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Photo Tip: How to Make a Sunset Silhouette

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It’s no secret I love silhouettes. My favorites are the ones I can make against the beauty of a colorful sunset! I’ve spent years learning how to use these skies to my advantage, but I thought I would save you the time and just tell you how I do it. 🙂

Step one: Know the Sky

I am a student of light. I never stop studying it for color, direction, quality, quantity, etc. I watch the sky most evenings, even when I don’t have a camera in hand. I make mental notes about when the late day light gets it’s most golden and soft, and also when the skies light up with color and what conditions lead up to a colorful sky. I can usually tell when a good sunset is about to happen because there are usually some kind of cloud arrangement happening that will reflect the color of the sun after it has gone down. Sometimes I’m wrong, because the sky can change so quickly, but the more you observe the sky, the better you will get at anticipating what it might do.

Step two: Find a hill, or get low

In order to photograph subjects against the sky, you need to get them so they are visible against the lightest area of the sky. This usually means finding a hill with a clearing behind, or lying on the ground, or both, in the case of this photo. I was in a ditch, and my subjects were on a driveway. Ideally, I would love to see their shapes all the way down to their feet, but this was the best I could do at this location.

Step three: Place subject in a clear spot

Related to the last step, I had to find a spot where there was an opening to the sky. If I set them against the trees, I would not be able to see their shapes against a sky. I am very specific about where people stand for silhouettes!

Step four: Expose for the sky

This is probably the part I see most people miss when trying to make a silhouette. Point your camera at the sky and adjust your camera settings until the sky is metered correctly. I don’t want any light on my subjects – they should be completely black! I want the sky to be exposed without any overexposed areas. I use the highlight alert on my camera, which makes overexposed areas blink, to make sure I have no “blinkies” and have a correct exposure. As you can see in my settings, my shutter was at 1/3200. I could have lowered my ISO even more, but my camera is very clean a ISO 400, and I had a good exposure, so I worked with this. If anything, I would rather UNDEREXPOSE the sky than overexpose it. Why? Because a correctly exposed or slightly underexposed image will retain MUCH more color than an overexposed one.

Step five: Set white balance to Shade

This is my big secret! I set my white balance to shade to make the sky warm and colorful!

Step six: Pose for shapes

To me, silhouettes are made interesting by making good shapes. Because I cannot see any detail in my subject’s skin, I cannot see her expression. If Olivia was looking at me, all we would see would be the outline of her head – not very interesting! So for people, I almost always have them in profile to me for a silhouette. For horses, there are more interesting shapes than just profile. I have a lot of profile images in this series, but chose this one because I like that I can see all four legs, both ears forward, tail up, and his right eye.

 

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This second image shows how I would process this image to bring out the color. In Lightroom, I balanced the exposure, added some contrast through the Tone Curve, corrected for lens distortion, and added overall vibrance to the image.

I hope this has been a helpful tip and that you have an epic sunset soon so you can try it out for yourself!

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