Photo Tip: Photographing the Quintessential African Sunsets with Silhouettes

The following article by me was first published as a guest feature at www.Photo-Africa.com.  I wanted also share it with my ChobeSafari friends.  I hope this is of value as you shoot those sunsets.

Elephants along the Chobe

I normally discuss the importance of having the sun to ones back or at a favorable angle when shooting during the golden hours to make sure that there is sufficient light to add features to your subject.  However, for many, the most powerful images of Africa are those creating silhouettes while shooting into the sun as it sets on distant African lands.  This shot can be quite simple, but there are a few critical tricks of the trade that will really help put your shot over the top.

The perfect sunset begins with color and typically is enhanced with strong silhouettes.  This combination is powerful and feedback to these images usually are not as much about subject details but emotions from or moods created for the viewers of your photos.  These images often stand out on calendars and albums due to their simplicity and the straightforward story they convey.  This power makes the shots excellent material for lead images on articles and cover images for magazines. I love them because they convey the photographer’s purpose clearly but leave details of the image up to the viewer’s imagination.

The basic strategy you’ll need to employ in taking silhouette shots is to place your subject (the shape you want to be blacked out) in front of the sun and to force your camera to set exposure based upon the brightest part of your picture (the background) and not the subject of your image.  As noted early, this is a simple technique, but to create a truly differentiated image, you will need a little more information will be needed.  More discussions on exposure will follow but we also need to review subject matter, lens selection, positioning for the shot, other camera settings, focusing and general composition.  So with no further prologue, here is how to capture that shot that captures the essence of your African safari.

The color and drama is all about the light

Drama created from light: Fish Eagles circle a lone tree near sunset

When it comes to exposure, you will need to throw out a lot of what you’ve learned about normal photography.  You will also need to know a little about using the exposure setting on your camera. Instead of lighting the front of your subject, in silhouettes you need to ensure that there is more light shining from the background than the foreground of your shot.  Basically you want to properly expose the back of your subject rather than the front. Further – and this is really important – you will want to underexpose the lighted background so colors are enhanced rather than blown.  My rule of thumb is that I am shooting directly into a setting sun, I bias my exposure setting by two full f-stops (-2 exposure bias).

Great image begin with great subjects

The giraffes' profile makes viewer identification easy

Begin by choose a strong subject. On safari, it’s usually easy to find a lone animal as a subject, but be open-minded.  You should also consider subject such as a lone tree or a riverfront scene with light reflecting off of the water.  Almost any object can be made into a silhouette; however some are better than others. Choose something with a strong and recognizable shape that will be interesting enough in its two dimensional form to hold the interest of those viewing your image. Silhouettes can’t draw on the colors, textures and tones of subjects to make them appealing so the shape needs to be distinct.  Often it is best to have animals in a sideways/profile position.

The lighting and mood was good, but the lack of a primary subject makes this shot a loser.

Lens Selection

A simple concept that will separate your image: a telephoto lens will compress objects in the image.  By example, a 100mm lens will give you a beautiful sky and small distant sun; a 400mm lens will give you a giant sun relative to the subject, conveying a more powerful image.

The setting sun looks huge behind this hippo due to use of a telehoto lens.

Positioning for the shot

Darters along the Chobe at Sunset. Positioning and waiting for the sun to set made this image easy.

Below the horizon subjects makes separation from background difficult.

This sounds like the simplest step, but I have found that it can be the most challenging.  At most safari destinations, one is not allowed to leave the vehicle.  This greatly decreases your freedom to position for the shot.  For example, the primary riverfront drive at Chobe National Park is elevated in relation to the flats along the river.  There are always a lot of elephants and hippos to use as subjects, but often they are located below the horizon.  If you properly expose the sky, you will be challenged to get adequate contrast between these animals and the landscape.  One, low cost method to overcome this limitation at Chobe is to charter a boat to allow one to bet low relative to the subject.  Another solution is to get the silhouette, but pass on including the sky in the composition.  Remember, the key is simply to have a subject that requires greater exposure than the background, regardless of whether the sky is included – often the pans, flats and savannahs easily satisfy the requirement.

Another important element of position is to keep your lens selection in mind.  If you choose to use a telephoto lens, it is preferable for one to be back from your subject enough to allow a depth of field that will yield a sharp subject, but also nice detail at infinity so horizon objects and/or the sun has sharp edges.

