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.
Tips for creating good silhouettes that tell a story
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
- 5 tips for photography silhouettes (non-human subjects)
- How to photograph silhouettes in 8 easy steps
- 12 stunning silhouettes
- Great B/W silhouette images