The Silhouette

Canon EOS 5D MK II, EF500mm f/4L IS II USM, f/6.3 1/2000 ISO 500

Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity!” ~ Henry David Thoreau

In communication, simplicity is king. Getting to the point, and leaving no room for misinterpretation is efficient and effective. We, as photographers, are visual communicators. And more specifically, we as nature/landscape photographers are communicating emotion through our images. So how do we keep the clutter down to get our core point across?

Well, one of my favorite techniques is, you guessed it… the silhouette.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/8 1/60 ISO 800

The “Why”

Why does this technique work so well? Well, simply put: it strips down our subject into fewer and fewer elements – mostly shape, light, and color. But even the light element is typically ultra simplified… a silhouette is nine times out of ten backlit. As a consequence, it can often more efficiently communicate an idea, emotion, or memory. It is supremely graphic by nature and it brings unparalleled drama to an image.

There are many instances that would lead one to use this technique. One of those would be when you simply want to accentuate color and cloud texture. This is often during sunset or sunrise. But it requires a simple, uncluttered landscape, like the example above. In this particular image, I wanted to set the viewer’s focus on an iconic landmark of Big Bend National Park, Mule Ears. Even if you’ve never seen or heard of Mule Ears, I bet you can pick it out, can’t you? And have an emotional response to the colors. Thus the beauty of a silhouette.

The Technique

Every situation will be a little different, however, one simple rule remains; get your exposure from your background. What do I mean by this? Take a spot meter reading on the brightest part of your image, usually the sky. Now this can get a bit tricky if you are shooting directly into the sun. You may have to play around with it a bit to get just the right exposure. Don’t be afraid to let the sun blow out just a bit. What you really want to watch out for and guard against is for the blacks to get muddy. Determine what will be your deepest, truest black in the image, and pay close attention to how it looks. Does it start to blend with the layer just behind it? If so, you need to open up your exposure a little. Try again.

One of the hardest parts about creating a truly wonderful and compelling silhouette image is the balancing of the highlights and the shadows. But unlike in a conventionally lit exposure, your range will be many fewer “zones”. If you are familiar with Adam’s Zone System, you know that a traditional exposure might have 9 or 10 “zones”, or distinct tones. Nowadays with digital, it is possible to achieve even more. However, with a silhouette, you may have as few as 2. But most often in nature photography, it will be more like 4-5 “zones”.

Composition is Key

Even more important than balancing tones in a silhouette is your composition. The rule of thirds and balance are supremely important to creating an effective silhouette. In the image below, the upper third is dominated by beautiful color and cloud texture, the middle third with warm, pouring light over rocky crags, and the lower third, an imposing, immovable mountain. The upper-middle left third, with it’s eye-catching light rays, is balanced by the lower-middle right third of the black peak.

Simplifying your compositions will make your silhouettes better. Go in tight, and get rid of clutter as much as possible.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/11 1/800 ISO 400

When To Use

On my most recent travels through the American South and Southwest I used silhouetting a lot. Like most nature/landscape photographers, I am often shooting at dusk and dawn, when the sky lights up with the day’s most pleasing light and colors. Silhouettes can help to accentuate and enhance the light and color. It also gives the photographer an easy way to shoot directly in to the sun, without the worry of needing a crazy dynamic range.

See the image below from Saguaro National Park. The saguaro cactus is an iconic symbol of the American Southwest. I could’ve chosen to photograph this specimen with front lighting or even side lighting, which would’ve allowed the viewer to see the color and some of the texture of the cactus. But I chose to silhouette it, placing the setting sun almost directly behind the subject to capture the light and color of the dusk, allowing the viewer to connect even more deeply to the well-known shape and spiny texture of the saguaro. To me, it is a more interesting and emotional image.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/16 1/250 ISO 400

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM +2.0x, f/5.6 1/5000 ISO 500

I often do this with iconic flora and fauna (like the heron in the image above or the opening elk shot). When I travel to a new place, it is almost an unconscious effort to make sure I capture a very graphic silhouette of recognizable, quintessential actors of the local landscapes.

See below… The giant palms of Florida, the straight, endless, tall pines of the Everglades, the migrating cranes of the American south, etc. They are all quick reads, accentuating the shape, light, and color, rather than the leaf, trunk, feather, etc details.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM, f/4 1/30 ISO 400

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM +2x III, f/11 1.125 ISO 100

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM +2x III, f/5.6 1/1000 ISO 320

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/11 1/500 ISO 250

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/8 1/100 ISO 500

As we all know, the sun is not our only source of natural light. The moon can be a wonderful backdrop for a variety of silhouetted subjects. The key to a successful shot like this is a (at least near) full moon, close to the horizon, with a long lens (at least 300mm), and a compressed subject that is far enough in the distance that it will fit nicely within the confines of the moon.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM +2x III, f/5.6 1/200 ISO 1000

Sometimes a partial silhouette is your best choice for an image. What I mean by “partial” is that instead of having a pure black subject, you might have several layers of tones. But it still constitutes a silhouette because there is no real detail in the shadows to speak of… they are simply shades of color (or gray in B&W). These work wonderfully well when there are layers of mountains in the distance. I use this technique often to convey distance, grandeur, and intense color. Below is a good example from a recent shoot in the Grand Canyon.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/8 1/80 ISO 640

The Active Landscape

Placing humans in your silhouetted landscape brings a sense of scale and a personal connection to an image that cannot be achieved otherwise. The photographer can now convey multiple messages, like a sense of activity or action, like the surfing couple below.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/11 1/125 ISO 320

People can add a new set of emotions to an image that without them is much harder to achieve. The man below, craning to capture the gorgeous sunset on his phone is universally understood and relatable.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/11 1/250 ISO 125

The lone man (or couple in love) quietly standing in awe and contemplation of the beautiful sunset before them (see images below).

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM, f/16 1/40 ISO 250

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/11 1/400 ISO 320

Once you start practicing silhouetting your subjects, you will begin to see silhouettes everywhere. They are great to add to your repertoire and portfolio to mix things up, keep you creative, and to be a more effective communicator.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/11 1/1000 ISO 320

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/9 1/25 ISO 640

And you will be ready when the real magic hits like in the image below, when all the elements come together right before you… the early dawn sunlight filters through fog rising to create a moody and dramatic image that cuts to the soul of your viewers.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM +2x III, f/11 1/500 ISO 320

Happy shooting!

— Andrew

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci


Ellen and I have hit the road full-time! We are on a mission to inspire and educate everyone on the importance of getting outside. Check out my workshops and my prints, made #ontheroad in my mobile print studio. The revenue will help propel us further and further on this great adventure. Enrich yourself and others… and feel great about it too as you’re helping to ensure our wild lands are cherished and to keep the wild spirit of the American Dream alive. Our goal is to visit all 59 National Parks in 3-5 years. LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE



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