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Silhouette photography is a unique artform which can capture the dramatic nature of shape and form in a clear and visually stunning way. A fantastic silhouette photograph will jump right off the page and fully engage the viewer in the scene.
There are, however, several technical and practical pieces of knowledge that you’ll have to grasp in order to take powerful silhouette photos. You need to develop a good understanding of both light and form after which you can combine them to compose great silhouetted images.
Lighting in Silhouette Photography.
You need to get the light in a silhouette photo just right to get the effect that you’re looking for. In essence, you need to position your subject in front of the source of light with as little light projecting onto them from the front as possible. When you manage to completely backlight your subject you can take photos that are crisp and sharp.
If you’re shooting silhouettes outdoors the easiest time of day to achieve the effect is either early in the morning or late in the evening when the sun is low and on the horizon. This allows you to easily place your subject between you and the sun – your primary source of light.
Remember though, never look directly into the sun while you are taking a photo because this can damage your eyes, and even your camera’s sensor. So instead, angle your camera slightly upwards, or downwards as this will stop you having a direct line of sight from the sun to your eyes.
Should You Use a Flash in Silhouette Photography?
No, when you’re working with silhouette photography you should always turn your flash off. This will stop any light from the front of the subject weakening the silhouetting effect that you are trying to achieve.
What Settings Should You Use on Your Camera When Taking Silhouette Photos? Since silhouette photography is quite different to other types of shooting it can be difficult to get the settings right. However there’s a number of different ways that you can set your camera to get the best silhouette photos in either manual or automatic mode.
- Automatic Mode: When you’re using auto mode on your camera a good way to get the exposure right for a silhouette is to point the camera towards the sky and then pull the trigger only half way down. Then you can move your viewfinder back to the subject and take the shot. Most DSLR and digital cameras will automatically set the correct exposure levels so you’ll get a good clear image of the silhouette.
- Manual Mode: It’s a little harder to get the settings right in manual mode and you may have to experiment a little while you’re on location. Fundamentally though you need to ensure that you get the correct exposure for the background while leaving your subject looking black, or very underexposed. You’ll also need to manually focus on the subject so that it’s outlines are clearly defined and sharp. When you’re working with silhouettes you will usually want to be using a large depth of field and so consequently you should be using a small aperture. To select a small aperture you need to set your camera to a high f-stop number so that both the silhouetted subject and the background will be sharply in focus.
5 Practical Tips To Take Great Silhouette Photographs.
Selecting the Right Subject.
It’s vital that you choose the right types of subjects for your silhouette photography. Of course, you can create a silhouette using any subject but those with recognizable outlines and a strong form make the best choices. You should look for subjects that are going to be interesting enough to your audience to appreciate in only two dimensions. Remember that silhouettes remove almost all the color, tone and texture from the subjects so you will be relying on the form alone to carry the image. The shape, or outline, of your subject should be distinct and recognizable.
You can still convey a great deal of drama and presence with the form of a subject but they need to be positioned correctly. For instance, if you were going to try to take a silhouette photograph of somebody huddling down in the grass it would not come out too well! On the other hand, if that same person were standing up with their arms outstretched you could capture a far more interesting and powerful silhouette!
Selecting the Right Subject.
Silhouette photography works primarily with contrast and form which means that to create an impact on your audience you need to think carefully about how you compose and frame the image.
Choosing the right type of background which helps to add to the meaning of the image and the drama of the composition is essential. Some of the most powerful backgrounds make use of the sky, with or without clouds. However, you can actually create amazing silhouette photography using almost any kind of background.
When you’re setting up your silhouette photo also consider if there are ways that you can frame the subject itself within the image. For instance, you could use a doorway to shoot through or other objects in the foreground. This will add depth and atmosphere to your work and will help it stand out amongst the competition.
Keep Your Silhouettes Photos Uncluttered.
The most powerful silhouette photographs are generally clean and uncluttered in their composition because if the image gets too busy it’ll end up being confusing for the viewer. When you’re working without the usual visual signs that allow your audience to understand the subject of the photo, such as texture, color and tone, you need to ensure you can convey the meaning using only form!
When composing the image try to keep the separate elements apart from one another. If you are taking a photo of a person walking their dog then make sure that the dog is not in front of them otherwise their two silhouettes will merge into one confusing shape! Instead, it would be better to have the dog to the side of the person so that both of their silhouettes are clear and distinct.
Similarly, if you’re taking a silhouetted portrait then it might be better to take the photo in profile. This will mean that the viewer will be able to make out the subject’s features, including their nose, mouth and eyes much more clearly than a shot taken from the front.
A simpler composition will usually be more striking than an incredibly busy and cluttered photo. There is a difficult balance that needs to be struck though because you need to ensure that the silhouette itself is engaging enough to hold your audience’s interest.
Always Keep Your Subject in Focus.
It’s absolutely essential that you make sure the subjects of your silhouette photography are always in sharp focus. Blurry outlines can seriously detract from the photo’s impact and will leave the images looking amateur.
If you are struggling to achieve sharply outlined silhouettes in manual mode then don’t be afraid of switching to automatic, especially if you’re up against the clock as the last minutes of sunset fade into night. Remember, to get the exposure settings correct you can half press the trigger while pointing the camera at the background and then reposition it to focus on the subject.
When you’re selecting a background for your silhouette photography try to use simple scenes that really let your subject take center stage. If you use a background that is full of distractions and points of interest your viewer’s focus and attention will be more diluted. Avoid buildings, forests and other dense backgrounds that will confuse the silhouetted shape of your subject. This will keep your photos looking clear and memorable.
That’s not to say that you can’t get creative! Try taking your silhouette photos from a lower angle than you might normally, so that the subject really stands out from the background.
Silhouette Photography – A Powerful Tool in the Photographer’s Arsenal.
When you are shooting silhouette photography remember to choose your subjects carefully and keep them in crystal clear focus. Don’t over complicate the backgrounds and always try to position your subject so their form is distinctly recognizable.
Once you understand the basics of the silhouette photography you can begin to experiment and develop your own unique take on this classic technique. Silhouettes can be used to portray highly impactful drama, emotion and mood which will captivate your audiences with unforgettable imagery.
Is silhouette photography something you include in your portfolio?