In our never-ending quest to help our readers better enjoy photography, we’ve dreamed up a new monthly feature that will hopefully challenge and delight us all. During the first week of every month we’ll issue a Monthly Photo Challenge to our readers. It’s then up to you to think, shoot, and submit your best efforts in our comments section and through social media. It’s just another way to encourage people to get out and shoot.
The Monthly Photo Challenge for July 2019 is to use silhouettes in your photos. Throughout the month of July, keep silhouettes in mind. Think about how you could use light and subject to create a compelling silhouette image, then upload them wherever you share your photos and leave a link in the comments section of this article so that we and others can see your photos and get inspired. You can also tag us in your silhouette shots on Instagram and Facebook.
[Our featured image above shows a cheetah searching for prey from a termite mound, silhouetted against the orange sky at sunset in Okavango Delta, Botswana. By Arturo de Frias Marques – CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35332383]
What is a Silhouette
A silhouette is widely defined as a solid dark shape and outline of someone or something that is visible against a light background, especially in dim light. The term was formerly applied to cut paper portraits, which achieved high popularity in the mid-18th century. Sitting persons were observed by an artist, and a cut profile bust could be produced in mere minutes.
From this original graphic definition, the term silhouette has expanded to incorporate many new meanings in the realms photography, fashion, cinema, and style. For our purposes, the term describes any subject of a photograph that has been sufficiently backlit to obscure some, most, or all of the detail of the subject.
Silhouettes in Photography
Silhouettes are inherently mysterious due to the obscured detail in their subject, and artistic in that they convey the idea or representation, rather than the true details, of a person or object. In photography especially, silhouettes can be a powerful way of conveying an idea or theme while leaving much to the imagination of the observer.
Fan Ho, the late famous street photographer who shot Hong Kong more than seventy years ago, was a master of the silhouette. He would set out on the streets of the city before sunrise and wait for the light of day to beam through smoke, fog, mist, and alleyways. His silhouette photographs are dripping with atmosphere, and are among the best street photography ever made (in this author’s opinion).
But we don’t have to be Fan Ho or live in an exotic locale to make good photos. With a relatively cheap point-and-shoot and some Kodak T Max 100, I recently made a fairly decent silhouette photo of my daughter during a simple trip to the beach. Deliberately framing the shot so as to place my subject in front of the setting sun, the shot came out exactly as I’d intended – with a big sunburst and a mostly-obscured subject outlined against a bright sky.
How to Shoot an Effective Silhouette Photograph
Making a silhouette photo is pretty easy. As touched upon already in this article, simply by framing our subject with a bright light source behind, it’s likely that we’ll make a silhouette photo. Considerations must be made for the type of camera we’re using and the settings of that camera, but this is pretty simple as well. Essentially we will need to expose for the bright parts of a shot. If you’re using a camera with a light meter, meter for the brightest part of the scene. If you’re using auto-exposure, use AE lock on the bright area of the image and then recompose with the exposure locked. Don’t use a flash.
Digital cameras are excellent for silhouette photography, in that they often display a live view with instant preview of our final image and the ways that our settings impact that image. Using a digital mirrorless camera or DSLR allow for easy post-processing as well, which can quickly increase the effectiveness of silhouette photos. When editing our digital photos in Lightroom or Photoshop, simply bump up the contrast curve to squash detail in the shadows and boost the exposure in the brightly lit areas. This will help to create the most striking silhouettes.
Film photographers will be better served to use high contrast film or to develop for greater contrast. Using the zone system, a light ratio of 16:1 has long been considered ideal for creating silhouettes on film. Today’s modern film digitization workflow also means that most film photos will be adjustable in post-processing applications, which can easily increase contrast in the same ways that we would with a digital camera RAW file.
To make a truly excellent silhouette photo it’s important to make sure our subject is clear and uncluttered by complicated backgrounds. Find a recognizable subject, frame it in such a way that they pop from the brightly lit background, and shoot. It’s also wise to shoot just one subject for the sake of recognition, and in the case of images with multiple subjects, it’s important to keep them separate from one another (imagine the simple example of two silhouetted birds flying separate – this will look much better than two birds overlapping).
And that’s just about all you need to know to make a silhouette photo. But as in all types of photography, knowing how to make the photograph is a lot easier than making a great photograph. So get out there and try it, and please link to your best silhouette photo in our comments section and across social media. We’d love to see them, and your work could easily inspire others to get out there and shoot.
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