Although everybody loves to take photos of sunsets, when you want to add more context to those images and photograph something else with the sunset, many photographers struggle.
But fear not, it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t need to have white, blown-out skies and grainy subjects. You don’t need to create featureless black blobs.
In this article, I’ll tell you exactly how to take amazing sunset silhouette photos, and also how to edit them to make them as beautiful as they can be.
So, without delay, let’s get on with it.
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What is Sunset Silhouette Photography?
This popular style of image-making uses the sunset to produce dramatic images.
By positioning a subject against the sky and its brightest light source, you throw them into deep shadow, which creates an extreme contrast; the completely black and well-defined subject in the foreground, and the warm, saturated colours of the background.
Everyone loves a sunset, and taking sunset silhouette photos is a way to capture moments without losing the vibrant colours of the sky.
How Do You Take Sunset Silhouette Photos? 11 Pro Tips
If you’re wondering how to take the perfect sunset photo with a silhouette as the subject, here are my top tips for nailing it the first time:
1. Pick the right spot
This will depend on what you want the outcome to be, but generally, you’re going to need to find a location with either a totally unimpeded view of the sky or somewhere there’s at least enough sky to put your subject against.
The seaside is a good example, or on a hillside, anywhere you can use the horizon.
If you’re shooting landscape, you need to think about how the foreground features will look once they’re underexposed.
Anything that will have a distinct shape, like a tree, or boats at anchor on the water, will add context and drama to the image.
2. Choose your time
The best time to take these evening silhouette photos is during Golden Hour.
This is not a particular time (as of course the time changes all the time), but it refers to the one or two hours before the sun goes down, when it’s low in the sky, shadows are long, and the light is golden.
That window of time is when you’ll get the greatest variety of shots, the most vivid and dramatic colours, and also enough light to accentuate the contrast between the subject and the background.
If you wait too long, the sky gets too dark or dull as the sunset’s colours fade, and silhouettes – although still possible – can get lost in the background.
I recommend you go an hour earlier than you think you need to, just to make sure that when golden hour hits, you’re ready.
3. Dial in the Best Camera Settings for Sunset Silhouettes
Getting the best sunset silhouettes is a case of creating an imbalanced exposure, which is not something you can do in Auto Mode.
So, you’re going to need to shoot in Manual mode, and here are the settings you need:
As you’re exposing for the background and not your subject or the foreground, you need to make sure you’re shooting with a low ISO both to help get that underexposure and also to avoid getting grain or noise in your photo. 100 or 200 ISO should be fine
Higher f stop
As you want to capture a lot of detail in your sunset silhouettes, you need a wide depth of field, so consider shooting from f/8 and upwards.
Also, shooting at narrower apertures helps avoid the chromatic aberration that can creep into your pictures when shooting wide open towards bright light.
Use a fast shutter speed
With sunset silhouette photography you generally need to freeze your subject. Depending on which lens you’re using, and whether you’re shooting handheld or on a tripod, use a shutter speed that’s at least double your focal length, but generally higher.
So, if you’re shooting handheld with a 50mm, you need a shutter speed of 1/100 and above. That’s if your subject is still, though. If they’re moving, your shutter speed needs to be much higher.
Meter off the sky
Use spot metering and choose a bright part of the sky (not the sun itself) as the spot for the camera to take its light reading from.
Add exposure compensation (optional)
This is something you can use if you still don’t have the results you want after adjusting all your basic settings.
With exposure compensation, you can move the exposure down manually a few stops further, and increase the darkness of your silhouette.
4. Choose high or low for your sunset silhouette image
If you’re shooting people, you need to get down on the ground to bring the horizon as low as possible and give as much definition and shape as possible to the silhouettes.
The lower you are, the more scope you’ll have to get them in interesting poses or create context.
The sky creates drama, so the more you have of it in the picture, the better your image will be.
But, if you’re photographing a landscape feature as a silhouette, or, for example, boats reflected in a lake, you might want to get up high to accentuate those features.
5. Pose people carefully
When posing people you need to make sure their outline is well-defined.
Creating space between their bodies, or at least part of their bodies is the best way to do this. You need separation between arms and legs too.
A group of people hugging each other will just be a black mound.
Encourage people to move around, to create the illusion of movement.
And, if you’re taking a close-up shot of someone, make sure you shoot their profile, so you can see clearly who it is.
6. Use negative space for a powerful sunset silhouette photo
With sunsets, the sky is the star. If you compose your photo so that the sky takes up most of it, you can get a powerful image.
For example, if you’re shooting people, positioning them in a corner of the image, or at the bottom edge, to make them small.
Sunset is a perfect way to show the vastness of the sky and the incredible colours the setting sun paints on it.
And when you use a technique like this, each element emphasizes the other. The size of the sky shows how small humans are in the grand scheme of things, and the tiny human shows the power and size of nature.
7. Focus on the subject
Although the subject will be dark and underexposed, that’s what you need to get your camera to focus on.
As you won’t be able to see the subject properly, it’s best to do that with autofocus.
Focus on the subject and they’ll have a crisp outline, and the background, the sunset, will be perfectly exposed.
8. Use bracketing
This is something you can use if your subject is still, and if you’re shooting with a tripod.
With this method, you can set up the camera to take three (or more) different exposures of the same scene, or you can do it manually.
Follow the same steps you would for a non-bracketed photograph (set the exposure for the sky, etc), and then shoot.
You can then blend the layers later in photo editing software and, because you’ll have captured a much wider dynamic range, you’ll be able to bring out a lot more of the details in the highlights
9. Shoot in burst mode
If you’re shooting moving subjects – birds, parents throwing their children in the air – at sunset, it can be difficult both to compose well and get everything in focus.
If you shoot in burst mode you’re more likely to get the shot you want.
10. Be creative with your silhouette photography
When you’re shooting sunset silhouettes, use the sun as much as you can.
The positioning of the sun in relation to your subject will decide what kind of photograph you end up with.
You can hide the sun behind your subject, you can let it peek out, you can embrace whatever lens flare your lens makes for artistic effect, or you can shoot at a very high aperture (for example, f/22) to create a lens star.
Use a reflective surface or interesting objects in the foreground for framing.
Try to make your sunset silhouette photograph stand out from the crowd
11. Bonus tip: turn around
When trying to shoot sunset silhouettes, you become obsessed with the sky and with facing the setting sun.
Take a moment to turn around once in a while and see how the changing light is affecting the scene behind you.
You might find as the light changes that some interesting shadows and glows light up the landscape.
So, while you’re shooting silhouettes, you can get some extra shots at the same time.
11 Examples of Sunset Silhouette Pictures
5 Tips for Editing Sunset Silhouette Photos
Actually edit them
With sunset photos, because the colours are so beautiful, and they often look so good when previewed in-camera, we can be tempted to not do anything else with them. But you must. The silhouette might not be as black as it looks on the camera LCD. And the colours can be made to pop more
Check the edges of the silhouettes
Chromatic aberration can creep in, and colour fringing. Zoom in to make sure, and then use the automatic (or manual) tools in Lightroom or Photoshop to clean those edges. You can also quickly get rid of things like stray hairs or other silhouette imperfections too.
Increase the blacks
Bring those shadows and blacks down. The darker the silhouette, the better the picture.
Increase the contrast
As sunset silhouette photographs are all about the contrast between light and dark, you need to enhance this. Don’t go too far though. If you bump up the contrast too much everything starts to look too sharp and unnatural.
Use saturation and vibrance
Again, don’t overdo this, as it can look odd if you do, but even with small adjustments, you can bring out greater depth, detail, and brightness in the colours of the sky.