At its best, photography captures the imagination of the viewer and engages the viewer in thought. This is difficult to accomplish even for gifted photographers. One of the best ways to engage viewers is through silhouette photography. In today’s article, I’ll explain the techniques used to capture silhouettes and why they are so effective.
In order to understand why silhouettes are so engaging, we need to understand how our brains work. Our brains continuously attempt to fill in the details of what is currently unknown to us. If we see part of a picture missing, we cannot help but imagine what the picture should look like whole.
A silhouette leaves out important features of a subject, and causes us to make our own interpretation. Furthermore, we tend to project our own emotions, thoughts, fears, and hopes onto the image. One person’s interpretation of a silhouette is often drastically different from another person’s.
Any subject can be rendered as a silhouette, be it a tree, a mountain, or a bicycle. But when people are rendered as silhouettes, the need for us to interpret grows exponentially.
Is The Glass Half-Full?
Take for example a silhouette of an old man sitting on a park bench at sunset. A person full of positive thoughts might interpret the man as being happy, content and relaxed. Perhaps he has accomplished a life long goal, and is enjoying his vibrant senior years.
Another person might interpret the old man as being alone, sad, or fearful. Maybe his wife died and he is all alone? Is he fearful of his ability to support himself and his loved ones in the coming years? Is his life coming to an end, as is foreshadowed by the setting sun?
The photographer may have had none of these ideas in mind when the image was created. The engagement is a result of the viewer’s need to answer questions for herself and fill in the blanks.
Sunset Lighting Technique
Silhouette photography is accomplished by using pure back lighting. This means the subject is being lit from behind. The most popular source of back lighting for silhouettes is the setting or rising sun. The reason for its popularity is that the sun’s light is sufficiently powerful to create several stops of lighting differential in a scene, while providing a spectacular backdrop.
The best time to capture a silhouette is when the sun is just above the horizon. Contrast between the subject and the light of the sky is maximized at this time, and colors are often striking.
The scene should be exposed for a point just to the side of the sun, perhaps 10 to 15 degrees above. This rule of thumb allows the sky to be properly exposed for, and captured in beautiful color. The sun itself will be slightly overexposed, which is fine since the best colors and contrasts are found elsewhere in the sky.
Ensure that no light is being bounced back toward your subject. Flash should be off, and reflectors should be out of sight. This will allow the subject to be rendered as a dark shadow.
Aperture and Focus
Your focus should be on the subject, not the background. When rendered, we want the silhouette of the subject to have nice, crisp edges. Closing down the aperture to F8 or higher is also a good idea, as it allows the backdrop of the setting sun to remain in relatively sharp focus.
Once we focus the camera and decide on our aperture of choice, we adjust shutter speed to properly expose for the sky just outside of the sun.
Should you decide you want maximum depth of field, it may necessitate shutter speeds which are too long for hand held photography. Therefore it always helps to have a tripod handy when shooting silhouettes.
Silhouette photography conveys strong emotions and demands interpretation and engagement on the part of viewers. When done properly, it is a powerful art form. Subjects in shadow add a sense of mystery and intrigue, and are often interpreted very differently among viewers.
Employing silhouettes can provide a spark of creativity for photographers, and provide them with a new and interesting challenge.
Daniel Padavona is an avid photographer. He founded Warmpicture Royalty Free Images, which licenses stock people photos. Daniel lives in upstate New York with his wife Terri, and their children Joey and Julia.