Monday, July 18, 2011


A few weeks ago I posted some images that were silhouettes. I received some inquiries on how I shot them.  In this post I will attempt to explain what my process is. I am not saying this is the only way or even the best way. It is just the way I find that works the best for me, which means the easiest way.

I really enjoy making silhouettes. I think they are a wonderful way to convey drama, mystery and mood in an image. I also like them because it includes the viewer in the creative process. The viewer does not see a clear image and must use some of his/her imagination to add to the storyline. 

Now the easiest way to explain a silhouette is that you place your main subject (the part that you want to be in black) in front of some source of light. You then force your camera to expose for the brightest part of your picture, the background. When you do this, you are actually underexposing your subject. If you photograph a lot, you might have made some silhouettes when you didn't want them.  

Has your subject ever been underexposed when you were trying to take a portrait, so much so that they are all in black? You made a silhouette. You had no idea you were, you didn't want to, but you did!!  Basically what you want to do is fool your camera into thinking that it's the brightest part of the scene that you're really interested in. Now I'll show you how to make those images anytime you want. 

There are some key points that I will list:

1) Choose a strong subject - Almost anything can be made into a silhouette but some are better than others. Pick something with a recognizable shape that will be interesting enough in two dimensional form, to hold the interest of the viewer. Your silhouette will not have the advantage of bright colors and textures to to make them appealing, so the shape needs to be clear.

2) Turn off your flash -This may seem pretty simple. You're taking a silhouette, so of course so you're thinking, "I'm not going to use my flash". If you're camera is a simple automatic point and shoot and you do not manually shut off the flash, your camera will probably fire your flash, so shut off the flash.

3) Find a light source - Basically you want to light the background and not your subject. You can accomplish this different ways. One way is to manually light your background with some sort of light, a flash, a street light, a lamp or even a TV will provide the light. Not all these choices will work well for the total image but it technically will work. 

One of my favorite ways is to use natural light. A very bright sky will work. I like to place the subject or subjects in shade and compose with just the sky as a background. In this image it was a bride and groom outside at noon. Wedding photographers do not love photographing weddings in the noon light. It can be a real challenge and especially if the ceremony is outside under the bright sun. This wedding was exactly like that except the ceremony was held in the woods under a canopy of tall trees. As the couple was walking back to the reception area, I had them stop and face each other.  I exposed for the really bright sky, composed the image I wanted and took a few shots. I thought this one worked out well and even more important so did the couple.
You can also put the flash behind the couple. This requires a way to fire your flash off camera and something or someone to hold the flash in place. In this case Phyllis is on her knees 'getting small' as I take the image.

One of my favorite ways to use the light is either at sunrise or sunset. You make the silhouette with the added benefit of getting some colors in the background.

One night recently we were at a restaurant near our house. It was in a marina and besides great food, seeing the boats coming and going and the sunsets, really makes for a great experience. After we ate we went down the a boardwalk right on the water and sat down on a bench while listening to the band. The sunset was pretty nice.

People kept walking back and forth in front of us and I thought I might try and take a few silhouettes to use in a post.

4) Make your shapes distinct and uncluttered - In other words, if you have two or more people in the image keep as many as possible separated from each other. If not, you will have one big black unrecognizable mass in your image. If you're shooting people's faces, try and keep them in profile other than full face. That way you will be able to see the shapes of their face ie; noses, chins, eyes. If you photograph straight on, you will be lucky to see the shapes of the heads. 

The gentlemen noticed that I was taking pictures of people walking by and decided he would get his close up!!! He leaned in real close and naturally I took the picture. He laughed, stood up and with drink in hand and headed back to his boat.

These are some pretty simple steps. The rest is all about exposing, which program to use and focusing. All these images were shot with my nikon 17-55 zoom. Settings were F3.5, ISO of 1250 and speed was from 200th down to 20th of a second. Speed was changing as the sun went down.  

Are those the only settings that would work? No, not at all. It is just the settings I used. The people I was photographing were walking by me in low light. I needed as much speed as I could get, thus the F3.5 and the ISO of 1250. By using a focal lens of 20mm, I hoped I could get enough light to capture sharp images. 

Keep in mind that I was not setting up these shots. They were all candids, other than the one gentlemen who realized what I was doing. I had a setting sun and very little time to take the shots, roughly 10-12 minutes. I set my camera using the built in spot meter, focusing on the brightest part of the sky and getting my reading in aperture priority. 

Then I changed to manual mode. I took a few test images, looked in my LCD screen and when I found the setting that worked, I started shooting. I focused on one person in each shot. I could have prefocused on a particular spot but I could not guarantee that all my images would be made on one particular spot or area. I did not have the time to focus manually since I was shooting candids. I was taking the images as they came near me but depending on the amount of people in the shot and how fast they were walking, my angle changed and I was working very quickly. I never left my seat. I was trying for the candids and not letting people know I was shooting. 

This image shows two ladies taking home doggy bags. Even though they were not in profile, I like that you can see the shape of the woman in the forefront's hair, her cheekbone and enough of her shape to know she was a woman.

When these three people came walking by, you can see the first man and woman's profile quite distinctly. As I look at their faces, I can almost read emotions. My imagination can add a storyline quite easily. Can yours?

