In photography, we work with light, color, lines, and shapes. We decompose the scene into basic elements and then recompose it using the best features of each element and adding our personal touch made of feelings, opinions, and experiences. The result is a visual story in which each element has something to say. A photograph isn’t just about the subject in the foreground, although it usually has the leading role. Silhouettes are a subtle way to bring the background into attention and create an interesting perspective over the subject.
When the subject is in the shadow and the background is beautifully lit, we capture only the shape of the subject and none of its details. The subject is entirely black. We call this minimalist approach over a subject a silhouette. To create a great composition with silhouettes, you need an interestingly shaped subject and, of course, a meaningful background. Then, all you have to do is to expose for the background. The human brain is trained to recognize patterns; therefore, it automatically recognizes familiar shapes such as trees, birds, flowers, people, and mountains. This is the power of a silhouette. Although you hide all other characteristics of your subject, the viewer will still recognize it and build connections.
While silhouettes add meaning to your visual story, they aren’t easy to capture. Leaving aside the difficulty of finding an appealing shaped subject reflected on a bright background, you must also master the technical aspects behind creating a silhouette. Among these are working with backlighting, using the best camera settings for silhouettes, and perhaps learning to set up external flash units.
Work with Back Lighting to Create Silhouettes
Backlighting isn’t usually among photographers’ preferences. That’s because the difference between highlights and shadows is often greater than the camera’s dynamic range. But to create silhouettes, you usually need to have the light coming from behind the subject.
Position the subject between the camera and the source of light. That way, the subject covers the source of light, and you avoid the risk of flare and overexposure. It helps if you can interpose other elements too. For example, landscape and nature photographers use branches, buildings, and rocks to filter the sunlight coming towards the camera. Having a bright source of light, such as direct sunlight in the frame, can ruin your photo and even damage your eyes.
Set the exposure for the background, and make sure you use a deep depth of field. You want to have a sharp and clear background; thus, the entire frame has to be in focus. Use fast shutter speeds (1/125 and faster) and small apertures (f/8 and above). If you don’t have enough light for these settings, slightly increase the ISO value. Yet, don’t overdo it as high ISO values add noise, and noise is visible in compositions with silhouettes.
If you use sunlight as the source of light, try to plan your photo session when the sun is low in the sky and less intense (e.g., early morning or late in the evening, overcast). It will be easier for you to capture silhouettes without overexposing the sky. Furthermore, the golden hours (first hour after sunrise and last hour before sunset) and the blue hours (last hour before sunrise and the first hour after sunset) provide amazing colors and create the perfect atmosphere for silhouettes. If you can’t avoid taking pictures when the sun is high in the sky and harsh, try using a lens hood. Also, don’t forget to mount a UV filter. It may also help to change the camera’s position slightly so that you don’t have the sun directly in front of the lens.
Use Spot Metering
In a composition with silhouettes, you intentionally underexpose the subject and reduce it to a black shape. At the same time, you want a background perfectly exposed, so it seems right to set the exposure for the background.
One of the tips photographers use when creating silhouettes is to select the spot metering instead of the more popular matrix or evaluative metering. Spot metering evaluates just the amount of light around the focus point. If you choose a focus point from the background highlights, the camera will decide there is enough light in the scene for a fast shutter speed and a small aperture. Choosing the highlights as an evaluation area helps you underexpose the subject. The brighter the background is, the darker the subject will be. It also helps to have an evenly lit background such as the sky or other uniform surface. Cluttered backgrounds may distract the viewer from the silhouette in the foreground.
Matrix and center-weighted metering modes use either the entire scene or a large part of it to evaluate light. They may not be as precise as the spot metering and average the light from dark and bright areas of the scene. The result will be a longer exposure or a larger aperture value, which means overexposed highlights (background) and brighter shadows (subject). The silhouette effect will be lost.
Experiment with an External Flash
Sometimes you can’t change the camera’s position to achieve backlighting but still want to create silhouettes. You need to find a way to make the background bright and colorful and darken the subject.
One way to illuminate the background and make it stand out in your composition is to use flash. Not the built-in flash of your camera because it will light the subject, but an external flash unit that can be placed behind the subject. It’s a technique used in studio photography but also other types of photography such as macro photography, still life, commercial photography, and even portraiture.
An external flash unit allows you to adjust the intensity, direction, and color of the light. You can use it to make the background brighter and then expose for the background to underexpose the subject. However, keep in mind that flash intensity falls off with distance. This technique works when the background is close to the subject.
Create a Silhouette Effect Using a Photo Editor
If you didn’t capture the silhouettes directly in the camera, you can create them in post-processing. But no matter how capable photo editors are, you still have to choose a photo that fits the silhouette effect by having a sharp, beautiful background; has an interestingly shaped subject; the lighting is appropriate.
Advanced photo editors such as Adobe Photoshop and Affinity Photo allow you to select the subject and transform it into a black shape. If you choose to use other editors, make sure they allow you to make an accurate selection because you want the subject to blend in smoothly into the background. For example, you can choose to create a perfectly black silhouette or maintain some of the subject’s details. To darken the subject, you’ll have to select it and use tools such as dodge and burn, levels, and brightness.
As a general rule, don’t randomly transform pictures into silhouettes. Instead, use the editor to adjust only photos taken with the intention to create silhouettes. It helps to make up your mind about composition when you take the photo.
You can create silhouettes in just a few steps: find an interesting subject and background, place the source of light between subject and background, and set the exposure for the background. However, reality shows us that there are many aspects to take into consideration.
The direction and intensity of the light play a major role. So does the distance between subject and background. But the essential ingredient when creating silhouettes is to know why you want them in your photos. Understand the meaning behind an artistic effect and use it wisely.