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A Comprehensive Guide to Shooting and Processing Silhouette Photos

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One of the most simple ways to photograph the beautiful colors of a sunrise or sunset is to photograph a silhouette. It's a great way to emphasize the shape and outline of a subject, while including some brilliant colors in the background.

This tutorial will guide you through the process of photographing silhouettes. It'll discuss things like what equipment you need, what settings to use on your camera, how to find the right aperture and shutter speed, what makes a good subject, and how to process your images in Adobe Photoshop CS.

Step 1: Get the right equipment

Before you get into photographing silhouettes, it's important to get the right equipment. Here's a list of the basics, followed by a short explanation about why each item is important.

  • Digital SLR
  • Tripod (and head)
  • Telephoto lens (300mm or longer)
  • Tripod collar for telephoto lens
  • Extension tubes
  • Remote shutter release

Digital SLR. Although you can certainly create some good silhouette images with a point and shoot camera, it's best to use a digital SLR to maximize your creative options. The digital SLR will allow you to use longer lenses and have more control over depth of field (so you can get the clouds more out of focus to create a smooth background of vibrant color).

Tripod (and head). In order to ensure you get the sharpest photo possible, it's important to use a good tripod and head. This is really important for photographing silhouettes because you want that outline of your subject to be super sharp.

Telephoto lens. A telephoto lens is useful for photographing silhouettes because they help you isolate your subject against a specific part of the sky. This way you can include the most colorful parts of the sky. With a wider angle lens you'd be forced to include more of the scene and would likely have some blue sky at the top of your photos. Ideally, you should have a 70-300mm lens, but anything longer than 100mm will work pretty well.

Extension tubes. The extension tube is a hollow tube that attaches to the back of your lens and allows you to focus much closer to your subject. If you have a telephoto lens that has a longer minimum focusing distance (more than 6 ft), then an extension tube can help your lens focus a little closer. Getting closer will help you fill the frame with your subject and get a more out of focus background (remember that depth of field decreases as you get closer to your subject). Ideally, you should have a set of different extension tubes (e.g. 12mm, 20mm, and 36mm), but if you want to keep things simple, the 25mm tube is used the most often.

Remote shutter release. When you press the shutter on your camera, it actually shakes the camera a little and this shake can decrease the sharpness of your image. So, it's helpful to use a remote shutter release, so you can snap the photo without touching the camera.

Step 2: Setup your camera

Below are a few camera settings you should consider using when photographing silhouettes. How to enable these features is different on each camera, so check your manual to learn how to take advantage of them.

Set quality to RAW. Unless your subject is constantly moving (unlikely for a silhouette), you should capture your photos in RAW format to maximize your control in post-processing.

Enable Mirror Lockup. Whenever you snap a photo, your camera will immediately flip up the mirror, and then immediately open the shutter curtains to expose the image. Well, this flip of the mirror can cause the camera to shake a little (resulting in blurry photos), so if you enable mirror-lockup, then the camera will pause for a few seconds after flipping the mirror up. This allows any vibrations from the flip to die down before the image is exposed, resulting in a sharper photograph.

Set ISO between 100 and 400. If it's pretty windy outside, then you might have to use a fairly fast shutter speed to get a sharp photo. And, using a higher ISO can help you get that faster shutter speed. However, increasing ISO does add noise to your photos, so if you're photographing a pretty stationary subject (e.g. people or rocks), then use a lower ISO to get a better quality photo.

Enable remote shooting. Since you'll be shooting with the camera on a tripod, use a remote shutter release to further prevent camera shake. You'll usually have to enable remote shooting somewhere in your camera's settings to do this (check your manual).

Step 3: Find a Good Subject

There's two basic types of silhouettes, and each one appeals to different types of subjects:

1. Subject is in front of the bright sun:

With this type of silhouette, the sun creates a little white halo around the subject. It works great for plants because it makes all the little branches "pop" with that glowing effect. It also works well with people, but you have to make sure your subject stands in the right spot (the sun should be directly behind their head, from the camera's point of view).

These types of silhouettes are easiest to create early in the morning or later in the day, when the sun is low on the horizon. Although, they can certainly be photographed in the middle of the day, if your subject is in the right spot.

2. Subject is in front of a sunset or sunrise:

This is the most typical type of silhouette, and they work with just about any subject that has an interesting shape (e.g. plants, rocks, people, animals, etc). The key to a good silhouette like this is clouds: the most colorful sunrises and sunsets occur when you have good cloud cover. But, of course too many clouds can prevent any color from showing up.

One of my favorite things to do with this second type of silhouette is to photograph something that looks rather dull in daylight.

For example, the Creosote Bush is one of my favorite desert plants because of it's amazing survivability in such an extreme environment (the desert). However, it looks pretty boring:

Yeah, it looks like a giant mess. But, the branches make great subjects for a silhouette:

Step 4: Find the Right Aperture

For silhouettes, a wide aperture usually works best because it helps make the background more out of focus and it helps you get a faster shutter speed (which is good for battling the wind when you're photographing plants).

