One of the fundamental rules in Digital Photography is that you should ‘never shoot straight into the sun‘. But, in Underwater Silhouette Photography, that rule is made to be broken!
A classic silhouette shot features a dark or black foreground subject with the sun positioned directly behind in the frame, giving a ‘backlit’ effect.
Requiring no specialised equipment or accessories, silhouettes are a simple, yet effective shot type, and work particularly well with strong, emotive subject shapes.
Capturing perfect underwater silhouette shots means the shot should:
- have a clear subject, positioned well in the foreground
- capture a well-defined, recognisable shape (a diver, boat, turtle, manta or shark all make great subjects)
- be exposed correctly for the background (and not be over-exposed)
- have a smooth gradation between lighter and darker background shades
- aim to capture the individual rays of the sun (if the sun is framed in shot)
You don’t need special lenses to capture a good silhouette shot, but, if you have the choice, select a wide angle or fish-eye lens to gain the best results. If you’re shooting with a compact camera, zoom all the way out to the widest setting and leave some room between you and your subject to create a wider feel.
For high-contrast shots such as silhouettes (especially if they include a sunburst), a graduated density filter can be used to reduce the hottest areas of a shot by 1-3 stops. Since the filter is usually attached directly to the lens, inside the housing and must therefore remain in place for an entire dive, many underwater photographers don’t bother as the loss of light for other shot-types is not worth the slight gain for a silhouette or sunburst shot. You can also experiment with setting your exposure compensation to between -1 and -1.5 to avoid over-exposing your image.
A red filter should be avoided or removed as it’s hard to balance out the red colour when shooting directly towards the sun.
Strobes & Lighting
Strobes are not generally used when shooting silhouettes, so to create standard silhouette shots, you can turn off your flash.
Choose natural sunlight during early-mid morning or mid-late afternoon, as this gives the best lighting for silhouette shots. You’ll find shooting at these times gives much easier angles to work with and longer, more slanting, rays that slice further through the water. Avoid the harsh midday sun when the light direction comes from directly overhead and is at its ‘hottest’ (colour-wise).
The warmer, more muted, colour temperatures found towards sunrise and sunset can give unusual and beautiful tones to your images.
Once you’re comfortable with the basics, you can try experimenting with partial silhouettes, using a strobe to light or ‘fill in’ a particular element of the foreground to add additional depth and dimension to your images.
An underwater strobe was used in this shot to highlight the Seastar in the foreground. The diver is far enough away to remain a silhouette.
Subject, Position & Composition
Subject Choice and Shape
Choose a subject with a well-defined, recognisable shape – a diver, boat, turtle, manta or shark all make great subjects that help create a strong image with good visual impact.
Large schools of fish can also provide interesting subjects. Any close up subject with the sun directly behind it should work – let your imagination run wild and experiment with as many different subjects as possible to get the feel of what works best for you and your camera setup.
Without the usual visual clues of colour and texture, it’s important that a silhouette captures the subject in a position that highlights the most recognisable features of its form.
Study your subject’s movements and wait for the perfect moment during their swimming cycle to squeeze the shutter. Silhouette images work best when your subject is easily identifiable by its shape alone. Typically, it’s a good idea to wait for all limbs to be extended and to aim for a side-on or bottom-up view.
Ideally you should aim to position yourself below and as close to your subject as possible so they are directly between your lens and the sun – this will produce the strongest silhouette effect.
The closer you are to your subject, the easier it will be to (at least partially) block out the light from the sun and get a good focus on your subject.
Positioning yourself close to your subject also gives you a greater choice of angles, and allows you to move around more easily to find the perfect position. Aim for you and your subject to be positioned such that your angle of view points away from the reef and out into the blue.
Try varying the distance between you and your subject to change the contrast between the foreground and background.
If the sun is behind you when a fantastic silhouette photo opportunity strikes, position yourself further away from your subject to minimise picking up any color reflecting from them. A silhouette should be black or close to.
Frame your shot so you’re shooting with your subject in the foreground against an uncluttered, brighter background – ideally facing directly towards the sun.
Usually the best underwater background can be found by shooting upwards, into the blue.
Use your judgement and eye to determine what elements make a pleasing composition. In a silhouette shot, simplicity often produces the most striking composition.
Traditionally, silhouettes are composed with the sun positioned directly behind the subject, but as long as there is sufficient contrast between the (dark) subject and (lighter) background, pleasing results can be achieved if the sun is off to the side or even out of frame.
