How to photograph a silhouette?
Silhouttes can be quite striking, and with relatively little effort anyone should be able to take a great photo of one. You just need to find the right bright background and a suitable subject for the foreground.
A silhouette is the image of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single colour, usually black, with its edges matching the outline of the subject.
The interior of a silhouette is featureless, and the silhouette is usually presented on a light background, usually white, or none at all.
Ideally we would have a glorious sunset on a warm, tropical beach with lots of beautiful people to pose for us. Unfortunately for me and my students, England is not always bathing in sunshire and so sometimes we simply have to make do with what we have (usually that’s lots of cloud!).
Matter not, we are made of sterner stuff. Just make sure you eat your two Shedded Wheat before embarking on this mission.
The process is simple enough, photograph someone or something against a bright background and make sure they are underexposed. Sounds simple, but I have seen plenty of new photographers struggle with this.
Silhouettes are always easier if you’re shooting in a place where light levels are already low. Inside a dark room for instance, someone standing against a bright window (with the camera exposing for that bright exterior) is likely to appear very dark, if not completely black. An easy silhouette to capture.
If you’re shooting in Aperture Priority, control your exposure using the Exposure Compensation dial. If you’re shooting in Manual, you simply underexpose the shot. Just how much will depend on the shot. Experiment.
Then there’s the editing…
Crush Those Blacks
Colour or black & white, sometimes you just have to make sure your silhouette is a proper silhouette with some seriously deep, rich blacks. Whether you underexpose in the camera or make your final tweaks to the silhouette during editing, crush those blacks!
If you’re darkening them in post (post-processing) make sure the rest of your image is not affected by the darkening process. Isolate the silhouetted subject and darken it on its own (watch the video below for a couple of easy ways to do this)
Shooting in RAW will give you the greatest control. Experiment with both the shadows and the blacks sliders. They may look like they do the same, but they don’t.
Be sure to make the highlights kick. Don’t just darken the image down and ignore the highlights. Silhouette photos nearly always look their best when there are deep rich blacks and blindingly bright highlights.
I rarely crush my blacks without boosting my whites/highlights.
The photo above is borderline silhouette, but it is there. Look at how crushed those blacks are, particularly on the left-hand figure.
Taking advantage of a low sun
The shot below was taken at Caesar’s Camp, near Fleet in Hampshire at sunrise. The low sun makes it easy to get silhouettes, and even the ordinary bicycle can look good when this happens.
One of pitfalls of shooting with a low sun like this is lensflare. Some lenses are better than others at reducing it and some lenses are pure evil, creating havoc as soon as you point it anywhere near the sun’s direction. I usually just cup my hand over the front of the lens to act as a shield, a sun-shade.
Go for it…
Look around your home or place of work (or even inside your car) for the brightest windows and think about who or what your could photograph in front of it.
Alternatively, use a strong light source (such as a flash) behind your chosen subject. If you are lucky enough to have a softbox for your flash, you now have a clean white background you can use (as they stand in front of it). Silhouettes are easy in front of a softbox.
Just experiment. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get it right first time. The best learning comes from those times when we learn from our mistakes. Mistakes are all part of the photographer’s journey. Embrace them.
There’s no doubt that silhouettes can be fun to shoot – they can most definitely give you some cracking images when you get them right.