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Silhouette Portrait Tutorial by Heather Ward

I’m lucky enough to call the very talented Heather Ward a friend and was so excited when she agreed to write a tutorial on Silhouette Photography for this blog! Heather’s Silhouettes are some of my absolute favorite of her images and the fact that she’s sharing her little secrets with us, it just awesome! Just look at that first image! It’s breath taking! It’s not even me and I want to blow it up into a life size canvas and hang it on my wall! So with no further ado. . .



by Heather Ward

I love silhouettes because they can be some of the most moving and dramatic shots. And, if you get your settings right – they require little to no processing after the fact depending on your vision. 

If you are at all familiar with metering, than silhouettes can be a walk in the park. Learning to expose for the light source (i.e. the sky) so the foreground is underexposed is the basis of it, but I’ve noted a few tips to help walk you through the process if this is a new concept for you. 

  • Choose a strong subject, something well defined and recognizable with little clutter. This can be a person, an object, or anything you want really.  Your subject is the object/person that will be underexposed/blacked out in your silhouette photo.
  • Place your subject in front of a light source (i.e. a sun set). Set your exposure for the brightest part of your photo and not for the subject of the image.. To meter accurately for this, point your camera at the light source, hold your shutter half way down and adjust your settings so that the meter line is in the center. This now means that your exposure is correctly set for the light source/sky and for your silhouette.
  • Turn your flash OFF! Do not illuminate your subject
  • Get the light right. Once you have exposed for the sky and take a few shots to ensure your settings are such that you can capture the detail (i.e. for a sunset, make sure you can see light, color, clouds or whatever detail fills the sky). 
  • Set up/frame your image. Get the setting right, place your subject where you want them and look through your view finder to make sure the shot looks good and your subject is standing/placed where you want it.
  • Make the shape clear and uncluttered. Ensure there aren’t branches standing up directly behind your subject  (if it’s a person) or that people’s heads aren’t touching together to the point where you won’t be able to tell WHAT your subject is. 
  • Take the shot. Don’t be afraid to take several at slightly different exposures to make sure you have the shot just how you want it. 
  • Process it if necessary. Usually with my silhouette shots, I use my Clarify Action and my Lab Color Pop at a mid-level opacity to give it the boost it needs. Then, if my subject isn’t quite as blacked out as I want, I will use levels or the burn tool to give it the touch it needs.

My Example Photo:
As you can see from the photo taken by my friend, it’s bright enough outside that I would have had no problem getting a properly exposed shot of my kids. But, by metering/exposing for the sky, which was my light source, the children were underexposed, therefore blacking them out. 


Final Note from Heather: I want to recommend to EVERYONE that they read ‘Understanding Exposure’ by Bryan Peterson. That book really helped me when I was first starting out – and it was key for me in learning how to meter and expose properly. I’d also like to give full credit to the photography community for the tips provided in this tutorial. Many of these tips for creating beautiful Silhouettes were given to me by fellow photographers through forums, chit chats, and tutorials just like these.
As I’ve mentioned before, Heather has awesome actions and textures for 
purchase through her site Lolly’s Playground. If you are not using actions you should! I know they can help bring your photography to the next level – so go play! I have the entire Lolly’s Playground collection, and it was worth it! I use them on every session I edit!


  1. Anonymous says:

    Leah, I have your site bookmarked because it is very resourceful! I already loved this blog! And now that one of my absolute favorites is giving us tips and tricks, well lets just say I'm never going to leave this place!! I "LOVE" Heather's work!! Thanks Ladies!!

  2. momaziggy says:

    Thank you for this…both of you! Heather…you ROCK! Your images and your PP'ing. I aspire oh how I aspire! Ha! I love silhouettes, but of course they don't turn out as gorgeous as yours! Thank you for taking the time to post the tut! :O)

  3. Heather says:

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this. I must thank the photography community as some of these tips were given to me by other photographers. 🙂 So props to them.

    Plus I forgot to recommend to everyone that they read "Understanding Exposure" by Bryan Peterson. Many of these tips…and several more on metering and exposure can be found in that fabulous book!!!

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