We call a silhouette a dark shape on a bright background. The silhouette is the subject of the photograph but we hide all its characteristics and emphasize its shape. A powerful silhouette effect tells a story and invites the viewer to connect and take part. The shape of the subject is easily recognizable and the background is clear and appealing. Probably the most popular example is photographing silhouettes of people at sunset. But how can you photograph stunning silhouettes?
Choose a Good Subject for Silhouettes
To create a good silhouette you need a good subject. It should be a subject with a recognizable shape such as people, flowers, trees, animals, leaves, and popular objects. But it also should have a story. For example, you can photograph a couple kissing, children playing, people on bicycles, cars, etc. Static subjects are easier to photograph while moving subjects may require some technical skills.
At the same time, the background is part of the story and should be relevant. The sunset will create a romantic atmosphere when you photograph the silhouette of a couple. The same sunset will convey nostalgia and melancholy when you photograph the silhouette of mountains. Before taking the photo, build the story you want to tell and understand why you want to tell that story. Aesthetic photos are good; visual stories are better.
Frame the Scene
Because you want to have a dark subject and a bright background, the source of light has to be between subject and background. Turn off the built-in flash of your camera and use an external flash to illuminate the background if you have to. If you take photos outdoors and use natural light, make sure the sun is in front of the camera and illuminates the subject from behind. Backlighting is tricky as it can create glares and even damage your eyes. Choose a time of the day when the sun is less intense and has a lower position in the sky (e.g. morning, evening).
Although the silhouette is the main subject don’t place it always in the center of the frame. Create interesting compositions by using the rules of composition, leading lines, and unusual angles. The viewer should go through the entire frame and see everything.
Set up the Camera
When you photograph silhouettes you want to have the entire frame in focus. Therefore, you need a deep depth of field which in terms of camera settings translates into fast shutter speeds and small apertures. You also want a low ISO value to avoid adding grain noise to your photos.
These are the ideal settings. However, you can’t always use them. In low lighting conditions, you may be forced to use larger apertures to allow enough light to enter the camera. When photographing moving subjects, you may be forced to increase the ISO in order to maintain a fast shutter speed and freeze movement.
Focus on the Background
Creating silhouettes is one of the few situations in which you need to underexpose the subject. But you have to capture a bright and clear background so use spot metering and focus on the background. Spot metering evaluates light from a small area around the focus point. If you focus on highlights in the background, spot metering assures the camera won’t average dark and bright areas and ruin the effect. Furthermore, focusing on highlights tells the camera there is enough light in the scene for fast shutter speeds and small apertures. So go for the brightest point in the scene.
That’s it! Press the shutter release button and admire the result. Silhouettes are meaningful compositions that can bring you a lot of fans.