Here, there was not as much separation but I think there is enough to see that it is two men and a lady.

This image shows a lone man walking toward the restaurant. It's a pretty good profile plus I like how his hand can be seen against the brighter sunset reflecting in the water.

The light was getting real low and these two men walked by obviously not together. You can see that it was getting harder to freeze at this point. I was at a 50th of a second and they were walking fast. I knew at this point I was almost done.

But then I looked to my left and saw this man just standing still, looking out at the setting sun and boats, with a drink in his hand. I felt his emotions as I looked at him. It was a serene scene of a man at peace with the night. At least that is what I saw. What you see and what is the truth might all be different. That's the fun part of candids and silhouettes. 

This was taken at a 20th of a second. But he wasn't moving, so I could capture a sharp image as long as I held camera shake to a minimum. I knew that at this low setting, the blue sky would become saturated and I was hoping to pick up some of the lights on the boats. I think it worked out pretty well. I was really happy with this one.

As we were getting ready to leave, I saw two and then three ladies to my right. It's a little more cluttered then I would have liked but I saw a storyline happening.

                     First, the two ladies were speaking.
    Then a third came into view with a camera phone and took their   
   picture. You can see the light from the camera's LCD screen.
As the ladies were looking at the image, a gentlemen walked by and did what you would think a guy would do. As he walked by these three attractive ladies, he stopped and gave an appreciative glance in their direction before moving on.

At this point, we decided it was time for us to move on as well. As I was walking down the boardwalk to the parking lot, I took this one last image. It's not as sharp as I would want. I was hand holding at a 4th of a second. At that slow speed, it looks much brighter than it was. This is caused by the slower shutter speed allowing more light on the photo card.

Remember, just because the sun is going down does not mean you cannot make dramatic, imaginative images. It might take a little practice but I think it can be worth it. I hope you think so, too!!!


alejandro guzman said...

I enjoyed this as I love the silhouette. I find though lesser people make it more intimate and precious.


BlogNostics said...

Your images re beautiful and the information is priceless.
Thank you

Bec Owen said...

Like Alejandro, I very much enjoyed the silhouettes, as well as your narrative. I look forward to reading your blog posts!

Thank you for sharing your expertise!

Mary said...

I love Silhouette photography! It gives a certain amount of mystery to the photo. Yours are great! Thanks for sharing :)

Alpana Jaiswal said...

Jim,I am in love with the first picture..all are great,but that one..just took my heart away..beautiful

Debbie said...

Thanks for the tips and tricks even with your help I still "suck" at taking pictures. But I am enjoying all yours. Silhouette pictures of couples seem so romantic.

Nelieta said...

Thank you for these tips Jim! I learn something new every time I come to your blog :) Great photos!!!

SJ said...

I now know what Candids are :)

I really like the silhouettes and how you've explained each one but my favourites are the ones where the light is more blueish and I adore the one with the guy standing still. I would love to know what was going through his mind.

melissa said...

I was able to appreciate silhouettes because of your post as it is viewed in a more artistic angle. I like portraits and seeing faces of individuals in the photos...I love the emotions and stories they create... but now I see something different because you've encouraged me to be more creative "using my imagination to create a storyline".

I really loved the first two images of the couples. It gave a romantic effect having the flash behind them.I loved the contours of their faces. They were really defined...

I loved the image of the sunset in the harbor. I really loved the lone man looking at the sunset...the silhouette contrasted against the colors of the background.Then your images got better as it got darker and the people looked like shadows against lights at the blue background.

Bellissime foto. I liked your concept and your explanations.

Thanks for sharing :)

Anonymous said...

Very informative and extraordinary images. Silhouettes are always beautiful to look at.

Ravenmyth said...

I have always enjoyed is the mystery behind them that intriques..and pulls your mind to " What is happening here" fav is the man with the drink...there is a serenity in this shot..he is at tune with all the quiet around him...coming into the end of the day when the world starts to slow down. Brings back memories..on a sailboat watching the sun go down..sipping on a nice cool summer drink after a great day of sailing! As the tutorial and the little stories along the way!

fantacy in practicality said...

this time i like best the second picture with the flash behind. the silhouette of the couple is the most mystic one. i love the capturing of the moment. best shot.

best wishes for the happy couple:))

Rimly said...

I have always loved silhouettes Jim but being a romantic I loved the first two the best.You just caught the romantic essence. Loved it.

lakwatsera de primera said...

I like the rim light in the second image and the touch of some colours in the silhouettes, it's very dramatic.

Jim said...

Real good to read this as silhouete photography fascinates me, but it is a real art to get that great shot.

Jewell said...

Silhouettes fascinate me, and are some of my favorite compositions to try and capture! Loved this post Jim! =)

Mari Sterling Wilbur said...

Great tips. I especially like the photo of the couple dancing.

Rachel Hoyt said...

Very cool pictures and instructions. I've never shot a silhouette, but may try it now!

Kriti said...

I have shot too many silhouettes accidentally and have landed up loving them. Because of that this was probably the only post in your blog that I had some knowledge of already. Lovely photographs as usual Jim!