I’m sure I’ve said it before, but one of my favorite shots is the silhouette. For me it’s the mystery it provokes in the mind, plus it’s just different from your average shot ,adding an element of novelty. I’ll admit that I went through more challenges than I should have to reliably take a good silhouette. So I’m going to pass on some of that hard won knowledge so you don’t run into the same problems I did.
Backlighting is Key
First off the key to the silhouette is strong backlighting with very little light coming from the foreground. In fact the darker the foreground the better the silhouette will turn out. Here are some examples where you can find the strong backlighting you need.
Light Coming from Another Room Through a Doorway
Midday Light Outside a Window
Golden Hour Light Shining off the Water at a Beach or Lake
Studio Lighting set Behind the Subject
One issue I ran into often was light bouncing off white or cream walls and onto my subject. The two ways I learned to deal with this is,first, to close the curtains so I’m letting in a smaller amount of light and, second, to use something to block any extra light in the room such as a black bed sheet.
Use Manual Mode
Set your camera to manual mode so it isn’t messing you up by changing the shutter speed or aperture as the light changes. Exposing for the background is key rather than focusing on the subject or foreground. This was my biggest issue. I was using aperture priority mode and the camera was exposing for a balanced image because it doesn’t see a silhouette as a properly balanced image.
Pose with the Outline in Mind
When it comes to posing for a silhouette the goal is to keep the outline of your subject in mind. Look at the image above. Notice how her legs being together at the bottom helps to accentuate the hips and the arm position makes it easy for them to stand out in the image. If, for example, she was pointing her finger at the camera, you wouldn’t be able to make out her hand or arm as easily because it would blend into the body. Consider posing to the sides or above rather than towards the camera.
When it comes to outfits for a silhouette you have two options. Either an outfit that follows the contour of the body or one you can use as an accent for the image you are looking to create. A skirt, dress, or robe comes to mind as examples of the latter as you can use them to make interesting shapes when taking a silhouette.
When editing your silhouette concentrate on the highlights (brighten) and shadows (darken). Next, you can work with the whites (raise) and blacks (lower). Finally, you can also use the brush tool to reduce exposure over the subject, this will help them pop vs the background. If you need a refresher on editing you can find it here.
Like I mentioned in the introduction, it took me far too long to be able to pull off a good silhouette. Hopefully this article will help you avoid the same fate. And like always remember to have fun with the process while learning.