How to photograph dramatic silhouettes

Fred Dutton
16 May, 2011
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As any horror movie director will tell you, what you don’t see is often scarier than what you do. And while filmmakers know that the unseen can certainly be scary, photographers rely on the fact that often it’s just plain dramatic. That’s the idea behind silhouettes, which engage you by masking details in inky black shadows. By coyly hiding important elements of the photo in plain sight, silhouettes are some of the most iconic elements you can add to your photography repertoire. Let’s look at five things you can do to take better silhouettes.

Set up the scene

The basic idea behind any silhouette is that your subject is dark and underexposed, but set against a bright background. So for the best results, look for situations in which you can take advantage of a lot of contrast. Sunsets are a perennial favourite background for silhouettes, but if you get low to the ground and aim upwards, you can get striking results by placing someone (or something) against a bright blue sky. Your options hardly end there; I’ve seen gorgeous silhouettes set against brightly lit stained glass windows inside churches, for example.

Turn off the flash

It’s critical to expose for the background. We want to keep light off of the subject, so your camera’s flash should be off. If your flash tends to fire automatically, you’ll want to find the flash setting and turn it off.

Expose for the background, not the subject

Most digital cameras are pretty smart and can expose your scene pretty well even in terribly harsh, high-contrast situations. That’s exactly what we need to avoid in order to capture a good silhouette, though, so you should outsmart your camera by overriding the automatic exposure control. There are a few ways to do this. If your camera has an exposure lock button, you can point the camera at the bright background and then press the exposure lock. Keeping the button pressed, compose the shot and then take the picture.

Another option is to point the camera at the bright background while in automatic exposure mode and take note of the aperture and shutter speed. Then put your camera in manual mode, dial in those settings, and compose and take the picture. Whatever you do, don’t just compose the photo and take it using auto or shutter or aperture priority, because those settings will average the exposure between the background and subject, and you won’t get a silhouette.

Keep the subject in focus

Focus is something else to consider when you take a silhouette. Depending upon how you frame the shot and what settings you use to set the exposure, your camera might accidentally lock the focus on the background. For your silhouette to have dramatic impact, though, it needs to be sharp. In most cases, fixing this problem is just a matter of ensuring that the focus locks on the subject when you press the shutter release. You might want to check your camera’s user guide and make sure that the exposure lock button doesn’t also lock the focus, for example. Worst case, you might need to switch to manual focus and set it yourself.

Perfect the silhouette on your computer

Finally, keep in mind that it’s rare to capture a perfect silhouette in-camera. Most silhouettes will require some touchup in a photo editing program. The most common problem you’ll have is that the silhouette isn’t perfectly black—you’ll still see some colour or detail. Fix that with your photo editor’s Burn tool. Burn is a brush that darkens the scene wherever you paint. So select the Burn tool (if you’re using Photoshop Elements, it’s in the second cubby from the bottom of the toolbar) and paint over the subject to remove all trace of colour and detail.

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