How to Create Powerful Silhouettes by Telling a Story

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Telling the Story

Silhouettes remove all the distractions and clutter in the scene and distill the image down to its most basic, this is why the story is so important. Just using shapes you must make a photo that is recognizable, and that the viewer can relate to. While this sounds easy in practice, it can be difficult to achieve. You must have the right elements. The light needs to be in the right location, the subject needs to be facing the right way, and they need to be in a pose that makes their action recognizable.

Silhouette 1

Movement by the subject helps tell a strong story in your silhouettes

Tips for creating good silhouettes that tell a story

Clean outlines

If you have multiple objects that are back-lit you want to make sure there is separation between the objects so that each one is distinct and recognizable.

Profiles or straight on shots work well

For people, profiles or straight on shots work best. For profiles you should be able to clearly make out the shape of the nose and chin on their face. For straight on shots the subject’s arms should be away from their body, and their legs parted so you can see both legs and not just a single blob. Recognizable shapes – this is important for every silhouette.

Capturing action

Movement in your subject can create strong lines and positions that are instantly recognized by the viewer and help convey the story of what the subject is doing.

Props

Silhouette 2

The added hat and cane help enhance the story in this image

Props can help tell the story, an outline of a flower, a tip of a hat can add meaning to the image.

Interaction between subjects

Having multiple subjects can be challenging because you want to minimize overlap of their shapes so they each maintain their own identity. There is a balance between telling the story and having the subjects interact in a minimal way. For example holding hands or kissing often work well, but a hug results in silhouette that is just a big black blob.

Silhouette 3

Separation between subjects is important. This image would be stronger if the man’s leg did not merge with the camera and tripod

Lighting for Silhouettes

To light a silhouette you need to light the subject from behind. The type of light is not important; it can be natural or artificial and can be direct or indirect. The important thing is that the lighting is behind the subject, and the subject is not lit. Technically silhouetting occurs when you have a lighting ratio of 16:1 or greater (4 stops), however I will describe how you can create a silhouette in post-production using lower lighting ratios.

Natural Silhouette Lighting

One of the most common types of silhouettes using natural lighting is to place the subject between the camera and the setting sun or moon. Your camera exposure should be set for the background lighting, either the sunset or moon, and this will cause the subject to appear black against the light background. Another common technique is to use the light reflected off of a wall or the side of a building.

Silhouette 4

This lighted wall in Las Vegas provides great back-lighting for silhouettes

Studio Silhouette Lighting

There are two common techniques for creating silhouettes using studio strobes. The first is to use a white background and bounce the strobes off the background. The second is to point the strobes towards the camera and place the subject between the strobes and the camera. This second technique can also produce a light flare in the image which can give an interesting effect.

Post-processing techniques

Silhouette 5

If you have a backlit subject, but can still see some detail in the subject you can often make it a pure silhouette in Lightroom, or Camera RAW. Use the develop module in Lightroom and adjust the Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, and Blacks sliders. Use different combinations to darken the subject. Typically you will need to increase Contrast and decrease one, or all of the other three sliders. Either the Shadow or Blacks slider should be set to -100, try both to see which produces the desired effect. Decreasing Highlights is typically only necessary if the edges of the subject are lit and you wish to make them darker.

Conclusion

Silhouettes are a fun and easy to do and by concentrating on the story being told you can create an image that has impact.

Want more silhouettes?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Craig Colvin is an educator and photographer from San Jose, California. Read more tips on lighting, post-processing and photographing people on his blog Craig Colvin Photography. He is also offering a FREE video for dPS readers on Glamour Retouching Workflow follow the link to sign up and grab it!

  • Chuck Comstock

    Sunset at the North Jetty, Nokomis, Florida. Something roused the birds and it all came together for a few seconds…

  • Luiz Forster

    And life goes on…

  • Lorri A

    Is it just me, I find the second photo to be a tad disconcerting, the woman looks like she’s only got one leg! Other than that, these are all good points, I plan on doing more with silhouette photographs, I like the element of mystery in them.

  • Craig Colvin

    Very nice silhouette, it tells a strong story. Well done.

  • Craig Colvin

    The birds really add to the story in this one. Good job.

  • Craig Colvin

    They do have a mystery to them and that helps draw people into the image.

    I had never noticed the single leg. You are right now that you pointed it out it is a little disconcerting. 🙂

    Thanks for the comments,
    — Craig

  • Chuck Comstock

    I like it just the way it is. Gets the ol’ imagination working overtime…

  • Chuck Comstock

    Thanks, Craig. I appreciate you taking the time to comment…

  • Guest

    Barbed wire fence, King, Tx.

  • Barbed wire, King, Tx

  • Chuck Comstock
  • Luiz Forster

    I appreciate your positive and encouraging comment, Craig. It means a lot. Cheers!

  • Luiz Forster

    Thanks, Chuck. Very kind of you to comment. The same goes to yours!

  • Sam

    A recent picture taken in Perth, Western Australia, I was loving the background with all the people fishing on the jetty and asked my sister to do the “Hair Flick” I loved the way it turned out, come see more at http://www.samanthawhitelawphotography.com or fb page https://www.facebook.com/SamanthaWhitelawPhotography

  • Fadzilah Omar

    wow! great shot and perfect timing chuck!

  • Chuck Comstock

    Thanks, Fadzilah. I’ve been using continuous shooting a bit, but I think this one was a single shot and mostly just pure luck!

  • rish

    My attempt at Silhouette..
    Your point about Interaction between subjects and having a clean outlines makes so much sense to me now. We can see the couple (two heads) watching sunset.. instead, if i had got the couple to stand a bit apart, that would’ve made a better silbouette.
    https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-ivbLdE51_bI/UbWdE0FuyHI/AAAAAAAAC5g/zLnxHOcoWH4/w580-h384-no/DSC_3499.JPG

  • Craig Colvin

    Exactly. It’s not bad, we know that there are two people there (and not a two-headed monster), but a little separation would have made it stronger.

  • Craig Colvin

    Timing is everything. The action really adds to the story.

  • It’s quite challenging to take good silhouettes but, when you get it right, the results can be very powerful. My first attempt was shooting my friend while he was training Muay Thai boxing in a very dim lit gym. Any comment is very appreciated!

    http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2013/07/muay-thai-training-in-low-light-double.html

  • janland

    Sunset through the sea oats on the bay.

  • MESK

    Fantastic and very imaginative!

  • Musaid Kamruzzaman

    Prayer time.

  • Guest

    Prayer time

  • excellent!

  • yo gurl

    i luv

  • sathish

    Great, below tutorial helped me to post process Silhouette photos….
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7GTgBbrtZ0

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