SILHOUETTES ARE AMONGST the most visually striking effects you can create with a digital camera.
- 1 SILHOUETTES ARE AMONGST the most visually striking effects you can create with a digital camera.
I remember when I first came into photography, I used to look at beautiful silhouetted photographs with admiration. I remember looking at a picture of a brass band, silhouetted against a brightly lit white backdrop, with every detail of their outline perfectly visible. I remember how I not only admired, but also envied.
I tried desperately to recreate that shot using other subjects, but it was a terribly hard slog, because I didn’t even know where to start. In the beginning I didn’t even know how to get the foreground to go so dark without making the background dark too. And then, when I finally managed to get the balance between those two right, I had trouble getting a clearly visible outline, without any distractions from the shape of my chosen subject.
And then, one day, I got it right. I remember getting the pictures, shot on 35mm negative back from the one-hour photo-lab. It was a picture of a fisherman standing on a peer, all his features lost in a sea of black, outlined against a glistening sea. I immediately asked to have it enlarged to 8×10!
So what is a silhouette?
A silhouette contains at least two elements: a foreground object and a background. In a classic silhouette, the foreground subject will appear as a featureless, black object, outlined against the lighter and brighter background.
A good silhouette will make the foreground object instantly recognizable, even though the features and the details in all but the outline will be lost. For instance, if you are trying to create a silhouette of a guy playing a trumpet, you will be better of letting him point the trumpet either to his left or right, because this will give you a clear outline of both him and the trumpet. If he was pointing the trumpet straight at you, the only outline you will see is that of his head, and the meaning in the image will be lost.
How to create a silhouette
To start with, you need to realize that a silhouette can be considered an exposure metering mistake. With most modern digital cameras, the light meter will attempt to have all the elements in the scene equally brightly lit, giving you a evenly toned image with no details lost to either overexposure or underexposure. But in a silhouette, you need part of the scene to be underexposed. You need the foreground object to be so dark that all it’s details are lost in a sea of black, and to do this, you will either have to shoot in manual mode, or find some way to fool the camera’s meter.
The second thing to realise is that you cannot create a silhouette if the background is not brighter than the foreground. Exactly how much brighter varies according to the subject and the exact effect you are aiming for, but 3 or 4 stops will normally be enough.
With your object set against its bright backdrop, you will take a meter reading from the background, rather than the foreground.
Silhouettes in Auto
Though a silhouette is, in the eyes of the camera, a metering mistake, you can trick the camera’s light meter into delivering the underexposed foreground you need.
Most cameras, even compacts, will take a light meter reading when you press the shutter release button halfway down. This reading will stay in the camera’s memory for as long as you keep the button pressed halfway.
So, to take a meter reading for the background, hold the camera so that only the background fills the frame, with none of the foreground subject that you want silhouetted in your viewfinder. Press the shutter release button halfway, allowing the camera to lock the light meter. Now that the reading has been taken, while holding the button halfway down, move the camera into the position so that your picture is properly composed, and press the button all the way down so that the shutter is released and the image is captured.
The one pitfall in this method is that the camera will normally lock the focus as well as the light reading when you press the button halfway, meaning that if your foreground object is much closer to you, it may well be out of focus.
You can work around this by shooting in manual focus mode.
Shooting silhouettes in manual mode
Creating a silhouette with a digital camera is almost always easier in manual mode than it is in automatic mode.
Take a light reading from the background. Set your aperture, shutter speed and iso sensitivity accordingly. Now compose the picture with the foreground object in place, and Bob’s your uncle.
Keep it clean and simple
In most cases silhouettes need to be as clean and simple as possible to be effective. Because a large part of the detail that would normally convey information will be lost in a sea of black, you need to simplify your message somewhat. Stick to simple compositions with one or two main subjects, and a very clear outline, which will make your subject easily identifiable.
While it is far from impossible to shoot silhouettes against multi-colored backdrops, rather than against pure white, you need to be careful in the placement of shadows and dark areas in the background, or even in the foreground surrounding your main subject, as it is almost always better to retain the entire outline of your subject and not allow any dark elements to impose on this outline.
The silhouette as a frame
When we think about a silhouette, we almost always image a picture where the main focal point of the image is the darkened, silhouetted element, but we can also turn the composition inside-out, and use the silhouette as a framing device to surround our main subject.
The trickiest of all silhouettes are the ones taken in low light, where the background is not strongly lit, and where there is therefore less contrast between the subject you want silhouetted and the background.
Here the exposure will be critical, and you may have to underexpose the background slightly, leaving it a little dark, but still lighter than the blacked out foreground. You may also want to attempt, under low-light circumstances, to create a near silhouette, rather than a full-blown silhouette.
You may also want to attempt creating rim light, where a light just behind the subject, though off to one side, is allowed to illuminate the edge of your silhouette, giving the otherwise dark shape a lightened halo.
Silhouettes and near-silhouettes
Most people think of a silhouette as containing no detail in the subject, but a photograph can often be much more effective if you allow just a little bit of detail to remain in your silhouetted area, with a few discernable features remaining in the near-black areas. This makes the image appear a little less unnatural, or even staged, but retains some all of the romantic charm of the full silhouette.
To create a near-silhouette, the exposure metering is critical, and you may have to bracket your exposures, taking one or two images at darker than the suggested meter reading, and one or two images just lighter than the suggested reading.