How to Photograph a Classic Silhouette

 

A sheep calmly grazes as a magnificent sunset sinks below the horizon on the Látrabjarg Cliffs in the western most part of Iceland.

 

Photos where your subject is in silhouette can be amongst the most evocative, emotive and highly compelling images you may ever make.

The good news is that the recipe for making great silhouettes is actually quite straight forward.

With a few basic concepts understood you can be on your way to lifting your photography up to a new level of expertise.

The Best Way To Photograph an Iconic Silhouette

The above photo was made from the Látrabjarg Cliffs in far Western Iceland. I love the rim lighting effect around the sheep that's been caused by the intense backlight of the setting sun.

It was a magical time and I had a lot of fun trying to keep up with this and other sheep happily grazing on the lush pastures in this most idyllic locale.

You’ll find the best silhouettes occur under the following conditions:

  • When the subject is backlit or photographed against a significantly brighter background

  • When the subject forms a graphic shape (e.g., gymnast doing the splits, severely pregnant mother turned side on to the camera)

  • When the background is colorful (e.g., blue sky, sunset or vividly colored wall)

  • A light grey or a near white background is often perfectly acceptable in a black and white silhouette.

The iconic Twelve Apostles, in silhouette, along the Great Ocean Road in Australia.

Beware Of The Unwanted Silhouette

The reality is that most folks make silhouettes without meaning to.

Usually a silhouette occurs when you photograph your subject (e.g., portrait) against a significantly brighter background.

Please take note, I didn’t say the background had to be particularly bright, just significantly brighter than the subject.

It’s a relative term. Even a mid tone background can produce a silhouette when your subject (e.g., dark tree trunk, African American skin tone) is relatively dark to begin with.

A detail of an architectural element, in silhouette, at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia.

One of Photography’s Great Lessons

The camera doesn’t recognize subject.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

The above quote is one of my personal photography mantras, which I often stress to folks I tutor.

It’s important to understand that your camera has no concept of whether you’re photographing a baby, a bar mitzvah or a birthday cake.

When the composition in question includes a significant amount of background, is there any wonder that the camera may mistakenly believe that it’s the background, rather than the face, that’s the most important subject or consideration in your photo?

Just like the human eye, your camera is attracted to bright, shinny things.

A young family viewing a Manatee in a large aquarium at the River Safari park in Singapore.

A Word on Relationships, If I May Be So Bold

Ever sat in a restaurant or cafe with your significant other half and been chastised for not paying attention?

Even with the best of intentions your eyes wander. Why is it so?

You love your partner, but you’re unable to fix your eyes upon them.

For some reason you keep noticing things behind them. You become distracted and it’s hard not to be drawn towards those distractions.

Almost certainly you’re being drawn to bright, shinny things - whatever they may be.

While, on the rarest of occasions, it may be an attractive young thing, it’s just as likely to be a light, a fluorescent sign or a reflective surface. And it’s even worse when you’re in an outdoor restaurant looking into bright light.

 
Glenn Guy, Self Portrait, Docklands

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The solution, when outdoors, is to position yourself so that the light is behind you. This will ensure that your partner is lit and that you a drawn towards them, both visually and emotionally.

No longer will bright, shinny things behind your partner distract your attention. (This tip also works when you find it hard concentrating on anything your boss is saying).

When indoors just try to situate yourself in the chair with the darkest and most mundane view. Once again that should draw your eyes towards the one that you love. The result of which could be so much more than an engaging conversation. 

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.

Please Don’t Confuse The Words Fundamental And basic 

This simple lesson, about the relationship between subject and background, is such a crucial one that I often repeat it several times in a single session class.

By the end I can see that most folks don’t just understand the lesson conceptually, they are beginning to appreciate the significance it can have on their own photography.

There’s a simply reason I’ve learned to repeat this fundamental photography lesson, again and again. Some folks get it straight away, others don’t.

But because it’s so important I’d consider it a failure, on my behalf, if the folks I tutor don’t leave the session understanding such fundamental concepts.

And please don’t confuse the word fundamental with basic. Sure, there’s no Shutter Speeds, Apertures or ISO involved. And even when such concepts are easy to apply, that does mean they’re not important.

