In this article, you’ll learn not just one, but two ways to create dramatic photos of family and friends at sunset and blue hour. Follow these steps and you’ll blow their socks off!
Part one – creating a stunning silhouette
A silhouette is an image where the subject is so dark that they’re almost black (with a lack of detail), while the background is bright. It’s easier than you think to create a look like this, see the image below as an example.
Note: All of the images in this article were taken in Havana during my recent photography tour to Cuba. If you want to come and make images like this with me next year, you can get more information here (the 2024 tour will be available for booking soon).
There are a few key things you need to know to create a silhouette. Here are the steps:
- Find a good location where you will be able to see a huge expanse of the sky and the sunset with little else in the frame as distractions.
- Elevate the subject up a bit higher than your eye and camera level. That might mean having them stand on a bench, stump, chair, etc. Plan ahead and bring a crate or something with you if need be.
- Set your camera to Aperture Priority.
- Use Average or Matrix Metering mode.
- Set the White Balance to the Shade (or Cloudy) preset, this will make the image more orange and enhance the sunset colors.
- Choose your desired aperture, f/5.6 is a good place to start so you get the entire subject in sharp focus. You can also shoot wide open if you want to make the background blurrier.
- Dial the Exposure Compensation down to about -1 and take a test shot of just the sky. Check the histogram and ensure that nothing is clipping in the highlight areas (the only exception is the sun if it’s in the frame if it’s clipping that’s fine). This will give the sky more intense colors.
- Adjust the Exposure Compensation up or down until you’ve achieved a good exposure on the sky. You want it to be dark enough for no clipping but not so dark as to lack color.
Once you’ve done those steps, then you’re ready to add the subject into the scene. Have them get into position so that you are looking up at them and try to place the horizon as close to their feet as possible. That may also mean you have to get down on the ground.
Basically, you want the horizon low on their body or at their feet level or as low on their body as possible. You do that by elevating them or lowering the camera, or a combination of both.
To get a good silhouette, the pose is important as well. Ask your model to turn sideways into a profile position, and separate their feet about hip-width apart. Make sure the hands are away from the body as well, or you can ask them to put their hands on their hips.
Having separation between body parts is the key to seeing the shape of the person.
Also check to make sure nothing in the background like a tree, building, or lamp post is growing out of the subject’s head or body. If there is, change the camera position or move the subject as needed to eliminate those distractions. You want a nice clean outline of the subject only.
If you want to add in a prop as I did with the trumpet and sax player in Cuba in these images, make sure you can see the outline of the object clearly as well. It doesn’t work if they are facing the camera (see below).
When processing your images, add more contrast by lowering the blacks to make the subject darker or pure black and/or increasing the white slider (lower the highlights to maintain color in the sky).
If you want just a hint of detail showing in the subject use the Shadow sliders and masking tools in Lightroom or Luminar to brighten them a little bit. In the image below he was blending in too much with the buildings behind him so by bringing back some detail in the man it separates them enough.
You can also play with the color. In the images below I converted them to black and white and then used the Color Grading tool in Lightroom Classic to create these colors. So the sky is the limit when it comes to creativity here.
Once you’ve mastered the silhouette and the light is fading a little bit it’s time to move on to part two and add some flash. Don’t be scared, I’ll walk you through it!
Part two – using off-camera flash to spotlight the subject
When the sun has dipped a bit lower in the sky and the sunset has faded, it’s time to get out your flash to add more drama!
To do this, ideally, you want to use the flash off-camera so you’ll need a remote trigger or way to fire it. If you aren’t familiar with this technique read this: Off-Camera Flash Tips for Beginners.
The settings I use are as follows:
- Manual shooting mode on the camera
- Set the Aperture to f/5.6 (that was the limit on my lens, you can use f/4 or f/2.8 as well).
- Choose a shutter speed that will slightly underexpose the sky or the background but make sure it is not faster than 1/250th or whatever the flash sync speed is for your camera, mine syncs at 1/250th so that’s my limit (check your camera user manual if you aren’t sure). If you go over that and shoot at 1/500th for example you’ll get flash cut-off. Read this for more on that topic: How to Use a Flash – Tips for Total Beginners.
- Do a test shot, you want to end up with an image that looks like the one below with the subject and background slightly dark.
Next set up the flash as follows:
- Set the flash to Manual mode as well.
- Connect your remote trigger to the camera and make sure it fires the flash when you test it (check your flash and trigger user manuals for instructions on how to do that).
- Attach any light modifier that you might want to use like an umbrella or small softbox. This will soften the light and make it more pleasing on the subject.
- Get someone to help you by holding the flash and aiming it at the subject. You can see some of my behind-the-scenes images below of what that might look like.
You can also use a light stand but be very careful of wind, it can pick it up like a sail and just like that your photo session is done and you’re shopping for a new flash. In both locations above we were by the ocean and it was VERY windy, so holding it was the only option.
Set the power on the flash to about 1/8th to start and adjust as necessary. If the flash is too bright turn it down to 1/16th or lower. If it’s not bright enough get your assistant to move closer to the subject or dial the power up to 1/4th or high. It’s that simple.
To adjust the exposure on the subject DO NOT change any settings on the camera! Just adjust the flash power or distance to the subject.
Here are two images of the sax player that I created as the sun was just going down.
Pay attention to your overall exposure as the light fades. To maintain any detail in the background and keep the ambient exposure (the natural light) balanced with the flash you need to adjust your camera settings as it gets darker.
The image below was taken 13 minutes after the one above. Notice how different the exposure is here! I had to increase the ISO, open the aperture, and use a slower shutter speed. If I had not done that, the background would be totally black only the light from the flash hitting the subject would be visible. I may have also lowered the flash power (I can’t remember now).
We thought all the color was gone in the sky and we were into the blue hour, but then Mother Nature gave us a show as we turned west and I was able to make the following images.
My last tip for you is to resist the temptation to pack up and leave until there is absolutely no light left. Wait a while! The light changes very quickly and you need to be ready to react when conditions are prime and you get a light show in the sky!
After the image above was taken, we lost all the color in the sky and we decided to call it a night. But look what I’d have missed if I left right after we thought the sunset was over!
Great photography is partly the technical bits, plus the artistic aspects, a lot of preplanning, with a bit of luck and a whole lot of patience all combined!Darlene Hildebrandt, Digital Photo Mentor.
Conclusion and challenge
So here is my challenge to you, I throw down the gauntlet. If you have never done these kinds of photos before give them a try!
Find a willing and patient subject to be your model, bring an assistant to help you hold the flash, and head out to a nearby location at sunset.
You don’t even need a beach or anything spectacular in the background. Just find an area where you can see the sky without any distracting elements encroaching in the background. A local park with a hill is all you need. Put your subject atop the hill and away you go!
Share your images in the comment area below. If you run into any challenges or snags, post your questions and the images that didn’t work out and I can help you troubleshoot it so you can get out there and try it again.