I remember one cold, rainy day in grade school our class had an art project that made a lasting impression on me. We had to outline our projected profile on the wall and trace the image onto a white piece of paper. We then cut the traced image onto a piece of black construction paper.
Creating that self/silhouette portrait was a clever art lesson that has greatly influenced my photographic style and the way I observe my surroundings. For me, translating this technique to photography was seamless and natural.
“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” – G.K. Chesterton
Before the invention of the camera obscura or the simple box camera, the silhouette was the first real technique to capture a subject’s true profile portrait. Even today silhouette portraits have made a rebirth in popularity around the world. Silhouettes have returned as a specialized art form.
“A photograph is memory in the raw” – Carrie Latet
Backdrops for silhouettes are actually quite easy to find. Every single day, there is a backdrop that is always available to you—the sky.
Objects stand out clearly against a solid or cloud striated background and if you can capture colors in those clouds, then the end result can be even more striking.
Bridges and tunnels are also good places to start to look for those fun silhouettes. Other locations may be piers, landmarks or monuments that have interesting architecture with striking and dramatic features.
Large windows and street lights offer heavy backlight that serves as a perfect backdrop for a striking silhouette.
Do keep in mind that a subject that may look dull in full light can come to life, create a mood or add drama when depicted as a silhouette.
Now search for an interesting foreground subject that is uncluttered and has a strong, distinctive shape to complete the image. Let the silhouette tell the story and leave the rest to the viewer’s imagination.
One of the basic guidelines for photography usually depends upon proper light balance from foreground to background.
Balancing the ISO/film with the proper f-stop is generally what we strive for to create a pleasing photograph. Remember, when you’re hunting for silhouettes all rules change. You are now looking for the extreme contrast in light value between your background and the foreground.
Light ratio goes out the window. As the sun sets, others are relaxing with their Mai Tai’s, but this is the time to really hustle and chase the sun. This is the time to shoot those bold colorful silhouettes.
Traditional silhouettes present our subject as under exposed and have such a high contrast that the subject often appears a deep saturated black.
The contrast range needs to be high, generally in the 15 to 1 range. Get your exposure reading off the brightest portion of the sky or light source. It tricks your camera meter into thinking that’s what you’re aiming towards.
If you are shooting a silhouette within a colorful sunset, you will want to set your exposure to the color just outside of the sun. Color saturation is also part of the equation. But keep in mind, in art there are no hard rules! Contrast, grain and composition are all creative calls. To your own eyes be true.
“It is solved by walking.” – Algerian proverb
When shooting silhouettes the X factor is the time of day that determines the proper f-stop settings to use. When the sun is high in the sky the f-stop will be around the f/11 to the f/16 range.
However, as the sun is rising or setting the exposure will be down in the f/4 to f/5.6 range depending on film/sensor ratings. Try to stay in the optimum range of the lens. Shooting wide open usually isn’t in the shooters best interest. Adjust the ISO/film to obtain the correct combination for the subject at hand.
To ensure a higher keeper ratio is to create a stable camera shooting platform for those long exposure shots.
A lightweight tripod is included in my camera pack, so there is no question whether or not my images will be tack sharp. Yes, they are clumsy to carry but the results can be visually obvious. I also carry a small bean bag.
It can quickly and easily be molded to fit an uneven surface, such as rocks, or it can be used as a great base for those low to the ground shots.
Tip: If you are capturing subjects that can move in the wind, try shooting at sunrise when the air movement is typically calmer.
I prefer the hard, pure, and deep black silhouette, so no flash is used. But from time to time, I also like to experiment with different looks.
Consider a partial silhouette where there is still some remaining light or detail on part of the subject or try using fill flash and you can bring out even more detail. You can also really expand the photo range of your flash and add subtle fill light by experimenting with different colored and diffusion materials placed over the flash.
An off camera slave flash unit can sculpt and throw the light remotely to fill in your scene from afar.
Note: A slave flash unit has a sensor that fires the flash when it senses the burst of flash from the camera’s built-in flash unit.
I view less than picture perfect conditions not as a negative but as a challenge and an opportunity for finding interesting subjects otherwise undiscovered. On some days it takes some effort and determination, but most important is the mindset tuned to explore. The world is my stage!
Have some fun with it. With proper exposure and karmic justice sunrises and sunsets will be your magnificent friends and anything you place in the viewfinder will be highlighted as a beautiful silhouette. Go out on your own personal “photo safari”!
It could just be a short walk to the park to shoot the local birds or a stroll on the riverfront. It’s not about exotic locations or distant lands. It’s just about having your camera and hunting for that perfect photo.
The silhouette gives us the freedom to explore and express ourselves in a unique way. No expensive cameras or complicated formulas are needed to get stunning images. The simple silhouette tells a story. They are an interesting way to find and capture fun shots and enjoy the art of photography.
“People don’t take trips–trips take people.” – John Steinbeck
by Ron Veto