Most lenses are sharpest at one stop down from their widest aperture (so an f/4 lens is usually sharpest at f/5.6). So, start at one stop down, take a test shot or use the depth of field preview button and increase the f-number if you need more depth of field.

Step 5: Find the Right Exposure

Use the histogram to find the perfect exposure by taking a test shot of your subject. Then, keep increasing the exposure (using longer shutter speeds), until the histogram is as far to the right as possible in at least one of the color channels. But, do not overexpose any of the color channels (indicated by a line on the far right of the graph that goes all the way to the top). Using this method will ensure you get the best digital exposure possible because you'll be maximizing the signal to noise ratio of your image.

You may notice on your LCD preview that your subject shows some color, that it's not all black like it's supposed to be in silhouette images. But, this is completely okay at this point! You can darken your subject and make it all pure black later in post-processing.

The main thing you should be worried about in the exposure of a silhouette image is the background, and that's why you expose for that.

Step 6: Take the shot!

Okay, now that you've got your subject picked out and your camera is all setup, it's finally time to actually take the shot!

For stationary or controllable subjects like people or rocks, taking the shot is easy: just press the button on your remote shutter release.

But, for other subjects like plants, make sure you wait until the wind takes a break and your subject is completely still. This will ensure you get the sharpest photo possible.

Also, once you take a few shots, don't stop! Wait around for awhile to make sure you don't miss the best colors of the sunrise/sunset. It's pretty much impossible to predict when the best colors will occur, so don't pack up right away.

Step 7: Post-processing Your Image

Silhouettes are fairly simple images, so you won't have to do much in post-processing, but there's still a few things you can do to add a little more "punch" to the photo.

This tutorial will explain how to post-process your image in Adobe Photoshop CS, but most of the ideas can be applied to other programs as well (the steps will just be a little different).

Before you do any editing, make sure you're working with a 16-bit image if possible. If you shot in RAW format and use Adobe Photoshop, then you should be okay. Unfortunately, Photoshop Elements does not support 16-bit images, but this isn't a huge deal. Using 16-bit instead of the default 8-bit will tremendously help you avoid posterization as you edit your image. Posterization is that unwanted pixelation you sometimes get in smooth gradients of your image.

Step 8: Process Your Image with Adobe Camera RAW

When you open your RAW image with Adobe Camera RAW, there's usually just three things you want to change:

  1. Increase the "Blacks" to about 7 (or more, until your subject is completely black).
  2. Increase "Vibrance" to about 7.
  3. Increase "Saturation" to about 3.

Once you're done with these changes, then just click "Open Image" to open it in Photoshop.

Step 9: Add a Curves Adjustment Layer

1. Go to the "Layer" menu and select "New Adjustment Layer" and then "Curves"

2. You should now have a dialog that looks like this (except for the red circles):

It might look scary, but don't worry! There's a simple adjustment you can make here that will almost always significantly increase the saturation/contrast of your images.

To apply the standard S-Curve, you need to first add three "anchor points" to the curve, by clicking where the red circles are in the screenshot above.

For the lower anchor point, use your mouse and drag it down just a little. Notice how your image changed? Keep the middle anchor point exactly where it is. And, for the upper anchor point, drag it up just a little bit.

For increased contrast/saturation, keep dragging these two anchor points up or down, and watch the effects on your image. Be careful though, because you can easily oversaturate your image. The best method is to just start off small, and slowly drag the anchor points up or down until the image appears how you'd like.

The screenshot below shows what the final S-Curve may look like (notice how you can barely notice a change in the curve, be subtle!).

Step 10: Sharpen Your Image With a High-Pass Filter

1. You'll need to have a flat image for this, so if you have multiple layers, merge them together by selecting "Flatten Image" from the "Layer" menu.

2. Create a duplicate layer of your image by selecting "Duplicate Layer" from the "Layer" menu.

3. Go to the "Filter" menu, and go all the way to the bottom until you get to the submenu labeled "Other," and then click on "High Pass..."

4. The goal here is to select a pixel radius large enough so it outlines the edges of your photograph and shows a little bit of color (make sure the "preview" box is checked!). Usually values between 4 and 10 work very well. Here are a few examples of radius values that are too small, too big, and perfect:

5. Click "OK" to apply the filter

6. In the "Layers" window, click on the blending mode listbox, and select "Overlay"

7. Your photo should now look like it's too sharp. But, don't worry, the next step is to fix that! Right next to the blending mode listbox, there's an "Opacity" slider. Click on that and lower the opacity until your photo looks sharp, but not too sharp. I usually set it between 30-45%.

Final Image

Here's an example of the type of images you'll be able to make, after following the steps of this tutorial.

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