As photographers we want to create images with impact and drama. Silhouettes are a great way to capture your viewer’s attention and convey mood, mystery and drama in your images.
A silhouette is a view of an object consisting of an outline and a featureless black interior. In photography the term is used to describe an image of a person, object or a scene that is backlit and appears dark against a lighter background. Partial or near-silhouettes can also be very powerful ways of conveying mood in your photographs.
The term silhouette dates back to the 18th century where portraits and other pictorial representations were cut from thin black card. The silhouette was named after the French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767) who was known for his severe economic demands on the French people and as it happen de Silhouette also practised this relatively cheap art form himself.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
To create a good, strong silhouette photo look for interesting shapes with a clear and distinctive outline that is simple and uncluttered. However more intricate subjects like trees can also look stunning as silhouettes.
Pay attention that your silhouette is not merging with other subjects. For example, while a group of people might look good huddled together in a ‘normal’ photo, it will rarely work very well as a silhouette. Instead of an unrecognisable black blob of people you’ll typically want to have some separation between each person for the image to work as a silhouette.
Clearly defined outlines and graphic shapes are the key to successful silhouettes.
Silhouettes make use of backlighting and you’ll want to look for a situation where there is significantly more light falling on the background than there is falling on the front of the subject you want to photograph as a silhouette.
Perhaps the easiest way to produce silhouettes is by photographing your subject against the colour in the sky as it occurs just before sunrise or just after sunset.
To set your exposure for this situation simply set your metering mode to multi-zone metering (also known as matrix, evaluative or honeycomb metering) and fill your frame with the sky (i.e. avoid including any foreground) and your camera will then expose for the sky and record any subjects in the foreground as silhouettes.
Good ideas for subjects can be – but are certainly not limited to – animals, birds, fences, windmills, flowers, lighthouses, trees and people.
Another way to create strong silhouettes is by shooting into the sun and placing the sun behind the subject you wish to silhouette. This is also known as contre-jour which is French for ‘against daylight’.
The added benefit of the contre-jour technique is that it often creates beautiful rim lighting around your subject which enhances the aesthetic of the image.
To set your exposure ‘correctly’ when shooting into the sun you should take your meter reading from just above or underneath, or just to the left or the right of the sun, but don’t include the sun itself in your reading as otherwise you’ll end up with significantly underexposed images.
As a result of the high contrast situation when putting a subject right in front of the sun your subject will automatically record as a silhouette if you meter as per above.
If you want to create a sun-star effect in your silhouette image, all or at least part of the sun must be within your frame. It’s easier (and safer for your eyes) if the sun is partially obscured by an object.
Once you have your sun in the right place stop down your lens to f/16 or f/22 or smaller and you’ll end up with a nice sun-star effect.
Exposure settings for the sun-star effect can be a little tricky as it depends on how much (if not all) of the sun you include in your image. However I would suggest using the exposure reading technique described above as your starting point and then evaluate your histogram from there (assuming you’re shooting digital) and adjust if needed.
You may get some lens flare in your image but this can be hard to avoid completely when shooting into the sun. Sometimes you can even use lens flare creatively to enhance the overall mood of your image. Using a good lens hood (or even your hand, hat or a piece of cardboard) can help eliminate or reduce lens flare.
Warning: It is important to be very careful when shooting into the sun. Do not stare at the sun for too long and avoid pointing your lens directly at the sun while looking through your viewfinder as this can potentially cause damage to your eyes.
PARTIAL OR NEAR-SILHOUETTES
True silhouettes are simple, graphic, black featureless outlines and by nature this also gives these images a more two-dimensional appearance.
Images that contain a little bit of detail in the silhouetted subject can be just as striking as true silhouettes if not even more striking.
Details in the silhouette like colour or texture can give the image a more three-dimensional appearance and in my personal opinion this often adds to the overall mood and aesthetic of the image.
In order to get a little bit of detail in your silhouette you can try opening up your exposure a little bit by using a larger aperture or a slower shutter speed to the extent where parts of your silhouetted foreground start recording detail in the least dark areas.
Alternatively you could try adding a touch of fill-flash to your exposure. If you can take your flash off-camera then try that and have your fill-flash coming in at an angle in an effort to create a hint of texture across your silhouetted subject.
SUMMARY: 5 QUICK STEPS TO CREATING SILHOUETTTES
- Keep in mind that shape and form is all important when creating a strong silhouette. Use subjects which have a clear outline.
- The background needs to be brighter than the subject itself. Ideally little or no light should be falling on the silhouetted subject and the main light source (e.g. the sun) should be behind the subject. The bigger the difference between the light in the background and that (if any) falling on your subject, the better the outline will be.
- For best results keep your compositions simple and push the horizon line low in the image.
- Correct exposure is the key to a successful silhouette. Check the LCD on your digital camera if you’re in doubt about your exposure and adjust the exposure if needed.
- Keep your silhouette simple and graphic and be careful that it doesn’t merge with other unwanted objects or shapes. Separate people if you’re shooting a group of people and possibly even pose them by asking them to keep their limbs from merging with their body to have a more clear outline of their body shape.