Other camera settings: suggestions for ISO, f-stop and shutter speed

Probably all during your safari you have faced the struggle of enough depth of field (dof), adequate shutter speed and lowest possible ISO setting.  Finally, this will not be a problem!  Since you are shooting into the sun, you will have ample light.  If you want, you can crank that ISO down to 100 to minimize noise in the shadows; however, I leave mine at 400 ISO to give me even more latitude on other settings.  Shutter speed will also not be a problem; however, since the subject is not moving quickly, I will compromise shutter speed in favor of increase dof.  While this is strongly a function of distance you have set between yourself and the subject, many underestimate how high the f-stop needs to be with a telephoto lens.  If using a 600mm lens, I like to have at least f11.  If using a 400mm lens, I want to shoot at a minimum of f/8.  Typically more dof is better, but an exception would be when your subject is has distraction compositional elements in front or behind it.

Focusing your camera

A National Geographic Photo of the Day - Sharp focus on the foreground elephant and control of depth of field helped make this image a winner.

With today’s autofocus systems, it is easy to take this step for granted.  I hope you can, but here is my warning:  shooting into the sun with a subject having little to know contrast is a big challenge for most camera focus systems.  On my last two trips into the bush, I have used Canon 30D and 50D bodies and will often shoot the 100-400L telephoto lens at sunset.  This is pretty good equipment, yet my camera often ‘searches’ quite a bit in these conditions rather than locking quickly as it does with traditional shots.  If this occurs, consider manual focus or try to focus on the edges of your silhouette.

General Composition – Keep it Simple

Simple image of a classic sunrise in the bush

While many rules for the technique are quite different from traditional photography, compositional rules really don’t change. Frame your shot so you are shooting with your subject in front of a nice plain, but bright background. During African winter months, this is usually easy as a bright cloudless sky is typical for the sun setting. You may want to consider positioning the brightest light source behind your subject to enhance silhouette and to minimize chances of blown colors or lens flare.

Generally you do not want to ‘cluster’ animals.  Single animals are best. If there is more than one object in the silhouette, try to keep them separated. As noted earlier, it’s typically easier on the viewer to distinguish the subject silhouetted if in profile to the camera rather than facing into or away from the lens.

Additional tips:

  • Turn off your Flash – this article is written assuming the camera is in aperture or shutter priority mode, however; sometimes some of the more ‘automatic’ settings are set on the camera.  This is particularly true for beginners.  Some of these modes activate the pop up flash, so make sure that your flash is off.
  • It’s your image to print/post as you prefer, so I softly offer this final advice. In post processing your image, with today’s software, you can recover some detail in the shadows and you may be tempted to do so.  However, from my experience, most viewers prefer silhouettes to be dark with minimal features.

Sunsets and silhouettes have become my favorite shots on safari.  I hope these tips allow you to also share my love of this special technique.

"Afternoon with Junior" - simple composition, but captures the mood of the afternoon

P. B. (Buddy) Eleazer is an avid landscape and wildlife enthusiast.  His images have won numerous local and international contests. To support other travelers and photographers, he manages a safari blog, www.ChobeSafari.com.  If interested in any of Mr. Eleazer’s images, he can be contact via buddy@ChobeSafari.com.

As I stated at the start of the article, it's an easy and effective way to capture memories of a safari if you know a few basic tips. Now you're ready. I look forward to seeing your images. All Photos in this article copyright 2009: P. B. Eleazer

3 comments for “Photo Tip: Photographing the Quintessential African Sunsets with Silhouettes

  1. January 26, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Great tips and beautiful photos! Here is a sunrise I captured in the Eastern Serengeti with my 400mm f/2.8 + 2x extender: http://i15.tinypic.com/63ajbti.jpg

  2. P. B. Eleazer
    January 26, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Richard.
    Nice sunrise. In Botswana, morning clouds are not common in July time frame, but when they appear they are special … just as your Serengeti image is. the big lens and 2x TC really does a nice job of creating compression with the sun and distant acacia.
    Buddy

  3. P. B. Eleazer
    January 26, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Richard.
    Nice sunrise. In Botswana, morning clouds are not common in July time frame, but when they appear they are special … just as your Serengeti image is. the big lens and 2x TC really does a nice job of creating compression with the sun and distant acacia.
    Buddy

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