I’m always preaching that the fastest way to better photos is to keep things simple. Filling the frame with a single, obvious subject, getting as close as you can and using plain backgrounds are all good paths to simplicity. Another really fun way to make things simple — especially with opaque (non-transparent) subjects that have easily recognizable shapes — is to silhouette them against a bright background.
Silhouettes are really easy to create: simply expose for the bright background and turn the subject into a black shape. If you’re using a camera that has an exposure-lock feature, then you can just take a meter reading from the bright area (the sky, a bright wall, etc.) and lock in that reading. Then recompose the shot and shoot at that exposure.
Your goal with most silhouettes is to turn the foreground black, and by exposing purely for the bright areas, you will automatically cast the foreground into blackness. It is important, though, that you take your readings directly from the bright area and that you don’t include the shape or subject itself, or you may begin to see too much detail in the foreground.
Shapes You Can Recognize
The most important aspect of creating any silhouette is to have a recognizable shape as your subject. Most of us are familiar with the shape of a giant saguaro cactus (below), for example, and so we know immediately what the subject is.
The more colorful the background, of course, the more dramatic and the prettier the shot will be. Sunset and twilight are excellent times of day to look for bold silhouette shapes because you have a naturally occurring colorful sky. As a bit of a bonus, exposing just for the sky also helps to saturate the sky colors, which makes silhouette shots all the more dramatic and colorful.
Remember, too, you can always bump up the contrast and saturate the colors in Photoshop or another image-editing program.
Interplay of Shapes
Finally, while bright colorful sunset skies are visually exciting, you can also find good opportunities in less dramatic situations. In the shot of the heron (above), for example, it wasn’t the colors but just the interesting interplay of shapes that drew my eye to the scene and by exposing just for the water, I was able to make those shapes the subject.
And in some situations, like the shot of the sculpture (above) shot in Arizona, there are bits of the shot that aren’t opaque and thus let some light through — an effect I happen to like a great deal. You will get the same visual effect if you shoot a tree with autumn leaves in silhouette — the shape of the tree will be black, but the sun coming through the leaves will retain some color.