How to photograph a silhouette at the window

Simplify composition for dramatic effects

Silhouettes are a great way to simplify a photo: They reduce an image to dramatic areas of light and dark, lines, and not much color. One of the best places to shoot a silhouette is against a window.

There are several ways to expose a silhouette. In this article, prepared exclusively for the Adorama Learning Center, we offer two techniques that can be accomplished any camera, from a sophisticated DSLR, a MILC, or humble compact digital camera, all of which are available at Adorama:

Photo © Ian McDonnell/

For our first example, look at the photo at right of the young lady sipping a cup of coffee. There’s a bit of light on her face—just enough so you can see her eye and some details on her fingers and blouse. This is a profiled silhouette, and it is shot at a slight angle to the window rather than straight on. The face picks up light reflected off the surface of the cup and her hand. The photographer exposed for the details on her blouse, which means the background is blown out.

This is a case you can use a typical digital camera's limited dynamic range to your advantage. The sunlit outside beyond the window overexposed and appears as pure white. Film might have picked up some distracting details.

Exposure: In a high-contrast scene like this, the detail in the subject's shirt add important texture, and so it is best to take a meter reading off the shirt. You may need to add contrast in post-processing to get rid of any detail that might show up in the shadows or the bright window.



Photo © Anna Omeltchenko/

The second example is a pure silhouette: the girl is in complete shadow. The photographer exposed for the scene outside the window. Note how the windowshade adds a bold shape to the composition. By the the subject facing out the window or towards the camera?


Exposure: Meter for the correct exposure for what is outside the window. You can do this automatically by simply pointing the camera out the window and using the suggested exposure. If you want to do this manually, use the "sunny 16 rule" and dial in a correct exposure for the outside lighting conditions. So, if it's a sunny day outside and you're shooting at ISO 100, the exposure would be 1/100 sec at f/16...or 1/250 at f/11, or 1/500 at f/8, etc.


Now, go find a window, turn off your flash, and shoot a silhouette yourself!


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