How to Photograph Stunning Silhouettes

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Several dramatic effects can be achieved with very few resources and a lot of creativity. Shooting silhouettes as a part of landscape scenes can add a dramatic effect that not only proves the skill of the photographer in conditions with strong backlight illumination, but also as a way to “humanize” pictures, infusing them with feeling. Emotions such as peace, hope, and even fear can be expressed, depending on the scenario created by the photographer and the role played by the subject who posing in silhouette. Through this guide, we are going to review essential tips that will enhance your silhouette photographs, making them stunning pieces of art.

Consider the Environment

Depending on the feeling you want to evoke, you have to consider several elements of the environment itself, and even give your subject prior instructions. Scenes that evoke feelings of loneliness, fear, and mystery convey the concept of abandonment and ruins and neglected areas in general. Elements, such as leafless trees, broken glasses, dilapidated houses, or even certain beach scenes (especially if the weather conditions happen to be rainy or stormy) provide an immense reinforcement of the feeling we want to create.

On the other hand, you may wish to give your audience a warm, pleasant, and inviting environment. To do this you need to choose the exact opposite of those cold, lifeless scenes we described before. Beach scenarios with very warm tints like golden hour effects, or cozy interiors, can be excellent choices as environments for your silhouettes. Just keep those factors in mind, and you will waste little of your precious time getting into the right mood.

Actions of Your Subject

This may seem obvious, but one of the most common mistakes is trying to exaggerate the feeling we want to convey. As tricky as it seems, all it takes is experience for the photographer to know how much detail the silhouettes are going to show and how to avoid ambiguous situations, if you happen to work with more than one model.

For example, if you intend to create a scene with a pair of lovers, you need to show the intention, the feeling of love, while placing them in a scenario that boosts the feeling you want to convey, for instance in a post-sunset scene. There is no need to shoot the picture while your subjects are kissing each other, on the contrary - since you are working with silhouettes there is not going to be any other detail than the outline of those silhouettes, meaning the contrast is created by the overall lighting conditions coming from backlight. If you place your subjects too close to each other, you are not going to be able to show what is really going on in the scene, therefore ruining the moment.

The above should be considered a general rule when working with silhouettes of two overlapping objects. Keep in mind that you are trying to convey an emotion, not to recreate it the way you would with a regular portrait.
Simple images work much better than complex scenarios with many buildings, vegetation or other distracting elements that may divert the focus from the main subject.

Parameters of Your Camera for Shooting Silhouettes

Even though this mostly applies to DSLR cameras, some of the parameters we are going to mention also apply to Smartphones or Bridge cameras.

If you want to capture a silhouette performing an action (such as jumping, running, etc.) be sure to set your camera to shutter priority mode and work with values of at least 1/500s. You can do a partial click of the shutter button in order to get a glimpse of the Aperture and ISO values required to capture the lighting conditions exactly the same way in manual mode or when shooting your picture in shutter priority.

For Smartphones, there are several options, such as apps that can emulate DSLR cameras by using certain manual controls (aperture/shutter priority mode), even if you can’t just work the way you do as with DSLR cameras. Certain fancy devices, such as Samsung Galaxy Camera 2, may offer automatic scene modes like “Silhouette”, where all you need to do is point-and-shoot and the software does all the work for you.

Avoid using high ISO values, not only because of the noise you are going to add to your picture, but also because high ISO values translate into higher sensitivity to light on the sensor, which is something you want to avoid with silhouette photography.

Learn Lighting Techniques

Unlike many other photography topics, we might discuss, this type of technique will depend mostly on your skills as they relate to the lightning conditions. Most of the time, you are going to be faced with outdoor scenes rather than studio scenarios for shooting silhouettes (unless you are amazing at photo merges, but that is not the point of creating silhouette photography) and you have to work with the original conditions of the place where you are shooting.

Things tend to be even more complicated if you are shooting at special times, such as dawn or sunset, where every minute matters. If you lose even a few minutes by setting the camera the wrong way you can change the entire ambient illumination.

Practice is the best way to learn how light works. After studying theory from a few of the many resources available these days (either books or video tutorials), grab your camera and start working in natural conditions. Don’t seek perfection the first few times you try this, success here is all about trial and error. One advantage of shooting outside in crowded areas is not having to pay somebody to be a subject for your photography, and in the very same setting, you can go ahead and learn how to set up your camera for action shoots.

If someone happens to catch your attention in the area where you are doing your photo session, you can politely ask the person to pose for you if you feel confident enough about your skills. Photography is not just a matter of working hard all the time, but also about having fun during the process.

Post-Production Can Help as Well

After capturing the composition you wanted to create, you can boost the emotion in the image, as well as edit the image for a more professional look with software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. Rather than engaging in the typical discussion about which software is best for accomplishing this kind of task, let us tell you that in our opinion, Lightroom works best for performing post-production processing of your image in a simple and efficient way, hands down. In most cases, you can use Photoshop to add special effects to your images, as well as handling advanced retouching, such as photo merges, if your composition requires it.

In order to achieve a good postproduction result, you need quality resources, such as presets and brushes that suit the kind of result you want to produce. To put it simply, the basic presets and brushes you ought to have in order to succeed with these pictures are:

• Golden Hour presets
• Brushes that add/enhance sun
• Damaged goods presets for special effects
• Black & White presets
• Cross processing presets
• Haze brushes

Everything else will be up to you and will depend mostly on the time and dedication you put into learning how the software works, so you can bring out the best in your image. If you happen to work with Lightroom, please avoid using adjustments like Clarity, as they will counteract what you are trying to do and add light to the scene and create an HDR effect that won’t match the original intent of the silhouette motif.

Time and practice can make all the difference for this technique, you just need to be confident that you are heading into the right direction and put into practice all the theory you have learned up to this moment. Remember that in most cases you will be your own strictest critic, so a failure is just another step in the learning process of becoming a better photographer. Good luck and have fun!

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