Silhouettes: Shapes In The Light

As photographers, we generally fixate on things such as focus and light, making sure our subjects are correctly lit, allowing for details to be crisp and clear. Silhouette photography flips all that on its ear; instead of wanting the subject illuminated and in clear detail, we’re masking the subject in darkness. The details now become the shape of your subject. Here’s how to shoot silhouettes.

Backlighting Is The Key To Silhouettes

Silhouette photography refers to images where a dark figure or shape is against a light background. This is achieved with simple backlighting. Silhouettes occur by shooting into areas of bright light. The background is bright and vivid, with the foreground in dark shadow. The difference in exposure from the background to the foreground creates the silhouette. The subject, or foreground, is transformed into a black shape. This is best achieved during sunrise and sunset hours of the day when the sun is lowest. Generally, these times of day are also full of color, enhancing your desired silhouette. The contrast of the bright background against the dark foreground creates drama in your image.

Focus On Shape

When shooting silhouettes, your main focus needs to be on shape. Use your eye to seek out interesting shapes in your scene—the bolder, the better. Curved tree limbs, birds on a wire, tall grasses…in silhouette, these ordinary subjects are dramatically transformed.

Use the sun as your backlight. In nature, your subject is often a fixed object, requiring you, the photographer, to do the moving by positioning yourself and your camera lens so that the subject you’re shooting is in front of the sun’s direct light.

How to shoot silhouettes: Kids playing on the beach

When shooting people in silhouette photography, you can manipulate your subject more by having them move into the optimal position, again making sure they’re in front of the sun’s light. Through silhouetting, your subjects become faceless. The viewer is then focused on the shape or position of the person, not the details we’re more commonly accustomed to focusing on—smiles, eyes and expressions are erased in the darkness. All that remains is the shape, leading the viewer to interpret the shot. A mystery to be solved. Is the subject happy, or sad? Are they feeling great joy, or great pain? When we erase the details of the face and rely only on the shape of things to tell the story, it allows the viewer to decide. Again, you want to pay attention to the details of the shape. A profile or outstretched arms can add dimension and drama to your image.

Time of day can be key in achieving great results in silhouettes. The light at sunrise and sunset is optimal in this type of shooting. The sun is low to the ground, and nature provides you with an amazing colorful backdrop at these times. So get out early or head out right before sunset, and play with light and shapes!

How To Shoot Silhouettes

  1. Turn off your camera’s flash.
  2. Keep the subject in focus. The crisper the shape, the clearer the silhouette.
  3. Look for interesting shapes for your subjects.
  4. If shooting at sunrise or sunset, give yourself ample time. Colors can change dramatically at these times, enhancing your silhouette.
  5. Look for areas of great contrast.
  6. Set your exposure on your background and let your subject go dark.
  7. Enhance color saturation and contrast in post-processing your image, creating a more dramatic effect.

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