These are some of the ways to describe a silhouette. Silhouettes are different from other forms of photography in that they give you very little in terms of detail. Instead, the silhouette taps into your mind and makes you wonder what the image is all about.
There might be people, buildings, or other objects that are a part of the silhouette. It is up to you to decide what story is being told and that is part of its magic.
The purpose of this guide is to teach you the art of sunset silhouettes on the beach – my absolute favorite type of silhouette.
Summary of Topics
- What Gear to Use?
- The Subject
- Exposure Settings
- DON’T Use a Filter
What Gear to Use?
Most of the time, all you really need (but still optional!) to capture beach silhouettes is a full frame camera, a few good lenses, and a tripod.
What camera should I use?
There are several budget-friendly full frame cameras to choose from. Canon 6D Mark II, Nikon D610, or the Sony A7 II are all good full frame cameras for the budget conscious beginner. These will be great to learn with so that you are not overwhelmed by too many features and gadgets.
You can upgrade later once you have a better grasp on photography and are ready to take the leap to a bigger camera with more in-depth features. The Canon Mark IV, Nikon D750, or the Sony A7 III are a good moderately priced full frame cameras for the intermediate level photographer.
What lens should I use?
A silhouetted subject doesn’t quite stand out as much without a detailed background. A wide angle lens can help us do that. Specifically, the 35 mm lens.
There are several different types of lenses to choose from. If you want the top of the line you will want to go with a 35 mm f1.4 L series lens from Canon, Sigma 35 mm f1.4, and Nikkor 35 mm f1.4 AF FX for full frame cameras, or the Sony SAL-35F14G 35mm f/1.4 Aspherical G Series Standard Lens. There are also much cheaper “kit lens” versions of each lens as well.
The 35 mm lens is extremely well-rounded, capable of capturing portraits with a narrow depth of field and landscapes with a wider depth of field. This is where having a full frame camera comes in, as it will maximize our silhouette photography capabilities.
Last but not least, it’s small and compact! Perfect for having to truck through the sand with.
If you want to use something you may already have the 24-70 lenses will work as well. The image pictured above was actually a 24-70 mm f4 lens taken at 35mm.
Trying to capture something far out on the water? Throw on a 70-200 mm lens to make it happen! If your subject is a person and you don’t have much distance to close, you are better off with the 35 mm.
But really, find a lens that you are comfortable with. Any wide angle lens will do excellently. Experimenting is key!
When we talk about gear for a sunset silhouette, we have to mention the tripod. Raising our shutter speed is necessary to effectively sharpen our silhouettes and reduce camera shake. You don’t have to use a tripod, but you will need to increase your shutter speed to compensate.
(rule of thirds, isolate your subject, take pictures from below, rule of space (direction your subject is moving))
Besides lighting, the composition may be the most important factor for taking superb sunset beach silhouettes.
Let’s say you managed to capture a perfect silhouette of your subject.
There are some random figures in the background that take away from your shot. Maybe your subject isn’t in the correct frame (Rule of Thirds).
Here are some ways to effectively use composition to enhance your shots:
Rule of Thirds
To illustrate Rule of Thirds, we will divide 9 squares into the frame of your camera – 3 across and 3 down. Placing the most important areas of the photo into the intersecting lines is what we are shooting for. An off center photo has a tendency to be more appealing.
For example, position yourself so that the sun is setting on the left side of your camera frame. Place your subject directly in front of the sun to create a silhouette. You are now utilizing Rule of Thirds!
Isolate Your Subject
A silhouette can be a work of magic, keeping the viewer guessing as to the meaning. But when there are random objects in the photo, they can take away from it.
Find your subject and ensure that there are no other distractions in your image. Normally, you could use a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field, putting your focus on the subject. But with a beach silhouette, we also want the background to be sharp so we need to use a larger aperture to keep the entire photo in focus.
Some minor distractions in the background take a little away from this otherwise strong, emotional image.
