I will readily admit that I'm a silhouette junkie. I've been pursuing silhouettes for the last 4 or 5 years, and have learned a few things, so I thought I'd share my top 7 tips about silhouettes!
Before I begin with the tips though, most people consider silhouettes to be a dark outline of a subject against a well-lit background. I do let a little bit of rim light leak into my silhouette work, but it really depends on what my story is, the circumstances and of course the lighting. ;)
Now. On to the tips!
#1: Meter for the sky (or background) and focus on your subject!
To meter for the sky on your camera, just press your shutter button half way down, and adjust your exposure so it's either at 0 or even -1. You must do this in either manual mode or aperture priority mode! Once you have a reading for your sky, then focus on your subject.
To do this with your phone, you must use a camera app that allows you to use both your exposure and your focus manually. I really love using either the Camera+ app or VSCO. Then move the exposure reading on the sky, and your focus needs to go right on your subject.
You will want you subject to be sharp and crisp, but you will also need to have the background lit enough to make your dark subject actually stand out.
#2: Look for good light.
Good light is always important, but silhouettes require a specific kind of light! Look for sun that is low in the sky, behind a cloud or even already set. The sun is strong, so if any of it is glaring at you, it can ruin your silhouette and give you rim lighting instead. (Which I'm not totally against!) For the most part, I love to get my silhouettes with none of the sun in them. The best silhouettes have a beautiful, colorful sky, so if sunset is approaching and I can see it's a good one, I'll start getting my camera stuff and kids ready!
Silhouettes can also be done indoors. Look for places that are darker where your subject is, but brighter beyond them. Make sure you have enough light though--silhouettes really need adequate lighting in order to be successful! Think of aquariums, windows in a dark house, or even a fridge! As long as there is more and enough light behind your subject as well as an interesting component, give it a try! (Just be careful if you can see the actual light source in your frame, because it can ruin your silhouette if you're not careful. You'll need to underexpose by 1 to 2 stops to keep the silhouette darker.)
#3: Give your subject an absolute form.
Nothing ruins a silhouette more often than having a blob as a subject. Try to get your subject away from buildings, trees, or other objects that may leak into your silhouette. There should be nothing touching your subject, unless it's part of the story. If you're shooting a person, make sure their arms and legs are not touching their body. Have them tun sideways, run, hold their arms out, jump up, etc. A person just standing there is very boring. Also remember that adding a silhouette to a sunset image can really take it from just another sunset to something special and unique. Trees, windmills, cars, houses, flowers, or any subject with a definitive shape can all make amazing silhouette subjects!
#4: Look for reflections.
One of my favorite ways to incorporate silhouettes into my work is to use puddles. Reflections add just that extra little touch to any image, but I think even more so with silhouettes! You will need to get your camera or phone right next to the water to get the best silhouette reflections. (See next tip!) If you're using your phone, make sure your lens is close to the water. This may mean turning it upside down or sideways, depending on the phone. Plus, doing this makes your body of water seem bigger than it actually is!
#5: Get low.
Unless you live by a hill, you'll need to get down low and shoot up. This kind of goes along with 3 and 4, and makes both points easier to achieve. Don't be afraid to lay down, or at least get down low. Many times, I've set my focus on manual and just lowered my camera down to the ground to shoot up. (I have a flip screen on my new camera, so it's very easy to do now and get focus properly!) I've also let my boys go out on our garage roof (because they're older and very careful). It keeps the trees, houses and cars out of their pictures, so editing is quick and easy, plus I can get so much sky in there!
#6: Have fun with it!
To avoid boredom with my boys and silhouettes, we brainstorm something fun that they can do for silhouettes. They know that they don't have to look at the camera, and can pull the funniest face they want. I'll ask them if they want to do a karate jump, ride their bike or scooter, jump off a rock, or something equally dangerous (I have not, however, let them jump off the garage roof!). We've thrown things in the air, like balls or leaves. We've also had fun with helium balloons, bubbles, swords and flags. Really, the possibilities are endless!
Notes: In the balloon image up above, it wasn't quite sunset yet, but the sun was low enough behind the garage that I was able to get a mostly silhouetted image. Notice how awkward my son on the right is with only one arm? This is why you need to double and triple check that the subject has their arms and legs out! (And now it's really annoying to see that, right?!? Sorry, but just trying to prove my point from tip #3!)
#7: Edit your image.
Silhouettes really do need some editing to make them really stand out. In Lightroom, I will usually lighten up the sky around my subject, bump my highlights up, darken my blacks and shadows, and add contrast. I almost always add a bit of vibrance and/or saturation. Then, I will take it into Photoshop, where I will clean up the image a bit and edit out any errant trees, buildings, weird bumps on the ground, etc.
This is a before (SOOC) on the left and an after on the right. You can see that editing really makes it better!
Silhouettes can be a bit tricky, but once you've mastered the basics of them, they really are a lot of fun!
*This was copied from a tutorial I wrote for the Creative Inspiration Community, but I figured I'd write it here too. Images vary a bit from the original post.