Photographing silhouettes

In this three-part series, we’ll take a look at the techniques needed for successfully photographing silhouettes. There are two primary components of a good silhouette: the shape of the subject’s outline and the impact of the background. Clearly defined subjects are more distinguishable than those that are cluttered, merge with other components, depict confusion or aren’t easily identifiable. If the subject displays any type of pattern, texture or vibrant color, they become insignificant when silhouetted.

As a matter of fact, the subject could have the most boring coat or feather structure, but if its outline is instantly recognizable, it makes a great candidate. For instance, a flowering acacia tree can have extremely vibrant blooms, but unless their shape adds to the intrigue of the image, the color is meaningless.

Photographing silhouettes

To reinforce just how critical shape is and how irrelevant color is, think about a person who’s sight challenged. He or she opens the refrigerator door and touches the milk container and immediately knows what’s in it. Whether or not its package has color has zero meaning. To take it a step further, shape has a direct impact on the senses yet the connection is done subconsciously: The outline of a campfire’s dancing flames ignites the sense of warmth and the smell of burning wood. The outline of a dog can induce comfort while the sound of barking runs through the brain. The outline of a chocolate Easter bunny can make the mouth water and allows the nose to take on the aroma of the holiday.

Photographing silhouettes

To learn the importance of shape, wait for a bright, overcast day, find a window that has a wide-open view to the bright sky, make sure there’s nothing else visible except the sky and turn off any room lights. Look around the house for subjects that have discernible shapes. Place the items on the sill and note the graphic characteristics it takes on. Zoom in with your lens so the object takes up half the frame, meter for the sky and make the photo. On the LCD you should see an explicit illustration of the object’s outline. Practice using more items to get the hang of what works or doesn’t work.

Once you understand what types of subjects make great components, create some clever classic configurations with obvious outlines next time you’re out in the field. Think about all the iconic silhouettes you can easily identify—the Statue of Liberty, the Mittens in Monument Valley, the Nike swoosh, a skylined elephant and more. Find subjects that have unique shapes and reveal a lot of the background. The more colorful or intriguing the backdrop, the better. Be sure the background complements the subject.

Photographing silhouettes

When you make a silhouette, think plain, simple, easily discernible and no background mergers. These are key components that make the image successful. If possible, work with a subject you can walk around and as you do, note how the shape, form and outline all change. Make more images each time you see strong graphic qualities.

Once you get the technique down pat, challenge yourself to find subjects that interact and when they do, press the shutter. A quintessential example of a classic silhouette shows two animals nose to nose with each other. An immediate reaction of love, tenderness, closeness and emotion will run like a river through a viewer’s head. A head in profile hides the ears, but the nose and chin are pronounced. Conversely, a front view reveals the ears but hides the nose and chin. Decide what components of the subject provide the most revealing form.

Photographing silhouettes

With regards to exposure, base it on the intensity of light emitted by the background. If you include the black of the silhouette, the meter will tell the aperture to open up or the shutter to slow down. Either scenario will reveal detail in areas you want to depict as solid black. When you open the RAW file, you can emphasize the effect if you move the Shadow slider to the left in conjunction with the Blacks slider.

Stay tuned for more techniques in Part 2, coming next week.

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