Sunset silhouette photography

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All you need to know about how to create sunset silhouette photography.

  • Introduction
  • Composition
  • Technique
  • Other creative ideas

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Using the rear AF button

camera shake

suset silhouette photography

sunset silhouette photography


Sunsets (and sunrises) with their rich, vibrant and warm colors have always inspired photographers and artists.

However often adding an additional “star” to the composition, in the form of a striking silhouette can add more impact to the photo than relying on the sunset colors alone.

sunset silhouette photography

sunset silhouette photography


A silhouette is by definition a dark featureless shape set against a brighter background.

The best silhouettes are those that instantly reveal to the viewer the nature of the object through its outline form alone.

You should therefore try to ensure that your silhouette subject is as far as possible completely outlined against the bright background (often the sky) and this may mean adopting a low shooting point – or positioning your subject higher than you.

If your silhouette is a person, then have them adopt a dynamic pose that shows as much outline form as possible to avoid forming unrecognizable “blobs” where arms and legs merge into the bulk of the body shape.

sunset silhouette photography

sunset silhouette photography



You will want your silhouette subject to be rendered in sharp focus.

Your camera’s default setting (which autofocuses on the subject AND sets exposure when you half press the shutter button) is not best suited to silhouette photography as it will make it difficult for you to recompose the shot to correctly set exposure.

So one of the following techniques are recommended

  1. Switch to manual focus and focus by eye. (TIP if your camera has a live view option with a 5 or 10x image zoom function, use this to assist in fine tuning manual focus)
  2. Autofocus in the normal way, then switch the lens to manual focus to retain the focus that has been set. (TIP if you do this make sure that when you take the shot you haven’t changed the distance between you and your subject – if you are taking a shot where your silhouette is a moving subject, then pre-focus at the point where you want to capture the shot)
  3. Use your camera's rear AF button function. This enables you to separate the focusing from the exposure metering upon depressing the shutter button. (TIP I find this function so useful that I leave my camera with this function set as the default setting – see the page rear AF button for full details on this.


Left to its own devices your camera's automatic exposure metering system will endeavor to bring detail into as much of the frame as possible – often giving extra emphasis to exposing for wherever the focal point is. Assuming your intended silhouette will occupy a significant part of the frame (or at least be where you have focused) this will result in the bright areas (i.e. the beautiful deep sunset sky) being overexposed and rather than be a silhouette, your subject is likely to be a little underexposed but still with a significant amount of undesirable detail.

You will therefore need to override your camera’s automatic exposure in order to create the correctly exposed sunset silhouette that you desire.

There are numerous ways to do this, but detailed below is my preferred method – which works well when shooting handheld.

  1. Select the camera’s spot metering mode
  2. Set ISO to lowest standard setting (100 or 200)
  3. Make sure image stabilization (if your camera or lens has it) is ON.
  4. Shoot in RAW format (recommended but not essential).
  5. Set white balance to CLOUDY or SHADE (if shooting in RAW this is irrelevant as ideal color temperature can be dialed in during post processing) to further enrich the warm colors of the sunset.
  6. Select a medium aperture e.g. F8 and then switch to Av - APERTURE PRIORITY MODE, and take a spot meter reading from a bright part of the sky. (CAUTION: DO NOT POINT CAMERA DIRECTLY AT THE SUN – THIS CAN DAMAGE YOUR EYES AS WELL AS THE CAMERA!). You are looking for a shutter speed that is faster than the reciprocal of the focal length or a minimum of 1/60th of a second to avoid camera shake (although a good image stabilization system may mean shutter speeds as low as 1/8th second yield acceptably sharp results). If indicated shutter speed is too low OR if your subject is moving, change the aperture to a lower F number AND/OR increase the ISO until the desired shutter speed is achieved. Make a mental note of these settings.
  7. Now switch to M – MANUAL exposure mode and dial in the noted settings. Compose and take your shot.
  8. As you take your shots, review them on your camera’s lcd screen and if necessary vary the exposure up or by adjusting the APERTURE until you find the result you are looking for. (TIP shooting in RAW format will give you greatest control over fine tuning your shot in post processing)

sunset silhouette photography

Sunset silhouette photography

Other creative ideas

There are occasions where you may take a great silhouette photo, but the actual sunset colours on the occasion may be a little dull or disappointing.

Unless you are one of those photographers that is averse to any form of photo manipulation – don’t despair – these days it is relatively simple to create the affect you are looking for in post processing.

sunset silhouette photography

I have included a couple of examples above showing images before and after enhancement in photoshop.  (I will create a separate article showing the technique I used to do this and publish it on this site soon!)






Also remember that you can be creative in your compositions – perhaps incorporate the reflection of the sunlit sky rather than the sky itself

sunset silhouette photography
sunset silhouette photography

the creative possibilities are endless!



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Other useful links from sunset silhouette photography

go to JARGON BUSTER digital photography terms explained

Using the rear AF button

Camera shake

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