Silhouettes are often the result of a photo gone wrong when you first start learning exposure, and for that reason alone, many people don’t tend to go back to shooting them. But you should.
Silhouettes, much like black and white photography, change the way we look at photos and, how we take them. They become less about the colour, and more about something else.
Shape & Form
If you read about black and white photography, then you probably saw this coming. When you create a silhouette, you stop focusing on what something looks like in detail, and instead you focus more on their shape.
When you take a photo of something, whether it’s a person, a building, or an animal; if the photo is a silhouette, the focus is on the shape and form.
This means you have to change how you think about your subject, before you take the photo.
Check this photo out for example. It’s a very dark silhouette and very two dimensional. All there is in the photo that is of interest is the shape of the man, and the lighting in the background. It’s still an interesting photo, but for a different reason.
Think about shape.
Lighting is obviously a very big part of creating a silhouette. There needs to be some form of backlighting, so that the camera struggles to make out the foreground detail, as it exposes for the background.
Not only does there have to be a very strong backlight, there needs to be very minimal foreground lighting too. If you wanted to take a photo of a cityscape and use the sun behind the buildings as a backlight, then this would work reasonably well, but there’s still a strong likelihood that there’s going to be some form of foreground lighting too. Unless the sun is very low is the sky.
It’s much easier when there’s controlled conditions, such as event photography, where the lighting is in the background only, or when you’re inside with the lights low, and subject is outside.
It’s perfectly possible to take a silhouette shot when there’s light in the foreground too, but it works best when it’s only in the background.
Exposure & Metering
These two go hand in hand really as the metering helps us to find the right exposure. If you set your camera to program mode, and you’re shooting in the right environment, then there’s a strong chance that the camera will automatically take a silhouette photo. This is one of those occasions where you can use the camera’s mistake to your advantage.
When it comes to metering, I would typically select a spot metering mode to prevent my subject from becoming a silhouette, but you need to do the opposite here. Partial metering, and centre-weighted average metering is pretty good for taking a good silhouette photo. I find it helps to still shoot in manual though, and practice with a bit of trial and error.
You get a bit more of a creative license with post processing here, because the photo is heavily dependant on the black part of the image, and the contrast.
Feel free to play with the exposure, brightness, contrast, and black point. These are all good tools for enhancing your silhouette.
If you’re still having problems, check out the burn tool.
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