Silhouettes in Street Photography

Mar 21, 2018

I see a little silhouetto of a man.

I can’t help humming the verse from Queen’s 1975 hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody” when I’m shooting silhouettes! Photographing silhouettes is about more than capturing an underexposed figure against a bright background. For a silhouette to be successful, the main character must captivate your viewer. Their profile must be easily recognizable with visual separation between it and the surroundings. And, the background must also have interest. If you are new to street photography, silhouettes are a lot of fun to shoot, and not at all hard to create. They are also a safe way to start taking photographs of strangers, as you tend to stand farther away from your subject. I have a few tips here to get you started.

Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?

The first thing you will need to do is find a bright background. A window, a brightly lit wall, or an alley are just a few suggestions. It is often easier to compose silhouettes later in the day when the sun is low and behind your subject. However, that is not always necessary. Any scene with contrasty light, dark shadows, and bright areas make excellent backdrops for silhouettes.


Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me.

When you are exposing for a silhouette, you want to expose for the background, and not the subject. There are several ways to do this. One is to change your metering mode to spot and meter off the background. Using manual mode is another method. Put your camera in manual exposure mode and adjust your exposure until the background is well exposed but your subject is thrown into shadow. I do this by adjusting my shutter speed while keeping an aperture around f/8. However, my favourite way and I believe the easiest, is to use the exposure compensation dial. I set my camera to evaluative (matrix) metering, and dial back the compensation two, three or even four stops.

In addition, most silhouettes use a relatively large depth of field. So choose an aperture of f/8 or smaller. A narrow aperture will give you sharply focused foreground and background elements. However, experiment. Nothing says that the entire image needs to be sharp!

(Galileo) Galileo, (Galileo) Galileo,

Now that you have the technical part down, let’s look at composition. Subjects that are well defined and distinctly identifiable make the best silhouettes. With multiple subjects, try and avoid overlapping figures. This can be difficult sometimes but be patient. In my photograph of the men playing ball hockey below, I took over a hundred shots at a fast shutter speed to capture one where the men were in interesting positions and non-competing locations in the frame.

With so many independent groups in this photograph, it was a matter of waiting and hoping that an interesting subject arrangement would materialize. In the final edit, I chose to use a cinematic crop to create more of a movie feel.

Also, look for engaging elements to frame your dark subject. When I was composing this image below, I paid careful attention to where I was standing and how I aligned the camera. It took a bit of working the scene to find just the right angle. Three railings are running up this set of stairs. I wanted to use one for framing and leading my viewer’s eye into the picture, and I did not want the other two to touch. I also wanted to include the railings and the reflections on the right side of the image.

As you can see in these first two images, I was close to capturing good photographs but didn’t quite nail it. After reviewing my first few shots, I knew where I needed to make composition adjustments. Then it was just a matter of waiting for an engaging subject to walk into my shot.

Galileo Figaro.

When I post-process my images with silhouettes, I often increase the white and/or highlights and deepen the shadows and/or blacks. This helps to add contrast to the image.

Experiment with colour. Not every silhouette has to be black and white. And, you do not need to throw your subject into complete shadow. Use rim lighting to highlight textures around the edge of your subject.


I will leave you with a few more silhouettes. And, I apologize if Bohemian Rhapsody is stuck in your head now! If it is any consolation, I’ve been humming it for the better part of two days now! Cheers until next week.