How To Photograph A Beautiful Silhouette

An architectural detail in silhouette on the viewing platform of the Dragon Tower in the northern city of Harbin, China.

Photography is all about the appreciation and application of light. Light is transmitted from one or more sources, natural or artificial, either directly or, via diffusion or reflection, through the camera's lens and onto the sensor.

That seems to me to be a relatively straightforward explanation of the most fundamental aspect of photography, to illuminate and to expose the subject or scene around which a composition is based.

But it's the transformational and transcendental properties of light and how it encourages photographer and viewer alike to move beyond the relatively mundane objects depicted (e.g., tree, grass, face, dress, wall) towards a deeper connection to that which exists beyond our understanding, but within our ability to experience, that interests me.  

Photograph With Backlight For Mood

Backlighting can add a heightened sense of drama to a scene. It produces arguably the most dramatic form of lighting that, when teamed with the right subject, will produce dynamic results.

The above image features part of the viewing platform of the Dragon Tower in the northern city of Harbin, China.

A colorful portrait of a young woman in Harbin in northeast China on a cold winter's day.

Front Lighting Reveals Identity

In the case of general portrait photography front lighting, where the light comes from behind the photographer and illuminates the front of the subject, is the safest option. It is only when the subject is lit that we can define subject specific information such as gender, age, ethnicity, clothing or occupation.

A beautiful black and white portrait of an elderly man sitting by an open doorway on the outskirts of Chennai, India

Side Lighting Emphasizes Shape And Texture

Side lighting places part of the subject into shadow, but provides a more three dimensional result by emphasizing shape and texture. As it highlights wrinkles and prominent facial features (e.g., nose, chin, forehead, etc) side lighting is well suited to character portraits.

The same subject lit by strong, back lighting will render the subject dark, probably black, against a sky that’s often rendered as a mid tone.

Portrait Photography For The Travel Photographer

If you want to make great portraits without too much trouble ensure your subject's face is lit appropriately and that the background is no brighter than the subject.

If you want to make great portraits in a more difficult manner, that introduces a range of potential problems, incorporate flash or reflectors and/or diffusers into your workflow. I've done just that on many, many occasions. But not needing to impress anyone, and wanting to be in control of the photography event without worrying about equipment or assistants, I'd rather follow this very simple recipe.

  • Look to see where the light is beautiful
  • Place the subject in that light
  • Control the dynamic range (i.e., contrast) of the scene by adjusting the composition to control the brightness of the background, in relation to the subject
  • Move in close and interact with the subject in a way that will produce the expression and mood that convey's the emotion of the moment
  • Make a small series of images and be on your way, often within 2 minutes of asking permission to make the photograph.

Unless you're dealing with professional models, it's essential to respect their privacy and to be able to make your photographs in a way that does not make them feel uncomfortable. Speed and a positive approach is essential in this regard.

Of course there are different approaches to making great photos. One is not, necessarily, better than the other. There's no doubt that some photographers are drawn to gear. That's fine, as long as you can manage all that gear and the range of technical considerations associated with it.

It should be noted that many photographs drawn to gear and technique are not always that well adapted to working with people, particularly strangers. That's a challenge that needs to be overcome, but it's harder to do so when you're concentrating on gear and technique.

A black and white portrait of a young boy in rural Bali, Indonesia.

Portrait Photography | Set Yourself Up For Success

As a traveling photographer and a long time teacher of photography I'm convinced that the best way to manage a range of technical issues and place attention on the subject or scene in question is to minimize the equipment you're using and learn to work with the available light. It's become my speciality.

A simple rule that I both follow and teach is as follows:

Move Yourself, Move Your Subject
— Glenn Guy

The simple act of following the above rule will, more often than not, allow you to place your subject into beautiful light. And you'll, quite often, be able to achieve this by turning them around and/or moving them just a few meters away from where you found them.

As a consequence of placing them into beautiful light, and controlling the dynamic range of the scene, you'll be able to make your photographs quickly and efficiently and move on excited by your success and motivated to make more beautiful photographs.

Or you might prefer to spend your time, and that of your subject's, messaging around with camera controls, flash settings, reflectors and the like. It's your choice. But, as you can see by the photos in this post, the approach I employ and teach works really, really well.

