10 Tips for Photographing Dramatic Bird Silhouettes

By Lori A Cash
March 12, 2021

Bird silhouettes can offer a bolder and more striking look to the images of your subjects. The silhouettes bring more dramatic looks to your photographs of birds and will help make your images stand out by capturing the dark outlines of your subjects’ profile, movement, action or behavior against a colorful background. Follow these 10 tips to photograph dramatic bird silhouettes images.  

Shoot in the direction of the sun

When photographing bird silhouette images, you want to keep your subject in between you and the sun. This will keep your bird subject in the shadows thus creating your dramatic bird silhouette. You want to keep the subject’s background brighter than your subject, but you do not always need to point directly towards the sun or have to have the sun a part of your composition. The best times to capture silhouettes are during sunrise and sunset as you get softer lighting with stronger colors as the sun is lower in the sky which allows you to create your silhouettes. Sunrise and sunset include the famous golden hour of sunrise and sunset (the golden hour is the hour of time just after a sunrise and just before a sunset).

Silhouette of wood stork standing on top of dead tree with a colorful red sky as the background at Viera Wetlands in Florida.

Use a tripod

Use your tripod to take these silhouette shots. This will keep your images sharper and will be especially helpful if photographing during sunrise and sunset times when there will be less available light. When capturing silhouette images of birds, you need to make sure your subject is in focus and very sharp, and the use of a tripod will give you sharper images during the early and late evening hours. 

Use a telephoto lens

Using a wide-open aperture with a telephoto lens will give you the reduced field of depth needed to have your bird subject stand out against the background for a dramatic and stunning silhouette. With the use of a telephoto lens, you are able to zoom in to or out from your bird subject which will give you options for different looks of your bird subject.

Use bird subjects with well-defined shapes and separation between head and body

Your subject needs to be recognizable with an outline of your subject’s body with well define edges. A head turn may be essential to capture that profile silhouette image of your bird subject. Wing position will be important, too, as it is best to have a bird’s wings up or down to capture a more define shape of the bird silhouette in flight. Arrive to your photographic destination well ahead of the sunrise or sunset time so that you can find the subject that is in the best position and with the best distinctive shape that will provide an excellent and stunning silhouette. Look for a bird that has its head separated from the body as in a side profile position that you can see the distinctive shape of the bill. Your subject needs to be recognizable with an identifiable outline of your subject’s body against a bright and colorful background.

Silhouette of double-crested cormorant in flight in a colorful orange sky at sunset..
A double-crested cormorant silhouette in flight at sunset over the Viera Wetlands in Florida.

Focus on your bird subject

You should focus on your bird subject and not the background. Focus on the edge of the bird if you are having trouble autofocusing on the eye or head area of your bird subject. Also, sometimes in the low light times of the day when photographing still bird silhouette image, using the live view mode in your camera will help to make sure your subject is sharp and in focus. Sometimes you may find it necessary to use manual focusing depending on the circumstances of that particular photo outing such as the time before sunrise with a still bird subject.

Keep backgrounds clean

Whether you are shooting a bird in the sky, in the water or on a post, you want to keep all the distractive background elements out of your composition. Make sure the background stays clean and free from clutter. Pay attention to the small details in your image composition.

Pair of gulls silhouetted against the colorful orange sky of the sunrise at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Virginia.

Underexpose your images

Underexpose your images by one to two stops depending on your lighting situation, and this will help make the blacks bolder and darker. Your settings may change within that particular sunrise or sunset, and you will need to continue to monitor your settings and change them as the sun gets higher or lower in the sky. Also, use the background as your exposure to keep the bird subject dark black with using spot metering on your background. Experiment with different ranges of exposure compensation and take pictures from those various ranges of exposure compensations to see which exact setting is the best for your lighting situation.

Maintain shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec

Try to keep your shutter speed as high as possible when photographing birds as silhouettes as this will help you be able to capture any action or movement of the bird. In the lower light, you will need to increase your ISO to maintain a high enough shutter speed to stop the action. Always remain ready for any type of action or behavior even if you are photographing a bird that is being still at that moment. At any time that bird may change position, flap wings, stretch or even fly away. It is essential to maintain a higher shutter speed of over 1/1000 sec if you are photographing birds in flight to capture as silhouettes.

Use continuous high speed shutter mode

Using continuous high speed shutter mode allows you the ability to photograph any action that your subject may display. You never know when your subject may suddenly take flight, and you want to be ready to photograph that action so that you capture the exact moment perfectly.   

A brown pelican profile silhouette at sunrise at Phoebus Waterfront Park in Hampton, Virginia.

Boost your bird silhouette in post processing

Increase the vibrance, clarity, blacks, shadows and contrast during your post processing of your bird silhouette images, and this will make your images stand out even more. In addition, if needed, you can adjust your exposure or temperature settings during the post processing of your images.  Experiment with increasing the different levels of vibrance, clarity, blacks, shadows and contrast to find the right look for your image.

One extra tip is to always be ready with your camera gear and be in your position at least 20-30 minutes prior to the sun rising or setting so that you are ready to photograph your bird subject with the boldest colors of the exact moment of the sunrise and/or sunset.  

Conclusion

Silhouettes are a creative way to showcase an eye stopping image of your bird subject. This type of image provides that unique look of your subject, especially if you capture a behavior, action or movement of your subject in a silhouette. Use these tips to help you photograph stunning and memorable bird silhouettes that add a different perspective to your bird photography.

Copyright © 2021 Lori A Cash

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