In this context I think it’s best to consider fundamental as meaning essential or critically important considerations that determine the success of your photo.

They’re the sort of things I think of each and every time I make a photo.

I work hard to explain often difficult concepts in simple language that should be both easy to understand and relatively straight forward to implement.

But, at the end of the day, if you don’t implement these concepts your photos just won’t improve.

The problem seems to be that folks believe photography is really complicated and that cameras are really hard to use.

That’s true, if you believe it to be true.

But once fundamental concepts are explained, in simple language, and you’re shown how to apply those concepts you’re in control of the machine and you’re now free to let your creativity flow.

It’s now that you can begin to realize your creative potential by making photos that showcase your very own, unique world view.

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

Protecting the Strong From Themselves 

This is why I always try to avoid using the word basic when I teach. Some folks simply believe they are beyond such information.

When I want to hold folks attention, at critical moments in group based photography courses, I replace the word basic with words such as fundamental or essential.

It’s amazing how changing a single word elevates the perceived importance of the information amongst certain learners. And I wouldn’t want any one to fall behind.

A Darter bird in silhouette, Kakadu National Park, Australia.

How To Make A Glorious Silhouette

Now that we’ve discussed what causes the subject of a photo to fall into silhouette we can use this information to produce a silhouette when and where we want to.

It’s a simple matter of placing your subject against a significantly brighter background and, by including plenty of the background in your composition, allowing your camera’s light meter to be drawn to the brightness of the background.

All light meters are programed to record what they see as a mid tone which, of course, is great when you’re photographing a mid tone scene (e.g., aerial view of a Han Chinese man sipping tea on a green lawn in open shade).

The problem is when the scene you photograph consists of predominantly light or dark tones.

In each case the light meter will direct your camera to expose so those scenes record as mid tones which, clearly, would not be correct.

The result would be photos that are either darker or lighter than they should be. This can be disastrous, but the problem can also be resolved, in just a seconds, if you know how.

Fire ravaged trees, backlit, produce a dynamic silhouette in the Yarra Valley, Australia.

Beware Of The Photographer Who Brags

By the way, when you hear folks talk about how their camera always produces correct exposures, slap them.

They are either unaware of the consequences of their statement or they are totally deluded.

It’s important to remember that it’s not cameras that make photos. People make photos, even when the camera is set to fully automatic.

Can’t accept that basic truth. Fine, put a hammer on the table and tell it to build a house.

Not working? Buy a hammer with the word Leica branded onto it. See if that helps.

The brighter the light the darker the shadows will photograph.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

With a background significantly brighter than the subject your camera’s light meter will almost certainly cause that background to be recorded as a mid tone, which is darker than it is in reality.

As a consequence your subject will also be recorded darker.

That’s usually enough for your subject to record as a silhouette. Great when that's what you wanted, a disaster when it’s not.

But it happens because your camera doesn’t recognize the primary subject in your photo.

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

An Great Photo Tip That’s Just For You

In the days of film I'd often photograph a backlit scene, that I intended to record as a silhouette, by exposing one stop brighter than what my meter wanted so as to ensure the silhouette didn't photograph too dark.

That’s a very useful tip, particularly for folks photographing with their camera set to JPEG.

By the way a sure sign that the image, even a silhouette, is too dark is a loss of the perception of three-dimensional space in the resulting photo.

It's important that your subject at least appear to be separated from what is, often, a distant background.

The one stop of extra exposure, above what’s recommended by your camera’s light meter, is usually enough to overcome this problem.

Just remember, you're not actually overexposing. You're simply adjusting your camera's light meter to achieve the desired result.

If you find the information in this post interesting, but you need help applying it, I may be able to help. If you live in or around Melbourne, Australia we can hook up for a one-to-one private photography class.

Just contact me for all the details and, if you’re then happy to proceed, we can schedule a day and time that’s most convenient for you.

I really hope this information proves useful and that you begin to incorporate deliberate and well executed silhouettes into your own photography on a regular basis, even in the middle of winter.

The results will likely be very pleasing and, quite possibly, good enough to lift your portfolio up to the next level.

If all else fails, at least I’ve got the relationship between you and your significant other half back on track. Right!

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru