Photographing the perfect silhouette

I particularly like to shoot silhouettes. In truth, I probably shoot them too often, but I can’t get enough of them. They provide a strong, graphic image. Whether in black and white or in color, they tend to be compositionally bold with strong visual impact. Photographing a silhouette isn’t hard, as long as you follow some basic steps.

Find a bold subject. Tiny figures on the horizon are not conducive to producing great silhouettes. Remember, silhouettes are strong images that you want to jump out at the viewer. If the subject is too small in the frame, there is only a certain amount of “jumping out” that it can do. Try to choose a subject that is recognizable, such as a person or a tree. A vague or indistinct shape will just cause viewers to cock their heads and say “huh?” When doing a silhouette of a person, it’s usually best to photograph them in profile thus getting their features.

Choose clean uncluttered backgrounds and foregrounds. If you have something that is also silhouetted that overlaps with your main subject, it will most like likely look like a part of the subject. And if there are too many such visual distractions, you can loose the image in them all together.

The light should come from the background or shine on the background only and not on your subject. This creates the difference in exposure that makes the silhouette.

Take your camera off automatic exposure. It may try to “correct” the exposure and attempt to lighten the dark side of your subject, thus defeating the silhouette effect and quite possibly overexposing and washing out the whole image. Set the exposure manually and expose for the light falling on the backside or the light side of your subject. If you have a camera that shoots in auto exposure mode only, such as a point-and-shoot or cell phone camera, be sure to fill most of the frame with the lightest part of the scene. The camera will read that, and your main subject should be silhouetted.

Don’t use a flash; it will just fill in the shadowy side of a silhouette, defeating its purpose. If you have a built-in flash set to pop up automatically, turn it off.

As in the rest of photography, there are always exceptions to the rules. You can have a patterned background that intersects with your main subject as along as the pattern doesn’t obscure or overpower the subject itself. You can also use a flash to illuminate just a portion of the photo to have a partial silhouette.

As in most photographs, an effective silhouette is one that is a simple image yet has an immediate visual impact. Once you’ve mastered the technique, you may find yourself wanting to shoot them all the time. That’s OK by me, because you can never get enough of a good thing.

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  • Blog Author

    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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