One of the simplest ways to capture the dramatic colors of a sunrise or sunset is to photograph a silhouette.
Although they’re simple looking images, here are a few tips for photographing them:
#1 – Use a telephoto lens
With silhouettes, you’ll usually want an out of focus background to help draw attention to your silhouetted subject. A telephoto lens will help you here by reducing depth of field. They’re not always required though (the image above was taken with a 50mm lens).
#2 – Shoot at sunrise to avoid wind
One of the biggest problems you’ll face when photographing silhouettes of plants is wind. Since you’ll be shooting in low light, a slight breeze will shake the plant enough to cause a blurry photo. One way to prevent this is to shoot at sunrise instead of sunset. The air is usually much calmer in the morning than in the afternoon.
#3 – Use a wide aperture
The wide aperture is good for two reasons: it helps make the background more out of focus, and it helps get you a faster shutter speed (which is good for battling the wind).
#4 – Wait for partly cloudy days
The most dramatic sunrises or sunsets occur when there’s a little bit of cloud cover. The light scatters through the clouds, creating some spectacular colors. So, keep an eye out for these conditions, and always wait until well after sunset or arrive well before sunrise. Sometimes the most magical colors don’t show themselves until these times.
#5 – Choose a subject that is “dull” looking in daylight
I love to use silhouettes as a way to visually capture some of my favorite “dull” looking plants. For example, when I first started exploring the Mojave Desert, I immediately became fascinated by the amazing adaptability of the Creosote bush, but it’s a visually unappealing plant:
So, to make it more visually appealing, I decided to photograph a silhouette of a single branch at sunset:
Silhouettes are a great way to take advantage of the stunning colors of a sunset or sunrise, and use them to emphasize the shape of something.
#6 – Keep it simple
Instead of trying to photograph the silhouette of an entire bush, or a group of clustered trees, try to focus on just one branch of the bush or just one tree. If you try to include too much, the image may end up lacking a central point of focus, which will confuse the viewer.
#7 – Find your subject well before sunrise or sunset
Since silhouettes are meant to emphasize the shape of something, it’s important you find a subject with a really nice and balanced shape (or really unbalanced could work too). Finding this perfect subject could take awhile, so it’s important to do your scouting well ahead of time. A good goal is to be in position at least thirty minutes before sunset.
#8 – Use a fast shutter speed
Since you’ll be dealing with low light, it’s important to use a fast shutter speed to help battle the wind and freeze the action of any moving subjects. A wide aperture (as I mentioned earlier) will certainly help with that. But, you can also try increasing your ISO to get that fast shutter speed.
What did I miss?
If you have another tip for photographing silhouettes, please share it with us by leaving a comment below! Thanks 🙂
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About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.