Diane Wehr Street Photography

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A Street Photography Blog

Add Back-lit Silhouettes to Your Street Photography Repertoire

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I remember exactly when I decided that I wanted to learn how to shoot silhouettes. It was just before I took a trip to Macedonia. I came back from the trip with a couple of silhouette shots that I liked. This was a first. More often than not, when I tackle a new frontier in photography, I find the learning curve very steep. However, it turns out that it is comparatively easy to shoot a silhouette and you can get striking results. Just look at this image taken by photographer, Patrick Kalberg-Khan.

Photo by Patrick Kalberg-Kahn. Used with permission. You can see more of Patrick’s street photography on his Instagram account @waitingforthecat. Click picture for a larger image.

 Find the right light.

The light required to shoot a silhouette is called backlighting. That means the light is behind the subject so that the subject is not illuminated by it. You can find this light in many places, for example, in buildings that have large windows, at beaches, in tunnels, and in lighted exhibitions.

Light at a Beach. Click picture for a larger image.

Light in an exhibit. Photo by Andy Lochrie. Used with permission. You can see more of Andy’s street photography on his Instagram account @guisboro. Click picture for a larger image.

Choose your subject carefully.

Anything can be a silhouette, but some things are more interesting when in silhouette. You want a distinct, recognizable shape. Remember this is going to be a two dimensional object in your photograph. There will be no light, shadow or color to give a sense of depth or definition to it.

This picture was taken of a family member at the the Irish Hunger Memorial in NYC. It is an example of how a silhouette can be less interesting when the shape is not distinctive. If I had been there to do street photography, I would have simply waited it out until I got a more interesting g body position.


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 Use simple backgrounds.

Using simple backgrounds is generally a good goal for any kind of street photography, but it is particularly a desirable goal when you are taking pictures of silhouettes. You want the viewer to enjoy the simplicity of the silhouette without competition from the background.

This is another picture of family members taken in Central Park. In this case, I was totally satisfied by the position and resulting shape of the silhouette.  Unfortunately, the picture was significantly diminished by the people in the background, especially the ones right behind my silhouetted family, and the silhouette that interferes with the shape of the tunnel opening.

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 Expose for the light in the background, but focus on the silhouette

Probably everyone has taken pictures of friends and family where the light is in the background and it is a struggle to properly expose the faces. This picture is an example. It was taken with the metering on the faces and they are still too dark.

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The point that I want to make is that it is reasonably easy, in fact sometimes inevitable, to expose for light in the background. When shooting a silhouette, the best results occur when you meter for the light in the background but focus on the shape. However, metering in one place and focusing in another place can be a little tricky and generally requires more than beginner skills in using a camera. A more straightforward method that will likely yield good results is to meter on the whole scene and focus on the shape. You can also use my strategy. I meter where I focus and then get the results I want by varying the exposure compensation so that I underexpose the picture. Post processing by raising blacks and shadows can usually move a partially lit silhouette to a totally black silhouette.

 Settings to use.

I had to research this!  There are many things that I do, as we say in the U.S., “on the wing”. Here are some guidelines that I found in an excellent article, 14 Tips for Shooting Stunning Silhouettes, in Improve Photography by Jennie Harless:

 Choose the lowest possible ISO. It will help reduce noise, particularly in the dark shadow.

 Chose an Aperture opening of f/8 or higher so that you get good depth of field. You want those details to be sharply in focus.

 Make certain your shutter speed is fast enough to produce an underexposed picture. Start at 1/125 sec. for a still scene and 1/250 sec. for a scene that includes motion.

 Consider taking partial silhouettes.

I have a preference for partial silhouettes. In partial silhouettes, some of the lighting is maintained. I prefer them because they suggest 3 dimensions.

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 In the late afternoon, go take some pictures that have silhouettes in them. It does not matter what the subject is.