Sublime Silhouettes by Tom Tracy

Peggy Farren 2015-04-06

Is there anything more cool that a back-lit moment?

By Tom Tracy

When Peggy Farren, creator of UNDERSTAND PHOTOGRAPHY, sent me a list of possible topics for future photo-blog essays here, one possibility jumped right out and said to me, “You came to the right guy” — Silhouettes!

I guess you could say I’m a huge fan of this technique, long a staple of newspaper and magazine photographers and always a good tool to have in the bag for private family and event photo essays and visual storytelling.

When I started going through my photo files I realized I have done silhouettes with weddings, maternity, dancers, Tai Chi & yoga instructors, musicians, models, religious leaders, equestrian riders, engagement couples, landscape & travel, business speakers and bar mitzvah events. Silo008

Wikipedia defines them: “A silhouette is the image of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single colour, usually black, its edges matching the outline of the subject. The interior of a silhouette is featureless, and the whole is typically presented on a light background, usually white, or none at all. Silhouette images may be created in any visual artistic media.”

I’m not so sure my clients always think silhouette shots are as cool as I do, since obviously they render the subject basically faceless, but they certainly lend something for enhanced layout and design options in photo book-making and the like. And silhouettes are just undeniably cool from an artistic point of view.

Pretty much anytime you are working a situation indoors with or without flash and there is strong window back lighting there is potential for a good silhouette moment. And the more distinctive your subject the better, especially if they are wearing something like a hat, or holding something (a musical instrument etc) that accentuates the outline of their form, their silhouette. Two people engaged with each other, kissing or talking are also good material to work with.

Separation of elements makes for the best shapes — if the subject’s arms are by their sides or if the couple are right next to each other they may look like a big black blob so position people with space between them. Silo013

We want to be in full manual camera control and shooting RAW, as always, and after getting a few “normal” shots of the subject, perhaps front lit with on-camera or even studio flash, it’s time to think about turning off the flash and cranking the shutter speed northward.

Forget the science here, this calls for quick action and I suggest just moving that shutter speed up many times greater than what had been shooting at, and consult your preview monitor-screen. Meter for the background with your built-in center-weighted exposure point selected, or just eye-ball it until the background shows sufficient detail.

Once we move our focus back to the subject, the exposure meter will naturally go “negative” but that’s ok, we want that. If things still aren’t coming together it may be time to lower the ISO in order to really get into the right range, since probably we are looking for an exposure favorable to some window light, stained glass, or backdrop. We don’t want to see much detail in the subject, if any.

Ultimately, there is no need for exposure perfection with Silhouettes especially: Having shot in Raw we can later pump up the blacks and recover any highlights we need in Lightroom in order to make the image pop, to get that sweet silhouette happening.

The idea here is to aim for a satisfying exposure of the background lighting while casting your subject into near-full darkness. Other shots benefit form a half-way silhouette situation with subject details still legible.

Having achieved that, it’s time to compose the shot in a way that says something, in a way that uses only the outline of the subject matter to convey a story, an emotion, a composition. This will require some physically jostling around, moving the subject or yourself perhaps, and lining up the front and rear elements of the picture to create some magic.

If shooting a subject outdoors against the open sky it might help to crouch down low to take in maximum contrast between foreground and background.

Focusing can also be challenging here: line up your focus cross-points on the outer lines of your subject matter and the background, and then recompose. And keep your flash unit engaged but not firing, for further focus assist.


Tom Tracy is a writer, photojournalist and event photographer based in West Palm Beach. He has traveled extensively as a travel & religion writer.

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