting (light behind your model). 

2. Put your model AND the sun both in the frame, using the sun creatively if you wish.

3. Direct your model into an easily distinguishable shape.  Limbs should be placed a little distance from the body.  (Ex. in the dual-jumper photo, imagine what it would have looked like, had the girls stood straight up and just held hands.  You'd be able to discern the outstretched arms, but the bodies would look like two straight poles.)

4. If your silhouette involves action, be sure to communicate to your model the importance of bringing his or her limbs away from the body to create a better form.

5. If you are pre-planning a silhouette shot, direct your model to NOT wear white.  While I'm momentarily at a loss of photographic example (sorry!), I do have an image or two that is an interesting silhouette, save for the white shorts, which stand out from the blackened body of my model. 

6. My not-so-technical method:

* Turn off your flash!  It will defeat the purpose of what you're trying to accomplish.

* Set your aperture to f/8 or above and expose for the sky, since that is what you want to be properly exposed.

* Take a test shot.  Continue to adjust aperture, shutter speed, and ISO until the look you want is achieved:


       - Subject not dark enough?  Step down your aperture. 

       - Generally too much light in the scene... what's your ISO set to?  Shutter speed?

       - Motion Blur.... raise shutter speed.  No flash = no sync speed to worry about, so crank that dial if you need to.

* Take numerous shots and various settings.  Sometimes you don't know until you get home, which you'll prefer.


Seriously... I know there's not a lot of science to this method, but this is what I do!  I can't tell you specific settings for what YOU are trying to achieve.  You have to have a general understanding of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed and give thought to what it is you are trying to achieve.  Take a look at some of my settings (under each photo) and think about which look you like best why those settings might have worked.  Do you want a moody, under-exposed look, like the guitar silhouette?  A higher shutter speed and low ISO accomplishes this.  Do you want a starburst effect from the sun?  f/14 accomplished this for me in both the violin and in-the-water shots. 

Good luck, and happy shooting!



No comments posted.