While a flash is usually an important part of taking a picture and capturing the full extent of your subject, more light on the subject isn’t always desired. A silhouette projects the outline of an entirely over-exposed (and as a result, black) subject. Such a photograph will easily jump out in any collection because of the mystery its simplicity invokes. The viewer is left to imagine the silhouetted subject and the story behind the photograph. What follows is basic description of how to photograph silhouettes. After reading this, you can skim through the many other technical descriptions available on the web, confident that you know the essential principles. Remember first and foremost, that you want your camera to think that your focus is on the brightest part of your composition.
1. Think twice about the subject
While any subject can be a silhouette, keep in mind that the shape will be blacked out and therefore only appear in two-dimensions. As a result, something with a recognizable shape may be preferable to the viewer if they aren’t familiar with the subject of the silhouette. On the other hand, an unusual image could make for a great picture too! Either way, consider how you want the viewer to consider the picture despite—or even because—of the lack of color, texture and tone of the subject.
2. Placement of the subject(s)
While you certainly can silhouette multiple shapes or objects in one composition, the placement of these subjects becomes critical. If a person is leaning on a tree or even standing next to a tree, for example, the viewer will most likely not be able to differentiate the two subjects (never mind identify them) and instead see an unrecognizable blob. Additionally, when silhouetting people, you should profile them to showcase more of their features which in turn will make them more recognizable than if you had photographed them straight on.
3. Plenty of light, but no flash
If in automatic mode, your camera will want to use its flash to illuminate the composition. In other circumstances, you would want your camera to have this reaction to the lighting, but a flash will surely ruin a silhouette. Unlike a normal photograph, where light should be focused on the front of your subject, a silhouette requires that the back of the subject is lit up more than the front. For this reason, a flash—which would illuminate the front of your subject—can’t be used with silhouettes. In the best scenario, your subject would be standing in front of a sunset or sunrise and there would be more light in the background than the foreground. A blue sky without clouds would be a great background as well—really anywhere where the light source is behind the subject (the subject could even be in front of a lamp). This reasoning, of course, is counter-intuitive to the principles of normal photography, but then again we’re not talking about normal photography: we’re talking about silhouettes!
4. Auto Mode
Your camera is pretty smart, but I think you can be smarter. Your camera will want to take a flash because the automatic metering that most modern digital cameras have will want to illuminate your subject instead of underexposing it (which is essential for a silhouette). So here’s where the trick comes in. Most cameras in auto mode compute the exposure level (as well as focus) when you push the shutter, half way down. As a result, if you press the shutter halfway down when your camera is directed at the brightest part of your composition, your camera will adjust the exposure of the rest of the photograph based on the false assumption that the brightest part is the mid tone. Consequently, any part of the image darker than the bright light (i.e. your subject) will be exposed as a dark shadow. Be careful not to lift your finger from the shutter or finish taking the shot until you have re-adjusted yourself in front of the composition. Additionally, some digital cameras have ’spot’ or ‘centered’ metering modes which helps to accurately expose the silhouette by setting the metering on one spot in your composition rather than multiple spots. In reality, you aren’t tricking your camera, but rather telling it how you want the exposure of the photograph to be scaled.
5. Manual Mode
If you aren’t getting the results you want from automatic mode and your camera has the option, try manual exposure of exposure compensation. A digital camera allows you to play around with as many different features as you want and if you don’t like the photo, simply delete it and keep clicking away. If you’re new to manual mode, start off with the suggested shutter speed and aperture for automatic mode. To make your subject darker, decrease the shutter speed slightly. Using this ‘bracketing’ technique will let you see the slightest changes in your photographs and choose the best one.
You probably want the silhouetted subject to be the most in focus in the frame you‘ve composed. Unfortunately, this can prove tricky if you are trying to trick your camera as was suggested earlier. As was described, if you push the shutter half way down in front of the brightest part of your composition so that the camera registers that light as the mid tone, your camera will also focus on that part of the composition. As a result, if you do want your silhouetted subject in focus, you might try manual focusing and focus your camera before you meter the photo. You can also adjust the aperture to maximize your depth of field. A small aperture (large number) will increase the depth of the field, creating both a crisper foreground and background in your photo.
7. Partial silhouette
While many of these tips are geared towards capturing complete silhouettes, don’t be afraid to try a partial silhouette. Instead of having a black subject, some of your subject’s features will be exposed in a partial silhouette, making for a more three-dimensional and real image.