Taking silhouettes can be hard with an automatic camera. You'll want the background correctly exposed and the main subject matter to appear as black as possible. The computer on board your camera has different ideas though. It wants to pretend that it's looking at an average scene on a sunny day. So you're going to have to trick the camera to get the kind of performance you need. In conventional photography both focus and exposure are based on the main subject. When taking a silhouette you'll want to focus on the main subject but take your exposure reading off the background. In order to achieve this you'll have to use some different features on your camera.
1. Set the metering mode to Spot
2. Set the Exposure Mode to "A" or Aperture Priority
3. Some lenses have a switch that allows you to toggle between automatic and manual. If yours does, switch it to manual. If not, don't worry.
4. Set the focus to manual.
To take a photo in silhouette you'll have to point the center of the camera viewfinder at the main subject and focus. As you are focusing manually you'll probably do so by turning the outer ring on the barrel of the lens.
Next point the center of the viewfinder at the background and set the exposure. You might have to do some searching in your camera manual to figure out how to do this. Depending on the brightness of the sky, set the aperture to around f8. If the background is really bright, try between f11 and f22.
Finally, recompose while still holding the shutter release halfway down to maintain the exposure setting and, once you're happy with the composition, take a picture. The background should be correctly exposed and the subject should be dark and in focus. That's a silhouette.
You've also learned some valuable techniques for controlling all aspects of picture taking from exposure metering to focusing. You're going to come back to this time and time again.
It's easier to get silhouettes at dusk or dawn as there is a lot of natural silhouetting going on at that time anyway. It's more difficult in the middle of the day, especially on a cloudy day, as the light is more evenly distributed between background and subject matter.
You can also get silhouettes by placing your subject in front of bright light sources like street lights, sign boards, car lights and so on.
Creating a silhouette is really just a specialized form of backlighting where the foreground subject matter becomes a kind of masque for the lighting behind it.
Practice the steps at home many times before going outside to take pictures. All these new terms can be confusing and easy to forget at first. Soon enough they will become natural and automatic as you think about each picture you take. Just remember, you are trying to focus on the main subject but measure the amount of light from the background.
Pure silhouette renders a complex scene down into a simple graphic expression; all allusion to three dimensional space evaporates. With the exception of a little gradation in the sky, this scene of infrastructure running between Osaka and Kobe certainly qualifies.
A fishermen at dusk on the Japan Sea. A bit of atmosphere -- dust and pollution from China -- at the horizon and the texture on the water imparts a sense of depth behind the flattened foreground subject matter.
Backlit smog from San Diego, nine separate ridgelines, a long focal length and wide aperture all conspire to counteract the natural flattening effect of silhouettes, lending a strong sense of depth to this silhouette of a single wind turbine in Southern California.
This time Los Angeles smog, a longish focal length [300 mm] and a shallow depth of field [ƒ5.6) exaggerate depth while retaining a silhouetted quality of a power line as it marches up the steep shoulders of Mt. San Jacinto. Sunlight glinting off the high tension wires breaks the silhouette, lending a certain amount of drama to the entire scene.
All photographs were taken by Brian Grover.