Photographing silhouettes is a lot easier than you might think
A good silhouette can be an amazing picture. Without seeing any actual real detail of our subject other than the outline, they can suggest all kinds of mood and emotion in an image. Silhouettes can be both scary and romantic depending on the form of the figure, or figures. They can tell a story, simply by the environment behind them. They can also tell us a lot about the person, beyond what they look like.
One generally hears “how do I shoot a silhouette?” far more often than actually seeing good silhouettes, though. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard the question asked. But, they’re actually really easy to do. In this video from The Slanted Lens, Jay P Morgan walks us through the process of creating a silhouettes.
In the video, Jay suggests that spot metering is the way to go. I can’t say that I disagree. I’ve found spot metering to be the perfect way to bring a bight background under control and turn your subject black (or close to it). You will want a pretty strong contrast between your subject and the background, though. If your subject is lit up like a Christmas tree, they’re not going to be very dark against a setting sun.
That brings us around to the best time of day for portraits. The low light source created by the late evening sun provides a great backlight for silhouettes. The sky is still quite bright. So, metering for the sky, and letting your subjects turn to blackness is quite straightforward.
When the sun is high in the sky during midday, it can often allow too much light to creep in front of your subject. Even if it doesn’t completely light them up, it can brighten up limbs, or hair, and light things that you would prefer remain black. There’s ways around this, of course. At least, there are things you can do to at least give it a try.
Large flags clamped to a light stand or held by an assistant will create a shadow on your subject and lower their brightness value. This makes shooting silhouettes during bright daylight a little easier, but you’ll still have quite high ambient levels to deal with. The entire sky is emitting light during the day, even when bright and cloudless. Light bouncing off buildings and other environmental factors may also prevent you from sending your subject to silhouette during the day.
Silhouettes can also serve as a great starting point for using flash on location. During sunset portrait shoots, I’ll often aim to get a silhouette shot before adding flashes to my scene. This way, I can ensure that the ambient light isn’t contributing to the subject’s exposure at all. It’s simply acting as a backdrop. Then, when I add flash, I have 100% control over the light hitting them.
Nothing beats getting out there and trying it for yourself, though. So, experiment, see what works well for you and what gives you a look you like. See what problems come up, and try to figure out what’s causing them. As with many photographic topics, the more you do it, the more you’ll learn and the better you’ll get. Jay’s video is a great starting point, though.
Do you shoot silhouettes? What other tips and tricks can you offer? What problems have you faced when shooting silhouettes? Did you manage to overcome them? Let us know and share your own silhouette shots in the comments.
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.