Rule of Space
With the Rule of Space, we are looking to incorporate movement into our shots. Specifically, the space left in the frame when your subject is moving from left to right. As viewers, we tend to focus our attention to where the subjects are traveling.
An example would be someone running down the beach, enveloped in a silhouette.
The subject is the basis of your silhouette and it needs to be strong.
Here are some important things to consider about your subject:
If you have multiple subjects, avoid having them too close together as they will appear as one massive blob, completely nullifying your efforts.
The placement of the subject is important. We need to place the subject in front of some light source (a setting sun, for example) and force the camera to manipulate the exposure based on the bright area of the background and not the subject itself. This will provide the underexposed look we are shooting for with the subject.
Ensure your subject stands out. It doesn’t have to be a person but people are exceptional targets for silhouettes. A boat traveling along the sunset would be a prime example of an object to shoot at for your silhouette.
Posing matters! If your subject is a person, have them pose to illustrate as much detail as possible with their figure. This will also prevent the individual from appearing like a massive black blob as was illustrated in a previous point.
My intention here was to avoid them becoming a black blob!
How you manipulate lighting will make or break your silhouette. There are many ways to overexpose your subject so we have to make sure that we focus on getting the lighting just right.
Depending on where you live, you have more or less time to get your shot before darkness arrives.
The sun sets around the same time for everyone during the March solstice. If you live in Florida, you can expect about a 76-minute window from sunset to darkness or nearly 2.5 hours in Anchorage, Alaska!
During the summer, the period between sunset and darkness is extended, but only by a few minutes if you are closer to the equator. In fact, for most of June in Alaska, the sun never dips more than 6º below the horizon. If you are a photographer in Alaska, June should allow a constant window for great silhouette shots!
Once you arrive on location…
Make sure you arrive early and have all the necessary equipment, especially if you live closer to the equator. We want to have plenty of time to work with available light.
Turn off That Flash!
I know, this is a very basic step but it needs to be brought to light (pun intended).
The goal here is to get your subject in front of the light source. Ideally, you would want your subject to obscure the sun by being in front of it. However, as long as there is more light in the background than the foreground, the shot should work.
I may be a little partial to partial silhouettes.
You have arrived early, you have your equipment ready, and your subject is in place.
Now what? Get those exposure settings right!
What all is involved here? Let’s break it down.
- Manual Mode
- Shutter Speed
- Shooting in RAW
Have you ever tried shooting a sunset in automatic? Your camera tries to compensate for the lack of light with auto metering. Instead of underexposing your subject, the camera ends up lighting them up unless you use a couple of automatic exposure techniques like spot or centered metering modes.
I find manual mode to be a more reliable way to get your camera to do just what you want it to do.
In order to ensure we have the sharpest possible subject, we need to set our ISO as low as possible. Higher ISOs will produce grainy images. But because we are actually trying to underexpose our subject, a low ISO is super easy to use.
Depending on your camera, ISO 100-800 works well but some cameras can get away with a higher ISO and not experience much noise.
To maximize sharpness, we need to increase our shutter speed. This works by minimizing blur from camera shake and to help us capture subjects that may be in motion. One of the keys to a great silhouette is crisp, defined outlines. Nobody wants to see a blurry silhouette!
Experiment with your shutter speed. 1/60 to 1/250 should work well depending on your camera. Going higher is possible, too. Use your exposure meter for assistance (covered later on).
If you are capturing on a tripod, then you don’t necessarily need to use the highest shutter speed because camera shake isn’t as much of an issue (depressing the shutter may cause light shake).
If you aren’t using a tripod, your camera may have an image stabilization feature that will allow you to get away with using slower shutter speed.
Low ISO, fast shutter speed… but what about your aperture? A perfect silhouette relies on all three of these exposure settings working together.
