How to photograph a sunset and make a silhouette

The sky was really pretty yesterday, so I grabbed my camera and shot away.

This was taken through a smudgy window, so pardon the lack of clarity. I have a 19 month old photo assistant 😉

Nikon D700  |  90mm  |   ISO 500   |   f/5  |  1/250

I love taking sunset photos and silhouettes in particular, so I thought I’d do a mini how-to.

1) The first thing you need to do is grab your camera, turn it on, make sure the lens cap is off 🙂 and then switch the metering mode to “spot meter“.

2) Next, please make sure your flash is OFF. There is no way the flash on your camera is going to illuminate the sky. LOL. (this applies to lots of other situations as well… the on-board flash can usually only go about 15 feet, so firing it at something 100 or 1,000 or 1 billion feet away does no good)

3) Switch your dial to something other than AUTO mode (preferably one of the manual modes – M, S, A, AV, TV, etc.). I think some cameras have “sunset mode” so if you are scared of trying to shoot in any of the manual modes, then just stick with what you know. 

(Warning: The problem with those auto modes (even the sunset mode) is that the camera has no clue what look you are trying to achieve, so letting it choose your settings is just doing a disservice to you as a photographer.)

The above photo was taken over a year ago from the same spot using the same technique. I shot it with a Sony A350. Watermark has obviously changed since then 🙂

4) Next I look through the viewfinder and put my center point (there should be a little square when you look in the viewfinder) where I want to meter. With this photo I wanted to capture the vivid colors, so I threw everything except the sky in shadow. What that means is that the foreground is now all black (aka. a silhouette) and the sunset shows true-to-life.

5) Now you want to meter for the brightest part of the sky (in the photo above I metered right by the airplanes jet stream just above the mountains). 

**Set your aperture, shutter speed and ISO based on the meter reading for the brightest part of the sky**

Now don’t worry if you have no clue what I’m talking about. Trial and error can be fun! It’s okay if you want your photo a little brighter than I have mine. You might be going for a different mood/feel.

Just remember that underexposed sunsets show more color, while overexposed sunsets will be more washed out in color, but show more detail in the shadows.

The photo below is an example of what I’m talking about. Notice how the sky is less vibrant and how there is more detail in the shadows (trees and foreground). The sky looks pastel, rather than contrasty and saturated.

The photo above was taken in Isla Mujeres, Mexico in April 2010. 


6) Next thing I did was compose my shot. I already had all my settings where I wanted them, so I just moved my focal point around, followed the rule of thirds by placing the mountains/horizon on the lower third portion of the photo and then took the shot. (Sorry not enough time to go into detail about that, but Google composition and you will get a wealth of knowledge!)

Well, that’s pretty much it! Bottom line is that the key to silhouettes is exposing for the sky.

You can use anything as your silhouette…people, trees, buildings, anything that has clean lines and is simple. Remember that the silhouette portion of your photo will be all black, so you don’t want a group of people bunched together or else they will look like a big blob. Instead, have them stand an arms length away from the next person. Tell them to jump or pose or lean in for a kiss, etc. Anything to make the shadow/silhouette more interesting.

Here is one of my favorite silhouette shots taken on our honeymoon (using a normal point and shoot camera):

Photo above taken in Puerto Vallarta April 2008.

 Photo taken with Nikon D700 + 50mm f/1.8 lens in NYC, August 2010 

The following photo isn’t a silhouette because there was enough light bouncing off the water to reflect back on the subjects. This reminds me, if your clients or models are wearing white, then it will be harder to get them completely silhouetted. White reflects light, as does water, snow, sand etc., so watch out for that.
I recommend wearing something dark and form fitting for a silhouette photo.


 The photo above was taken in Galveston, Texas in June 2010 using a Nikon D700.

Remember to have fun no matter what you do! You can’t go wrong when shooting something as beautiful as a sunset… 
unless you forget to take your lens cap off 😉

(Well after writing all of that, I Googled silhouettes and found a much more thorough tutorial.. So if you want to see more examples, go HERE!)

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