Monday, June 13, 2011
Five Tips For Better Silhouettes—06/13/11
How to make silhouettes in the camera and the computer
Whatever you may be shooting, here are five tips to help you make better silhouettes.
1. Silhouettes work well with many subjects, but perhaps none is better than the human form. If you're photographing a person, you've got an ideal situation to silhouette on your hands. Just make sure they're positioned in such a way as to look like a person and not a shapeless blob. Strong poses are helpful here, and separating limbs will help clarify the shape. This applies to other subjects too; be sure to position subjects in such a way that the shape is strong and clear, and doesn't interfere with dark shapes in the background. A telephoto lens can help simplify compositions in this regard, because the compressed frame can simplify the background and eliminate obstructions.
2. Don't let your meter be fooled. If you're shooting in auto mode it's extra-important that you pay attention to the metering mode you're working with. Spot mode, for instance, may meter only the shadowed subject and open up the aperture accordingly creating an appropriate exposure for the subject and an overexposed background. That is the exact opposite of what you want in a silhouette. A full scene metering mode that primarily factors in the overall illumination will produce a more suitable exposure because it's based mostly on the bright background. In short, the more the exposure is based on the silhouetted subject, the less successful that silhouette will be.
3. When in doubt, underexpose. Some purists say the worst thing you can do to a silhouette is to show detail in the shadowed subject. The detail, they say, becomes a distraction. I generally agree with them. In order to ensure you don't show detail—and to keep that bright background illumination from blowing out—err on the side of underexposure. You can do this in auto mode by setting exposure compensation to underexpose by a half stop or more. If you're a manual shooter, simply check your LCD to see that you're not too hot on the subject and background. After all, the only detail in your picture comes from the illuminated background, so it pays to make sure that's interesting.
4. Don't fight focus. Silhouettes often happen in low light, or at least in tricky lighting conditions. These are not the ideal situations for your camera's autofocus to perform well. Since we want to be focused on the silhouetted subject's shape, as opposed to the bright background, consider switching to manual focus in order to control the sharpness and keep the autofocus for searching. As an added benefit, your camera won't automatically try to refocus between exposures, making your shooting experience more efficient as well. If the light is entirely too low to focus well, consider using your D-SLR's live view mode, and temporarily overexpose in order to view the bright image on the LCD. Then you can focus manually, readjust the exposure, and shoot for real.
5. Remember the post-production. Silhouettes are something you can't fake in the computer—at least you can't always fake them very well. But that's not so say you can't make silhouettes better in the computer. Starting with an image that's close but not perfect, some simple post-production fixes can really be valuable. If you shoot RAW, for instance, you can adjust the exposure of a blown out silhouette to bring the background down, boosting color and detail, and to eliminate extraneous detail in the subject. Even if you've exposed correctly, sometimes there's just a little bit too much detail on the subject—maybe from too much fill light up front. Basic Photoshop magic—painting away detail in favor of shadow—can clean up a silhouette very easily and make a stronger, simpler image.