How to Expose a Silhouette, Bull Moose, Alaska

Most often, a wildlife silhouette opportunity comes unexpectantly and is fleeting.

Because the sky is typically very bright relative to the subject, the camera's meter usually selects silhouette exposure settings that lead to underexposed images, and correcting the underexposed images during post-processing yields increased noise.

To quickly acquire the right camera settings this opportunity, rules are ideal. For example, with a blue sky in the background, instruct the camera to create exposures X number of stops higher than it thinks is necessary.

Unfortunately, too many rules are needed to accommodate all scenarios. The primary reason that auto exposure + EV rules do not work is that the percentage of the frame filled with the subject and foreground changes dramatically, possibly during the same opportunity if varying exposures with a zoom lens. Also affecting the exposure rule is the sky color, ranging from bright white to deep blue or even the darkness of storm clouds.

While spot metering on the focus point can result in a more stable exposure basis for rules to work from, even animal color varies. For example, black bears are considerably darker than mule deer.

Mirrorless cameras with electronic viewfinders programmed to show the actual image brightness make establishing the ideal silhouette exposure settings considerably faster and easier than doing the same with a DSLR. While I often have the EVF histogram turned off due to interference with my brain's compositional abilities, that tool clearly shows the selected exposure, especially the bright side's available dynamic range. Even without the histogram enabled, the brightness can be discerned by looking at the brightest areas on the EVF.

What is the ideal silhouette exposure? That answer depends on the final look desired. If the animal and foreground are to be pure black, expose the sky to the preferred brightness. If a high key look is desired, expose for a normal animal brightness, letting the sky become blown — pure white and blinking on the LCD.

To gain the most post-processing latitude or if you don't want to decide what the final image should look like while frantically trying to capture the momentary opportunity, use the expose to the right strategy. Create an exposure that pushes the histogram graph lines to the right edge of the chart. There will likely be some small areas of the image showing over-exposed blinkies during image review, but not large areas of blinkies indicating loss of detail. The goal is to retain detail in the highlights while capturing as much detail as possible in the shadows.

If photographing landscape, an HDR technique would be implemented for this scenario. Unfortunately, animals tend to move before the multiple exposures can be recorded. If your animal is motionless and your camera is locked down on a tripod, bracketing exposures is a great option.

The expose to the right option was chosen for this bull moose image capture. The sky is bright but still blue. Using Photoshop, the moose was selected and brightened slightly.

The Canon EOS R5 and RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens get the credits for this capture. This combination is perfect for many wildlife photography pursuits.


 
Camera and Lens Settings
270mm  f/5.6  1/200s
ISO 800
8192 x 5464px
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