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Five Variations on a Theme: Shooting Silhouettes

One of the favorite themes of shooters is the silhouette. Silhouettes are the result of exposing for bright light behind a subject. The camera underexposes anything that is in front of the bright light, resulting in a photo that features a darkened shape—the silhouette.

Silhouettes are one of the creative ways to interpret a scene. With some basic techniques, you can create stunning silhouettes.

1. Look for familiar shapes against a brilliant sky.

 

U Bein Bridge Burma Myanmar sunset

1/350s @ f/6.3 17mm, ISO 125. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This photo is of one of the most recognizable bridges in Burma, the U Bein Bridge. It is a long bridge made of teak wood, and in the evenings, you can see locals cross it, walking their bikes. The sunset was brilliant on this day, so I decided to include a lot of the amazing sky by using a very wide lens. It’s important to wait until the people in your frame are separate shapes, not ‘stuck together’ because they are passing each other, like in the right side of the image where there is a crowd of people watching the sun set. If they are parts of the same shadow, you will get some unrecognizable lumps in your image which are, needless to say, confusing for the audience.

2. Shoot silhouettes in naturally occurring frames.

 

Mandalay Burma temple silhouettes against a frame.

1/1600s @ f/2.8 55mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

If you are indoors, you can use doorways and windows to provide back light for your silhouettes, adding a geometric frame to your image. This image in Burma was taken at a temple, and the man and woman who were passing one another looked dynamic framed within the graceful arches of the temple entrance.

3. Stack elements in the image.

 

Inle Lake Burma lightray and temple sillhouette at sunset

1/2000s @ f/11, 200mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

If you are faced with a landscape of hills overlapping with some structures in front, like in this sunset photo of a temple on Inle Lake in Burma, you can create an image that has scale. I also waited for some light rays to show up when clouds obscured part of the streams of strong light coming from the setting sun, giving the image added drama. Stacking elements in the image works only if there is a gradation in the silhouetted shapes, or that some shapes are lighter than others, and some are darker. With the different intensities of shadows in the silhouette, the image becomes more dramatic because the gradation adds depth to the photo.

4. Partial silhouettes work, too.

 

Bhutanese archer against a brilliant sky

1/1600s @ f/ 8, 55mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This partial silhouette of an archer against a brilliant sunset sky in Bhutan is dramatic because even though his identity is obscured by shadow, we see the color of the ribbons of winning archery shots he’s made that day, and the ends of his arrows.

Also notice that I had a low viewpoint. I actually noticed the sky, and then immediately crouched with my camera almost resting on the ground, tilting it at an angle so it would catch the archer and the beautiful sky behind him. Getting a shot from a low angle gives you more brilliant light behind your subject, and makes it easier to create a silhouette.

5. Same principle, opposite effect. Or, breaking the rule.

Most silhouettes are dark shapes against bright light. What if we reversed the exposure and underexposed on the background? The result is that the exposure on the sliver of light on a person can outline them against a very dark background—sort of a reverse silhouette. This is called ‘rim light’ because it traces the rim of a subject.

 

Balinese man smoking black and white rim light

1/5000s @2.8f 170mm, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In this photo, I decided to create a ‘reverse silhouette’ because the rim light and smoke made for an interesting graphic composition. It’s a ridiculously underexposed image, but I like it.

So there you are, four basic techniques for making silhouettes, and one rule breaker. If you’re looking for an outdoor project that you can do for a couple hours after work but will get your creative juices flowing, why not try a silhouette or two this week?

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You might also like:
10 Things a Photog Can Learn from Golfers
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Cut the CRAP–Just Take Pictures
Let the Shadows Speak
Going to Burma

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About Aloha

I am a photographer and writer currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. My work has appeared in CNNGo, Canon's PhotoYou magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, Thailand Tatler, and a few photography books including recently Blogging for Creatives, a book published in the UK. I believe there is nothing you cannot imagine that you cannot do.

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