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Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

One of my favorite types of photography is photographing silhouettes.  They are easy to photograph, create beautiful images, and my twins enjoy being “silhouette” models. Though Ellie and Jenna are not quick to volunteer as subjects for most photos these days, they enjoy posing for these since they do not need to smile, I let them jump in the air, and they can be silly without it showing.

Every year when we vacation in Northern Michigan, I try to photograph one evening sunset in this style.  This year was more challenging since the weather forecast would say sunny or partly cloudy and then the sky was full of clouds each night. But after going to the beach, night after night, I finally caught a great sunset.

Up North 183 600x410 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

ISO 1000, f14, 1/400

Three keys to amazing silhouettes:

1. Locate a bright background. Make sure your background is brighter than your foreground and model. Sunrise and sunsets work perfect for this. Any natural or artificial back lighting can work.

2. Make sure your subjects are interesting shapes. Imagine the person as a solid black shape.  Is it interesting?  I prefer photograph people from a profile view (side view) for silhouettes.  Look for props with eye-catching shapes where they are very easy to identify, for example, bicycles.

3. Pay attention to clothing (shape and color).

  • Shape: Ideally, have your subject(s) wear form-fitted clothing. As in point 2, shape is very important since that is all you will see against the colors of the background. For example, Ellie wore a black cardigan tied in front.  In most photos it was obviously a jacket, but in some images it appears as a lump coming out of her at an unflattering position.
  • Color: Dark clothing works much better than light – and void white clothing if at all possible.

 

How I did it… Here are the setups used for the following images.  Camera settings are below each image.

In this photo below, I used a wide angle lens, Canon 16-35 2.8.  I was at a focal length of 20mm.  I used an aperture of f14 to get a starburst effect. I was laying on the ground with my lens angled up.  I used all point focus since my eye was not looking into the lens.  I would say “1, 2, 3, jump.”  As I shouted “3” I would hold down the shutter for 3-4 shots.  Then stop, look at the images, access what needed to change, and do it again.  My twins have fun jumping so they often will give me a good 10 minutes of jumping before they quit.

Up North 186 600x410 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

ISO 1000, f14, 1/400

I love this shot.  I had Ellie and Jenna raise their hands until they were touching just below the sun. It almost appears as if they are lifting the sun.

Up North 180 600x409 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

ISO 1000, f14, 1/400

This photo below is a perfect example of tip #2.  Unintentionally, Jenna’s jacket went to the side.  This shot reminds me of Charlie’s Angels. It looks like she has a gun on her side, when in fact it is just extra material.

Up North 171 600x878 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

ISO 1000, f16, 1/400

 

This image was shot with my Canon 70-200. I call this the “ultrasound shot” because Jenna’s profile is exactly the same as then (minus the hair).

Up North 203 600x878 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

Years ago, I photographed my husband lifting my daughter in the air.  I wanted to replicate the shot.  The challenge… she weighs about 20 pounds more than back then and is about a foot taller.  So it was not quite what I had hoped since he was in pain trying to hold her.  But it was still pretty fun because of the sun flare.

Up North 167 600x878 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

ISO 1000 f16 1/400

Though not a profile, her hair and hands make this one interesting. I also like the added dimension of her bracelets.

Up North 197 600x878 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

ISO 1000, f16 1/400

The photo below was taken the day prior to the one above.  It was very cloudy and you can see the sunset itself was basically covered by the blanket of clouds. But I still captured some fun images.  Since the sun was not a focal point, I shot closer to wide open at 5.6 to let some light in.  I could have opened up even more.  I used a speed of 1/500 to catch the motion.

Up North 138 600x410 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

ISO 800, f5.6, 1/500

 

Here are some past articles about photographing silhouettes:

Controlling Light and Getting Interesting Silhouettes

Sunset Silhouettes

Photographing and Editing Silhouettes: Part 1

Photographing and Editing Silhouettes: Part 2

 

 Photographing Perfect Sunset Silhouette Portraits Every Time

Jodi Friedman, MCP Actions

Jodi Friedman is the founder of MCP Actions. She designs popular Photoshop actions and Lightroom presets that make editing faster, easier and more fun.

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6 Comments

  1. 1
    AWilliams says:

    Awesome shots!

  2. 2
    Sandy says:

    Jodi, these are beautiful silhouettes! And it makes me happy that they were taken in the great State of Michigan! :-) Thanks for the tips!

  3. 3

    Great article and beautiful images! I spend Sunday evening here in Cannon Beach, Oregon with a very talented dancer and took this awesome silhouette image:

  4. 4
    Tina says:

    Thanks

  5. 5

    Yay for Michigan! Beautiful photos.

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