Silhouettes can be powerful because they create a sense of mystery by hiding the details within the subject. Both the lingerie and scary movie industries have been using this trick for years - they keep things interesting because you get to fill in the blanks with your own mind. All you can see is an outline, and your imagination takes care of the rest. Here are some tips on creating intriguing silhouette photos.
This is the latest from my photography tutorial website, Picture Like This.
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Step 1: Find a Large Light Source
Anything your subject can stand in front of that emits light or is significantly lighter than the subject will work. The sky is great for buildings and trees, or if you're shooting people from down low. Big white walls are perfect, especially if you set up a strobe to flash the wall and not the subject as you take the picture. There are a couple of "light walls" in various venues in Austin (pictured above) which work well for this too. Big, bright windows are great too.
Step 2: Shoot Into the Light
Have your subject stand with their back to the source of light. Shooting into the light will cause your camera's settings to automatically adjust for an even exposure, including the bright light hitting your sensor from the light source itself. For more accuracy, adjust your camera's exposure to properly expose the light source, which will drastically underexpose your subject, creating the silhouette look.
Also make sure there isn't much light hitting the subject from another source, like fill flash, ambient light, or anything else. The technique relies upon your subject being much darker than the background.
In case you're wondering, there is a way around this - here's another tutorial on properly exposing everything in shot:
Step 3: Shoot Subjects With Interesting Outlines
Ok, so the second building wasn't very interesting to look at... point taken. It's a nice building during the day, but remember - the details of the surface will be minimized or completely gone in a silhouette shot.
Use a good angle to get the best possible view of the outline and create the most impact.
This is good news for old sports cars, women with great bodies and not-so-great faces (jk, but really), kids with juice stains on their shirts, and a host of other interestingly outlined subjects - for example:
Step 4: Autofocus on an Edge
Since you won't see any surface detail, and you'll only be able to distinguish the subject by its edge, make sure the edge is in focus. The tendency when shooting people is to focus on their eye like normal, but this will cause the outline of the head, shoulders, and neck to be out of focus, especially when using a larger aperture.
And chances are, if you're doing it right, your subject won't have much light on the surface facing you, so you won't be able to lock focus easily on anything but the edge anyway.
Step 5: Pump It Up With Software
Bump the contrast with some photo editing software light Lightroom, Photoshop, or GIMP, so the shadows stand out more strongly against the highlights. Either slide the contrast bar, play with the levels tool, or manipulate it using the curves tool. The idea is to make the shadows even darker, and make the highlights even lighter.
You can even use selective editing if you can't achieve the effect you want by moving sliders. Use a layer mask to isolate the subject and just darken that portion of the image. Be careful not to go overboard though - if you don't get the mask and the boarders just right, it can look fake. A little detail is ok, but try to tone it down as much as possible to create the mystery.
I used Lightroom to darken these people standing in front of the same wall as the first picture because it wasn't quite contrasty enough for me - some ambient light caused a foggy glow.
Step 6: Experiment and Keep Learning
So there you have it. Find a big light source and shoot into it for awesome silhouette shots. It works great with people, skylines, interestingly shaped objects, and a ton of other subjects.
Keep learning by checking out my photography blog and tutorial website, Picture Like This
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You can find the silhouette photography tutorial on my site by following this link.
Until next time, happy shooting!