There are a few things in photography that kind of walk the line between mistake and brilliance. One of those is the silhouette. I’m sure you’ve taken lots of photos that you didn’t really mean to be silhouettes, and when you saw them after the fact you wished that you’d shot them differently. Loved-ones’ faces obscured in a silhouette aren't always a good thing, especially if the shape of the silhouette itself has few identifying characteristics. But there are situations where silhouettes can be used creatively - so it’s a very good idea to know what to do and what not to do when it comes to deliberately including silhouettes in your photographs.
What causes silhouetting?
Silhouetting is something that happens when you have very strong light behind your subject. It’s a dynamic range problem—your camera isn’t capable of coping with all that bright light and all that shadow at the same time, so it has to make a decision. Because your camera’s metering system is designed to assume that everything in any given scene will average out to roughly middle gray, it’s generally going to end up underexposing a shot that has a very bright background and a relatively small subject in the foreground. When that happens, you get a nicely exposed sky/background, but an underexposed subject. In many cases the subject’s face won’t have any details at all—it will become a silhouette.
If you didn't mean for this to happen, it's a problem. You may have wanted your subject to be identifiable. And if she's looking directly at the camera, she’s going to appear more like a blob than she is like a silhouette of a person. So even accidentally, the silhouette isn’t really going to make for a nice photo.
Golden silhouette by Flickr user kevin dooley
Why would you want to?
So why would you want to take this often-accidental situation and turn it into a deliberate one? You can find the answer on the cover of a cheesy mystery novel. You know how book cover artists love to draw silhouettes? That’s a calculated move. Silhouettes suggest mystery. If we can see the shape of a person or a thing but we can’t see any of the details, our brains automatically begin to fill those details in for us. We may imagine what they look like, or we may become interested in finding out (and when that happens, book publishers hope you’ll buy the book so you can get the answers). Silhouettes are intriguing because they give us just enough information about something to peak our curiosity, but not so much information to risk us getting bored. And this works not just for the authors of cheesy mystery novels, but also for you and your photography.
Doing it on purpose
Silhouettes need to have a few characteristics before they can cross that line between error and art. First of all, your viewer needs to be able to look at the photograph and recognize what he is looking at, even though that person or object appears as a silhouette. That’s why those silhouettes we recognize from the early 20th century are all profiles—you can’t identify a silhouetted person from the front. The same goes for other objects. A windmill might make an excellent silhouette, while a square barn will make a pretty lousy one. The difference between the two is the viewer’s ability to identify them. There’s no point in shooting a silhouette if all your viewer is going to see is a big, boxy, black blob.
Another quality that many great silhouettes share is a dramatic sky. Sunsets and sunrises provide the dual service of that strong backlight you need to create a silhouette, combined with a richly-colored sky. If there are clouds in the sky, you get to add texture and detail to that list. Dramatic skies add something to almost any shot, but a silhouette is already a mystery. A heavy, dramatic sky adds a sense of danger, an ominous quality or just a sense that something is about to happen.
Finally, before you decide on your subject make sure you’re also taking the non-sky part of the background into account. If there are a lot of objects behind your subject, remember that they, too, are likely to fall into silhouette as your subject does. The result will be a subject who blends into his background, making him virtually indistinguishable from whatever happens to be back there. So, you may end up with a photo of a windmill with a person’s head mounted right in the center of it, which come to think of it might actually be pretty funny. But still, not what you had in mind.
Capturing a great silhouette, every time
The key to capturing an amazing silhouette is to understand how to use your camera’s spot metering system. Your matrix metering system might be good at capturing those accidental silhouettes, but it can’t be relied on to get the results you want every single time. How much silhouetting you get depends on factors like how bright the sky is and how large your subject is in the frame, so you can see why this isn’t the best way to get consistent results. That’s because your matrix/evaluative metering system can only work in averages—it takes a reading off of everything in the scene and uses that information to make a determination about which settings you should be using.
Dandelion sunset by Flickr user Holly Norval
Your spot metering system, on the other hand, takes a reading off of only one part of the scene—the spot in the center of the frame. To use this system, you simply place an object that you want to appear as a middle tone under the spot, then you lock in the settings so you can recompose and shoot. For a silhouette, you need to place that spot over the sky. That’s going to give you a sky with lots of detail and texture, and a subject who falls almost completely into shadow.
You may be wondering about the “lock in the settings” part of the equation—you can do this a couple of different ways. Most DSLRs have an “AE-L” button on the back of the camera body—when you press and hold this button, your camera will lock in whatever settings were in place at the time you pressed the button, leaving you free to recompose and shoot. Without pressing the AE-L button, your meter would change the camera’s settings as the spot moved from its initial location to wherever it happens to fall when you make the exposure.
You can also do this simply by switching to manual mode. Use your spot metering to get a reading off of the sky, then dial in the correct settings manually. Recompose and shoot. Because you’re in manual mode, your camera won’t be second guessing those settings just because you recomposed the shot.
Not every silhouette is going to be jet black, and not every silhouette has to be that way, either. Sometimes a partial silhouette may be even more compelling than a complete one, especially if you have a subject that needs a little bit of detail in order to be identifiable. Your scene may also benefit from those suggestions of detail, such as the expression on a person’s face or the texture in the leaves of a tree. For this reason, you may want to shoot your silhouettes with bracketing—first take a shot at the reading you got from your spot meter, then take one or two more that are just a little bit over that reading. You may find you prefer the partial silhouette—and if not, that’s OK, because you’ll still have the darker one to fall back on.
Don’t forget that if you don’t get quite a perfect silhouette you can always adjust the exposure in post processing in order to darken your subject. Post processing can be particularly fun for silhouettes, because your subject itself has no detail and no color. That means that you’re free to make weird choices about color, because it’s not going to impact your subject. So feel free to experiment with your white balance and color saturation to see if you can get some really dramatic effects.
10.09.10 by Flickr user colemama
Silhouettes are really fun and creative, and they’ll teach you about your spot metering system, too. I recommend them for pretty much anyone, not just because they add some wonderful, dramatic photos to your portfolio but because they’re such a great way to help you learn about your camera and how different kinds of light can affect an image. For that reason alone, you should definitely get out there and start experimenting.
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