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Enhance a sunset with an intriguing silhouette effect

Added on Thursday 2nd of February 2012 02:56 am EST

By Renée Dustman
Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5
Operating Systems:
Macintosh, Microsoft Windows
Photographing people silhouetted by a setting sun isn’t all that hard to do, providing you can get all the elements to line up right. But when you don’t have the time or patience to wait for perfect conditions, go ahead and take the picture anyway. We’ll show you how to turn any image into a romantic silhouette in Photoshop.


To create a silhouette effect in Photoshop, we’ll:

    Edit foreground and background elements independently with layer masks. Use fill and adjustment layers to transform a daytime sky into a colorful sunset. Blend together foreground and background elements using a gradient mask and layer blending.


A sunset makes a spectacular backdrop for any image. And the natural silhouettes of people and objects in the foreground add depth and human interest to the composition as well as a sense of mystery. Photographing sunsets, however, can be a lesson in patience. One with deep, rich hues requires the right mix of sun and clouds, multiple shots with varying exposures (bracketing), and perfect timing. Would you like to have more control over your images? We’ll show you how Photoshop has all the elements you need to create the stunning transformation shown in Figure A.



Note: To work along with us, download the sample image from the URL listed at the beginning of this article. (Images provided by PhotoSpin. Some images modified for educational purposes.)


Silhouette the foreground
To create a silhouette in Photoshop, the only requirement is separating the foreground (the couple) from the background (the sky and water), so we can edit them independently. To do so, we’ll create a selection mask around the couple in the foreground.


Select the subject area
There are a number of ways to create a selection around the couple. We’ll use Quick Mask mode because it’s a simple process of painting over the subject area we want to select.


To mask the subject area:

  1. Double-click on the Edit In Quick Mask Mode button in the Tools panel to open the Quick Mask Options dialog box.
  2. Click the Selected Areas option button (if it isn’t already) and then click OK.
  3. Select the Brush tool in the Tools panel and then click on the triangle next to the Brush thumbnail on the tool options bar to open the Brush Preset picker.
  4. Double-click on a soft, round brush preset. The size doesn’t matter right now, as we can adjust it as we work.


Tip: To adjust the Brush size while you work, simply press the right-facing bracket key ([) to decrease the brush tip size and the left-facing bracket key (]) to increase it.

  1. Choose Normal from the Mode pop-up menu and set the Opacity and Flow values for the Brush tool to 100% on the tool options bar.
  2. Press D to reset the default Foreground and Background colors in the Tools panel.
  3. Paint over the couple, as shown in Figure B. Remember, it’s a silhouette, so there’s no need for you to include every little hair on the man’s legs!
  4. Press Q to return to Standard mode and to see the active selection around the couple.



Note: If your selection is way off, return to Quick Mask mode and edit the mask. Then, return to Standard mode before continuing on to the next step.



Make a layer adjustment
We can now silhouette the couple without affecting the background. To create the silhouette, we’ll use the Hue/Saturation command on an adjustment layer.


To silhouette the couple:

  1. >Click the Create New Fill Or Adjustment Layer button at the bottom of the Layers panel and [option]-click ([Alt]-click in Windows) on Hue/Saturation.
  2. Name the adjustment layer Silhouette 1 and click OK.
  3. Drag the Lightness slider in the resulting dialog box to –100, as shown in Figure C, and then click OK.
  4. Create another Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, naming it Silhouette 2, and setting the Lightness value to –100 again. This turns the image black.
  5. Drag the Silhouette 2 layer below the Silhouette 1 layer in the Layers panel.

Tip: Adjustment layers enable you to modify an image indirectly. You can also turn adjustment layers on and off at will in the Layers panel to better evaluate the individual and combined effects.