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A great photograph is no different than any other work of art, in that it should elicit emotion and engage viewers. One of my favorite ways to engage the viewer of a photograph and encourage them to interpret the image is by utilizing silhouettes.
The reason silhouettes are so engaging is because they are so open to interpretation. Think of a silhouette of a man sitting alone on a park bench at sunset. Is he sad and lonely because his wife has passed? Is he relaxed and content? Has he finally achieved an important goal in life? Is he anxious about how much longer he will live, and whether his loved ones will be cared for? Are there religious overtones?
The photographer may have all or none of these themes in mind when creating this image. The interpretation is dictated by the individual viewer’s mindset. The viewer subconsciously projects her own hopes, fears, and mood onto the silhouette.
The reason for this is simple. Your brain is constantly working to fill in the details of what it doesn’t know. In a photo such as this, the silhouette provides a great unknown which we cannot help but interpret.
Taking silhouette photos is an intermediate photography skill. The technique is a little tricky, and it will take some trial and error on your first few attempts before you become proficient.
Silhouette photography requires that we use pure back lighting. That is, we want to place our subject so that we maximize the amount of light in the scene coming from behind the subject.
As an example, let’s describe how we would best set up a shot of a silhouetted woman standing alone on a beach at sunset. Sunlight will be our only source of light, and it will be coming from behind the subject. We will not be utilizing any reflectors or fill flash.
First, focus the camera on the woman. We want the outline of her silhouette to be crisp and in perfect focus. I recommend using a large aperture opening, specifically f8 or higher. The reason for this is we want the background sunset and ocean to be in good focus too.
With the sun just above the ocean horizon, point the camera at the sky just to the side of the sun. Keeping your aperture as you set it, adjust the shutter speed until your exposure is correct.
You may need a long exposure time. Therefore it is good practice have a tripod on hand to keep the camera steady.
Fire off a few shots and check the image on your LCD screen. If you used all the correct settings, you should have a perfectly exposed ocean sunset with your subject rendered as a black silhouette.
You can render your silhouette with an interesting halo effect around her. If you desire this effect, move the subject directly in front of the setting sun. This will create a glow, or halo which will further enhance your subject. Such an effect will obviously influence the viewer’s interpretation of your silhouette.
Any subject can be rendered as a silhouette provided we are using back lighting. It need not be a person. A silhouette of a tree, or a child’s bike, or any strategically chosen object can add interest to a scene.
Silhouettes add a sense of mystery and intrigue to any image. Because our brains fill in the details of what is not known, a silhouette demands stronger involvement and interpretation from viewers. By using back lighting, and properly exposing the scene for the background, we can create beautiful and interesting silhouettes in our photography.
About the Author – Daniel Padavona is an avid photographer, and the founder of Warmpicture Royalty-Free Images. Daniel lives in upstate New York with his wife Terri, and their children Joey and Julia.