Shooting silhouettes is about photographing contrasts
The only difficulty with silhouettes is seeing them. Our eyes often see detail in scenes that the camera cannot. We take a shot at something and a silhouette comes out – what’s happening? The difference between the brighter and darker areas of the shot creates a silhouette.
1. How a silhouette is created
Humans, and cameras, see a silhouette when there is a foreground-object placed in front of a strongly lighted background. The foreground-object looks black if it is not lit from the front. The strong back-light just looks bright behind the black and this creates the silhouette. In other words, the contrast between the bright background and the dark foreground object is so large the camera image sensor, cannot resolve details in it, leaving it black. In photographic terms, if there is more than two stops difference in the light between the foreground object and the background lighting there will be a silhouette.
Clarity of the image is everything. So, in addition to ensuring the edges of your silhouette are well defined and not confused with clouds and other objects, make sure they are sharp. The shape is important, so is the focus. The simplicity and purity of the silhouette is lost if the sharpness is not there to support it.
2. You can ensure something becomes a silhouette
A silhouette will be created every time a dark foreground object is placed against a brighter background. However, sometimes you can still see some detail in the foreground object, which is not a true silhouette. There are some things you can do about this.
- Lower the foreground lighting to darken the foreground object
- Brighten the background increasing contrast between front and back.
- Underexpose the foreground making it go black so the background stands out.
- Overexpose the background so it darkens the foreground object.
- Post-process the image to blacken the silhouette and brighten the background
In effect the techniques increase the contrast between the front and back. That blows out or brightens the background. This relatively underexposes the foreground object so detail is lost making it black. If you do any of these, or more than one of them, you are controlling the light to create a silhouette. You can do these to a lesser or greater extent with a scene you create, or one you see when you are out and about.
3. The art in is in the shape
The silhouette art form has been used to strongly characterise shape since the time of the Greeks. The stark and well defined edges in a silhouette are simple and attractive. Dating from around 1750 onwards, the method of making silhouettes was to cut them from thin black cardboard and mount them on a white background. This established a strong tradition of high contrast silhouette art. In the last 150 years the cut-out form of the art has mostly been replaced by photography silhouettes.
A powerful silhouette is about shape. The more graphic you can make it the more the image stands out. The best silhouettes are two dimensional although modern photographic techniques allow for the scene to have depth and apparent texture. The trick in producing a successful image as a silhouette today is therefore to provide a clear image, a traditional shape-format for the silhouette shape itself, and a great photograph in which the silhouette has context.
4. Sunset and sunrise
These are ideal times for creating silhouettes. The darkening sky still has sufficient intensity of light for making a photograph. The sky often has great colours too. Highlighting objects of interest against the sky at these times gives not only the drama of high contrast in the image, but also dramatic or attractive colours. Any great sunset or sunrise can be used for a silhouette. The best ones are against a clear sky because the colours are more intense and there is no cloud to confuse the edges of the silhouette.
When working at these times you will need to be working with longer exposures to compensate for the darker tones and colours. Make sure you set out with a tripod. Also read up on night photography because the same settings and techniques apply in these low-light conditions.
5. Bright sunny days
The hottest mid-day light is often a disaster for the photographer. The sun beats down from above and drives out the colours as well as flattening the shadows. Everything looks flat. However, guess what? This is a great time for silhouettes.
Photographing objects against strong, blue, mid-day sky creates great silhouettes. You can lie on the ground shooting straight up at things, or just pick out objects in the environment. Just make sure the contrast between the silhouette object and the background is high. This usually means exposing your shot for the sky itself.
To expose for the sky get the camera to focus on the brightness of the sky. Point it so your focus point in the viewfinder is in the bright area but your silhouette shape is still in the frame. If the sky is very bright, or featureless, the auto-focus may ‘hunt’ and fail to focus. Auto-focus works by matching contrasts of tones. If it does not see a contrast it has nothing to focus upon. So try to find something that can be used. You can try to put your focus point near the silhouette subject, but not on it. That sometimes works. Or, you can focus on a cloud, bird or other object that is still mainly very bright. Once you have managed to get your camera to focus on the sky the silhouette subject will be relatively darker and you have your silhouette. The darker your subject the better it will be in silhouette.
The picture with the cows on the brow of the hill above was taken at about 1.30pm on a bright sunny day. When a few dark clouds passed over the hill nearby I exposed for the clouds. They came out with lovely detail. The cows were little black silhouettes as they were underexposed.
6. Wind and movement
Wind is the enemy of the silhouette – outside anyway. There is nothing worse than your tree waving its branches when you are doing a longish exposure. Even a slight wind can ruin things. The image will look blurry and there will be ill defined edges for the actual shape. So look carefully at everything around you and make sure that you have no movement. If you do have wind blowing, find something solid and immovable with which to do your silhouette. For the same reason, it is not easy to do silhouettes of anything moving, like cars or people.
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