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Get the Shot! Silhouettes

By: Todd Winner

Underwater silhouettes are easy to achieve and can produce stunning images for your portfolio. They can either be the main subject in your image or used as secondary points of interest with a strobe lit foreground. There are two main ingredients for silhouettes. You need a strong subject with a distinctive shape and you need enough contrast between the subject and the background. Common underwater subjects that make good silhouettes include sea lions, sharks, divers and wrecks. Adding additional points of interest, such as sunbeams, a diver with a light or framing the subject in a cave or other similar opening, can further enhance the image. However you shoot them, adding silhouettes into your photography will help elevate your wide angle images.


The distinctive shape of the sea lion make for a great silhouette. 1/250, f/14, ISO 320

Key settings

  • Wide angle lens 
  • Manual camera exposure. (You can use auto modes but you will need to dial in negative exposure compensation)
  • Aperture (a wide range of apertures can be used for silhouettes f/8.0 - f/11 is a good starting point) (f5.6 - f/8.0 for compacts)
  • Shutter speed ((a wide range of shutter speeds can be used for silhouettes 1/125 -1/250 is a good starting point)
  • ISO (Use the lowest ISO that gives you a nice blue background ISO 100-400 is a good starting point)
  • No strobes (unless adding a silhouette as a secondary background subject)
  • Subject with a distinctive shape! 
  • Subject or camera angle that allows for open water behind the subject. (To achieve enough contrast, keep the sun behind the subject and isolate the subject in open water. The silhouette should be black. You don’t want ambient light falling on the front of your subject)

Framing the diver with the light in the cave opening adds interest. 1/80, f/3.2, ISO 320

Getting the Shot

  1. After finding a strong subject with a distinctive shape and open water behind it, set your camera to manual and adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO to give you a nice blue background. 
  2. Take a shot. You should be seeing a black silhouette framed by blue water. If not, adjust your settings until you get a rich blue background. Keep the sun or the strongest ambient light behind your subject.
  3. Practice! Part of shooting an interesting silhouette is just recognizing a good subject when it is presented to you. 


Silhouettes are all about distinctive shapes. You can easily recognize this school of barracuda. 1/250, f/8.0, ISO 100

Post production

 These are my general setting in Lightroom for silhouettes.

  1. Fine tune the exposure in the basic tab. 
  2. Try adding a little dehaze in the effects tab. Too much really changes the saturation.
  3. Add a little clarity and maybe vibrance in the basic, presence tab. Not too much +20 or less.
  4. Remove any unwanted particles using the healing brush.
  5. Add some sharpening with a mask in the detail tab.

Adding silhouettes like this small sea lion to your strobe lit foreground images adds another point of interest. 1/100, f/6.3, ISO 250