There’s a rock at a local park that had been begging me to shoot a silhouette style photo on it for awhile now. I’m pretty happy with the results, and I thought you might like to give silhouette photography the old DIY try.
Unfortunately, when you google how to create a silhouette, the first links that pop up are how to create them with Photoshop or some other editing program, but the truth is that a good silhouette can be created completely in camera– and you can even do it on your phone.
Tip 1: Find the Light
You don’t need to follow the light, but you do need to be able to find it. Silhouettes are created by placing the light source behind your subject. This can be the sun or some other form of artificial light as well. The light should be fairly bright to create the contrast that you need.
Note: If you’re attempting this outside, I would definitely avoid midday. Why? The sun is straight above you in the sky. Is it impossible to create a great silhouette at that time of day? No. Is it significantly harder? Definitely. In fact midday sun is just generally better off avoided when shooting outdoors.
Tip 2: Marie Kondo Your Background
The minimalist lifestyle is definitely not for everyone, but there’s a need for it in silhouette photography. A cluttered background does not bring your photo joy.
Negative space, much like it sounds, is an absence of stuff/clutter. In the picture above, do you see how I found a break in the trees? There’s just a lot of empty sky behind the couple. This is negative space. You want to focus the attention on your subject, so you need to find an empty place where their silhouettes will be differentiated from the background.
Tip 3: Less Isn’t Always More
Marie Kondo would never tell you to throw out the baby with the bath water. She just wants what you have to “spark joy”. Do you know what sparks joy? Textures and framing.
As much as negative space is needed to highlight the silhouette of your subject, having other elements in the frame are essential to add interest. Look for textured clouds, gorgeous sunset colors, and other natural elements to create frames.
In the picture of the couple, do you see the slight textures in the sky? Do you see how the trees surround the couple to frame them? Below, do you see how the tunnel frames the silhouette and the grooves provide more texture than just a solid black circle would? These little details make for a more complete image that catches one’s eye more than a silhouette alone.
Tip 4: Leave Room for Jesus
Tight embraces? Passionate kisses? Love them!
But, seriously, no religion necessary, for silhouettes, you need to leave some space. That romantic kiss is going to turn into a blob of bodies if you don’t separate the subjects from one another in the photo.
This also applies to individual subjects as well. Do you notice the space between the tunnel monster a.k.a. my son’s legs? The splay of his arms? You need to create space between limbs/props/people or you’re going to have the perfect silhouette of… Well, that’s the problem. No one will actually know what your subject is.
Tip 5: The Darkening
I started by instructing you to find the light, but in the end you need to turn away. We need to underexpose our image, so that the details are removed and only a black non-blob silhouette remains. How do you do this? You need to switch away from auto on your camera and move to manual (yes, most phones will allow you to do this too).
Now here’s where it becomes tricky. I can’t give you the exact settings. Each day/light situation will be different; however, what I can do is give you a link to a website that explains the exposure triangle and gives you a great place to start.
I can also tell you how to cheat: your smart phone lets you see what your image looks like before you take the picture; similarly, many modern DSLRs have a live view option that lets view your photograph on the back LCD panel. Switch your camera to manual, and try playing with your shutter speed to start. The faster the shutter speed, the less light that goes into your camera. You should be able to increase your shutter speed to underexpose your image and create a great silhouette.
Note: Please do remember that cheaters never prosper and to take great photos you really do need to learn your settings and what they do. However, while we’re bending the rules: here’s a color silhouette on Black and White Wednesday. Shhh… it can be our little secret.