To get you to understand what aperture to use, we need to go back to the primary focus of the image. A strong, sharp subject that also includes a sharp background. Assuming we are on the beach at sunset with an optimal horizon, there will often be rich colors and detail in the background.
We cannot lose out on that!
To get all those details, we need a smaller aperture. A large aperture will create a narrow depth of field and restrict all those important background details.
However, we need to adjust the aperture depending on how much light is available.
Is the sun almost gone and darkness is quickly approaching? You won’t have much light to work with so an open aperture may be most effective.
Do you have plenty of background light to work with? Take advantage of this and adjust your aperture around f/8 to f/16. The smaller aperture is going to allow the entire scene to be sharp and as detailed as possible.
Your camera has an exposure meter that judges how much light is necessary for the shot. You can use this meter to help you determine your exposure settings, like shutter speed.
In regards to silhouettes, we want to meter off of the strongest light source. Do not meter off the sun! It can damage your lens and those guys are expensive.
If I am on the beach at sunset, that is most likely going to be the sky.
At this point, I will point my camera at the sky and check my exposure meter. I can then select my correct shutter speed based on the available information provided.
That’s all there is to it! Metering is an invaluable tool for getting perfect settings for your silhouette efforts.
Always Shoot in RAW
You lined your subject up and took the shot.
Great! Your shot has excellent sharpness and focus.
Looks like your white balance is off. What can we do to fix that and retain that excellent shot? This is where shooting in RAW shines.
Raw is basically unprocessed data produced from your camera. It uses lossless compression to preserve every detail captured. Because of this, little detail is lost in your photo – even after you edit it.
Since we captured in RAW, we can easily adjust the white balance in Lightroom. This would produce more grain and quality loss if we had originally captured in JPEG.
Just make sure you have a large capacity, fast reading memory card to offset the large file size of RAW files. Many files can be as large as 8-12 MB!
Bracketing is such a useful tool for capturing a silhouette.
With bracketing, your camera will take around 3 pictures.
1st picture is the one you metered for.
2nd picture is one stop over what you metered for.
3rd picture is one stop under what you metered for.
Bracketing really comes in handy when you are not quite sure what your exposure settings should be, so you can get a nice sample size of three different shots. Hopefully, one of them will be what you were looking for!
If you are into partial silhouettes, this is also a great way to snag some of those.
Did I already say I like partial silhouettes?
DON’T Use a Filter
Specifically, a Circular Polarizer and UV filter.
A Circular Polarizer (CPL) is a filter you can use to increase saturation and reduce glare on reflective surfaces. It can make your skies sharper by increasing the blue color. Adjust the intensity by rotating your filter from left to right or right to left.
They reduce the amount of light that hits the camera’s sensor. The reduction can be as much as 2-3 f-stops. This is not ideal in low-light situations.
Once the sun dips past 90º, a CPL is limited in its effectiveness and will NOT help you saturate colors for a sunset.
A UV Filter’s goal is to block UV light and remove blue cast from photos taken when it is extremely bright. Because we have limited light, this is also NOT ideal. The UV Filter will reduce the saturation and contrast of your photos at sunset.
After our silhouette session, we may have a few pictures where our subject is slightly visible and could use some darkening.
We can do this with one or two layer adjustments.
Utilize a layer adjustment and move the black slider to the right to darken the shadows
Move the white slider to the left to brighten your sky
Increasing your saturation and liveliness can also add more detail to your background.
Now that you have a good idea of what you need to do capture a sunset silhouette on the beach, get out there and make it happen!
Let me know in the comments below what other techniques you use to maximize your beach silhouettes.
About the Author
Christi Pennington is a professional photographer in Destin, FL. She specializes in all things beach photography. Her passion for photography stems from her sister’s work in a busy portrait studio in Atlanta, GA. There, she learned the basics of photography on a Canon Film SLR. She is also a wife and the mother of two wonderful children who she spares no expense in photographing constantly! You can see more of Christi’s work on her website and follow her on Instagram and Facebook.