As you gain experience, you can experiment with adding a sunburst to the image by adjusting the composition and positioning of your subject elements.
Some compact cameras struggle with having the sun directly in shot. If this happens, you can partially frame the sun out of your image.
Use the sun’s rays to add compositional depth and dimension to your image.
Setting your camera to full manual mode allows you to gain control over every aspect of your shot. If you’re not totally comfortable using manual settings on your camera, the underwater world is a great place to experiment with manual settings as, almost any manual settings you select will produce better images than letting the camera shoot in fully automatic mode. Underwater, colour and light behave very differently than on land, and most cameras’ automatic settings will give over-exposed images with poor colours.
Film Speed (ISO)
Setting the correct film speed or ISO number is not critical for silhouette shots as you’re usually shooting at a strong upwards angle with plenty of available light. A low ISO setting of 100 or 200 is fine in normal, bright conditions. In low light conditions or overhead environments, you may need to increase your film speed to as high as ISO 400 or 800 (above this, your images are at risk of becoming grainy, although compact cameras are usually more forgiving in this department than a DSLR).
Faster shutter speeds can help to ‘freeze’ the individual rays of the sun. Typically, the faster you set your shutter speed, the more defined the sun rays will be. A good start is to select a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster and then use your aperture to balance exposure.
If you want to capture the whole scene in focus, you’ll need to set narrow aperture or high f/stop to get a large depth of field. Set a large depth of field by manually setting your aperture at a high setting for your camera (somewhere between f5.6 or f8 on a compact camera or f16 and higher on a DSLR). The smaller you set your aperture (higher f/stop number), the larger the resulting depth of field in the image, which will help to ensure that whole of your image is in focus. You could even set your camera to it’s highest f/stop and start adjusting your shutter speed from there.
Exposure & Bracketing
Use your aperture or shutter speed to balance exposure. If the image is over-exposed (too bright), you’ll need a faster shutter speed or higher f/stop. If the image is under-exposed (too dark), you’ll need a slower shutter speed or lower f/stop.
When shooting silhouettes, it’s most important to properly expose the water surrounding your subject to gain the best results.
To check your settings, aim your camera’s focus spot to an area of the background, just off from the centre of the sunburst in the area where you want to see the rays begin.
If you’ve set your aperture and shutter speed correctly, the exposure meter should display a reading near the centre or ‘0’ mark. If not ,adjust your settings in Manual mode accordingly. Once you’ve set your aperture and shutter speed, you can go ahead and compose your shot, this time focusing the lens on your foreground subject.
Play with your settings until you achieve an underexposed (black) subject, a correctly exposed blue background and a sunball that is not too overexposed. On a compact camera, you can trying playing with exposure compensation (try setting it at -1.0 or -2.0 to further reduce the exposure). On a DSLR, you can change your metering mode to spot metering and try taking readings from different areas of the background.
If you camera features an automatic bracketing option, you can use this to take a series of images that feature different exposures – usually one stop above and below the exposure you set.
This can be a useful ‘safety device’ whilst you’re getting the hang of manual settings, or a lifesaver in situations where you only have one chance at a shot (think passing manta ray).
Silhouette shots tend to have a large depth of field due to the need to set your aperture high. This means that most of your shot will naturally be in focus. However, you’ll usually want to set your sharpest focus on the foreground (dark) subject to give a crisp outline to your subject and a better perspective.
- Set your camera to full manual mode to obtain the best control over your images
- Position yourself fairly close to your subject and a little below
- Select a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster
- Meter the surrounding water and set your aperture – usually as high as possible
- Use bracketing to vary the exposure up and down by at least one f/stop to ensure that you get the very best image possible
- Shoot at an upwards angle when the sun is strong but low in the sky
- Choose diving conditions with good visibility and clear water to get the most striking results
- Take plenty of shots with a variety of settings to see which produce the best results on your camera system
- Most important of all…, have fun and experiment!
Silhouettes often stand out particularly well in a gallery of photographs. They tend to be powerful, emotive images due the their simplicity, portrayal of light intensity and moody mystery. The main subject appears as a dark or black outline, often against a single, uncluttered background colour, leaving much of the interpretation of the image up to the imagination of the viewer.
Take a look at our Silhouettes Gallery for lots more examples of underwater silhouette images and to get ideas for your next underwater photo-shoot.
Or, consult the Tips and Tricks section for more useful digital underwater photography techniques to help you get the most out of your underwater camera system and learn about other types of underwater shots.
If you’d like to learn more about underwater photography, take a look at some of our underwater photography courses.