Sometimes you can say just as much with the suggestion of a thing as you can with all of the detail. This is true of silhouette photography – a genre that can be alarmingly beautiful and expressive. If you’ve never shot silhouettes, you may be wondering how to achieve this look. It’s fairly simple to get the basics down, and from there, you can let your creativity run wild.
The most important thing to remember is that your subject (the thing you want forming the silhouette, in the case of self portraiture, you) should not be lit from the front (we want to obscure most of the detail) and there should be a significant light source in the background (this is what creates an outline, or silhouette). There are many ways to obtain this kind of setting, from studio lighting to sunlight – I find that sunsets provide an amazing backdrop for silhouettes. Play around with it to see what you can achieve. Once you’ve identified a subject and have a way to backlight them, expose the image for the light behind, rather than the subject (or anything in the foreground). This way, your subject will be very dark, creating an outline with little detail from the front. Voila! This is the basic formula for silhouette photography.
A few things to remember:
- create distinct, clean shapes with your silhouette subject(s)
- try to reduce excessive clutter or multiple other confusing shapes in the image unless they add to the “story” you want it to tell
- avoid foreground lighting
- identify or set up a significant source of back lighting
- no one formula for camera settings is perfect – the strength of your light will dictate what you’ll need, so experiment
- don’t forget to pay careful attention to scene setting and composition, as with all photos, once you get the technique down
- for self portrait silhouette photography, you will find the following tools incredibly helpful: remote/intervalometer, tripod
Here are some examples of silhouette self portraits I’ve created, with some basic information you can review.
Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and you can play around with the basic setup and then go beyond it, tweaking things in so many ways to create different kinds of photos.
Here, there is obviously a lot going on, so the silhouette is clean, but there is “clutter” – but it’s interesting clutter, and adds to the mood:
You can also adjust lighting on the subject to create “near-silhouette” images – some details of the subject are lit and visible, while others are dark, as with the following self portrait.
Let me know if you have any questions, and I’d love to see your silhouette shots!
This work by Lotus Carroll is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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