Silhouette photographs can be truly stunning, when done right. They involve turning the subject of your image into a dark shape, distinguishable only by its outline against a sky or other background. There are a few different applications for silhouettes which might be relevant to your style and genre of photography.
You might wish to create a silhouette of your model as a portrait – particularly when dealing with maternity photoshoots. You may want to highlight the beauty of the sky by silhouetting a building or even a whole city against it. You can also use it to create strong graphic looks, with geometric shapes or solid colours.
In order to make it work, however, you need to know what you are doing. Follow these tips to get that silhouette right every time.
Choosing your subject
The first thing you need to do is to decide what your subject will be – and what you will silhouette it against. This could be a person against a window, a building against the sky, or even a still life object against a white studio background. When choosing your subject, you need to pay careful attention to what the silhouette will look like. If you are using a person, will it be a flattering shape? Will the viewer be able to tell what they are looking at? Some things just won’t work as a silhouette, so you should think about this carefully before you select your subject.
Once you have one in mind, the next task is to look at what angle you need to shoot from. Ideally you will want a clear background with nothing else in the way that might add another silhouette or distract the eye. This is one of the reasons why the sky works perfectly in most situations! You might have to find a way to get below your subject to create this clear background, or you may have to spend some time walking around them and looking at the frame you will be able to set up.
Think about making them more recognisable. For example, a person is easiest to make out if they are standing side-on, so you can catch the profile of their face and nose (and their stomach, in the case of maternity shoots). If you were shooting the State of Liberty, you would want to do it from the front, so that you could distinguish her arm holding the torch. Taken from the side, this shape would be lost in the overall silhouette.
Don’t forget you also need the light to be coming from the right place. If you are using natural sunlight to provide your silhouette, you may have to come back at a different time of day when the sun is in the right place to create that effect. It’s easiest to shoot late in the day when the sun is low in the sky.
Setting your camera up
If you are using a DSLR, you may find that some of the features it uses do more harm than good. The camera doesn’t think you want a silhouette, so it will try hard to bring detail into those shadows! This means that you have to take control of the settings yourself, rather than leaving it to an automatic function.
The first thing to do is to turn off the Active D-Lighting or Auto Lighting Optimizer (depending on which system you use). These features are used for bringing more depth into your shadows and bringing out the details, which you don’t want to do. Next, set your dial to Aperture Priority mode so you can stay in control. Something around f8 should do the trick – deviating too far from this point may introduce chromatic aberration.
You should also introduce some exposure compensation to get those shadows really dark. Somewhere between -1 to -3 EV will work, so play around with that to see how it looks. You will want to avoid noise, so keep your ISO around 100-200. You may need to focus manually in order to get the right subject in focus.
Getting the moment right
Now it’s time to take the shot, you need to make sure you get the moment right. Do you want a still image, or a moment captured in time? Having your model walk, jump, or perform an interesting pose could give a great shot, but you will need to capture them at the right moment of their movement. You can also line things up so that the sun’s glare is diminished by putting it right behind your subject or another nearby silhouette.
If you want a truly dramatic sky, the late moments of the evening – when the sun is going down – can work very well. However, your time frame is limited: go too early and you get a plain sky, go too late and the opportunity is gone. You will also find conditions changing rapidly, which could leave you fumbling with your settings if you are not prepared.
You can also create a more interesting shot with flash, if you are far enough away from your subject. Position yourself so that the flash lights up the foreground near to you, but does not reach your subject. This way you will have a lit ground, lit sky, and black silhouette for a really dramatic image. If you are closer to your subject, you will absolutely want to turn your flash off – stray light will hit your subject and prevent that total blackness you are looking for.
Pay attention to your background, as there will only be two things to focus on in your image – that sky or backdrop, and your silhouette. Is there a plane leaving a trail in the sky? Is there a bird just about to take flight that would add depth? Should you wait for a stray cloud to move? Think about this carefully. Don’t be afraid to take too many shots – it’s much better to come home with thirty perfect shots to choose from than to miss the right moment because you were too busy waiting for it!