An elderly woman, displaying a trusting expression, at the Floating Markets near Bangkok, Thailand.

Are You A Photo Taker Or A Photo Maker?

And don't forget the impact your approach will have on your subject. The approach I've outlined, when undertaken in a positive and respectful manner, will allow you to bring joy and beauty into the life of those you photograph. Which, if you think about it, is reason enough to make the photograph in the first place.

Cameras Do Not Recognize Subject

Your camera has no concept as to whether you are photographing a baby, bar mitzvah or birthday cake.

Why Faces Go Dark In Backlit Portraits

Like the eye, the camera’s light meter is drawn to the brightest part of the scene. The light meter’s job is to measure light and guide the camera to record what it sees as a mid tone. That is the function for which it has been designed, regardless of the actual brightness of the area in question.

So the bright background, which the camera considers to be the subject, is brought down (i.e., underexposed) to a mid tone. As a consequence a light blue colored sky will often photograph a significantly darker (i.e., mid tone) shade of blue. This will produce a more dramatic background, but your subject will also be recorded darker, which will result in your portrait recording as a shadow or black.

So, if you want to produce a pleasing likeness of your subject, ensure you light them appropriately. Light coming from an angle slightly behind and to one side of the photographer will often produce the best mix of information (i.e., identity), shape and texture.

I’m yet to see much evidence that face recognition technology has much of a positive bearing on correct exposure of faces in a photograph, regardless of the direction of the light. It can certainly be useful for quickly achieving accurate focus in portrait photography, but that’s another issue entirely. Focus is a measure of distance and this article is all about light and exposure.

A rail bridge, in near silhouette, on an overcast winter's day in Harbin, China. The strong graphic shapes and shadows make for a dramatic image.

Subject Based Photographs Or Images That Explore Theme And Metaphor 

However, a subject photographed in silhouette can provide a very striking image, particularly when positioned in such a way that emphasizes its shape against a brighter background. The trick is for the subject to form a graphic shape.

A backlit portrait of Gil, a professional Gymnast, when recorded as a silhouette, will not allow the viewer to identify Gil's age, ethnicity and, possibly, even her gender. But placing Gil in a graphic pose, such as a cartwheel formation, will allow the viewer to identify her as a gymnast.

Silhouettes tend to be less about the identity of the individual depicted and more about the activity or occupation in which they are involved. Silhouettes, therefore, tend to be more iconic.

Imagine a nude image of a pregnant mother photographed in silhouette. The woman in question will often photograph very dark or black, hiding her identity and retaining modesty. The image is now less about the individual photographed and more about notions of pregnancy, motherhood, birth, nature or the human condition.

Your photograph, while it can still be considered to be a portrait, has become a more thematically based image that encourages the viewer, via metaphor, to consider deeper concepts.

Congratulations! You've just made Art.

Correct Exposure For A Silhouette | JPEG And RAW

When photographing a subject against a significantly brighter background your camera will bring the sky down to a mid tone. This will usually produce an unnaturally dark, flat looking image.

A more natural looking result with a greater sense of three-dimensional depth will often result from a MAR +1, or greater, exposure compensation.

You’ll still achieve a silhouette, but not at the expense of an overly dark, flat image. Adding the right amount of exposure will retain the silhouette while achieving a more dynamic relationship between foreground and background.

That's how to go about it if you're, like the vast majority of folks, working with your camera set to JPEG.

If you're working in RAW mode simply adjust your exposure to the right of the histogram, to gather as much data as possible and to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio, and then re-map the data on the desktop until you achieve the desired exposure and contrast.

Serenity in silhouette on Barkers Reservoir near Harcourt, in Central Victoria, Australia.

What's Next In Your Creative Journey?

This is a substantial article and it may well take several reads to get your head around it. I work really hard to express difficult technical and conceptual matters in plain and simple language. Nonetheless, it can still be a lot to take in through a single reading.

If you love what you've just read I'd invite you to share this post both widely and wildly. The more folks that see the content I produce the more likely I'II be of continuing to produce lots of great content into the future.

If you live in or around Melbourne, Australia and would like to explore your creativity by taking your photography to the next level, please feel free to check out one of my one-to-one photography courses.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru