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Silhouettes: Stephanie Simon

Finding The Magic in Silhouettes

I’m by no means the best silhouette photographer in the world, but I’ve practiced enough that perhaps you can learn from my successes and failures! I don’t always nail it, but I’ve learned a lot from trying. So, with that being said,…here are my top tips for finding the magic in silhouettes.

Light

It’s all about the light! A good silhouette depends on having strong backlight with a darker, more solid foreground. Basically, you want to be shooting directly toward the light source. This is one time you should be looking for unfiltered, strong light. However, if you are hoping to capture a sunburst, try composing your shot so that at least a part of the sun is blocked by your subject or another object in the frame. Silhouettes can be created mid-day, but often the most beautiful silhouettes happen during sunset where a riot of colors serves as your backdrop.

Metering

The key to creating a silhouette is to meter off the brightest spot in the frame, which should always be the sky. I prefer to use spot metering and usually meter off a bright cloud, rather than the sun (unless there are no clouds). This helps ensure I end up with a bright sky, a dark foreground and strong contrast between the two and few or no blown highlights. Occasionally when I adjust my meter to 0 to avoid any blown highlights in the sky, the sky ends up too dark to offer enough contrast between the sky and foreground. In that case, I will start with my meter zeroed and increase the exposure in half stop increments until I find a balance where the sky is bright enough that it pops but my foreground and subjects are black or near black. That being said, exposure settings are definitely something to experiment with as they won’t be exactly the same for each silhouette. 

Aperture

Aperture is really an artistic choice. If the light is right and you can use a fast enough shutter speed, you can be pretty wide open and still create a beautiful silhouette. I’ve shot many silhouettes at f2.8. Buuuuut….and this is a big one…if you want to create a sunburst as part of your silhouette, you do need a narrow aperture. Sometimes I can get a sunburst at f8 but usually I need to be at f11 or higher. 

Composition

For a strong silhouette, it’s essential that your subject is positioned with a large area of open sky (or other bright area) behind them. Ideally, their entire body from head to toe should be backlit. I find this easiest to achieve when shooting up at my subject from below. I have a favourite hill near my house that I often use for this, but you don’t even need something as dramatic as a hill. Your subject could be standing on a picnic table, a rock or climbing on playground equipment or you can simply get really low to the ground and shoot up at them. You just need to frame your shot so there is an open, bright area behind them. The beach is an excellent place to practice silhouettes, so are tunnels. You can also practice in your home by placing your subjects directly in front of a window on a bright day. 

Detail

When shooting silhouettes of people, it’s essential that there is enough detail in your subject that the viewer can see what the story is. This usually means having your subject in profile and having them do something dynamic so that arms or legs or hair is moving. This helps makes all parts of your subject clearly visible to the viewer. In comparison, if your subject is standing still, facing straight on to the camera, they will basically end up looking like a black mystery blob. Related to this, if you are shooting more than one subject, try to ensure there is at least a small amount of space separating them. Again, this helps with keeping the details of each subject clear and stops them from merging into one “superblob”. 

Props

Props can add a lot of visual interest to silhouettes and are a great way to add to the story. Some props that might be fun to try include balloons, a kite, an oversize bubble wand, a cape, a butterfly net, flowers, a favourite toy like a dinosaur, or even a bicycle or a wagon! Almost any prop will work, as long as it is identifiable in the frame. 

Black isn’t everything

To me, a silhouette can work even if your subject/foreground isn’t totally black. As long as your subject is mostly dark, and the background is bright with clean lines of contrast between subject and background, the image will pop. I don’t get too hung up on having my subject totally black but I do want lots of contrast. I also love rim light. Rim light is when there is a thin line of light highlighting the very edges of your subject. I have most success getting rim light when the light source is directly behind my subject (like when the sun is low enough in the sky my subject can completely block it with their body) or when the light is hitting them at a slight angle but the light source itself is not visible in the frame. 

Think contrast when editing

In Lightroom I typically process a silhouette image by adjusting the sliders in the Basic panel to enhance the contrast between lights and darks. Usually this means increasing highlights and whites, lowering shadows and blacks, increasing contrast, adding some clarity and a little bit of dehaze. If I want to enhance color, I will bump up the vibrance and saturation sliders in the basic panel, but will also play in the HSL panel. Sometimes I also use a brush or inverted radial filter to further manipulate individual colors. 

Practice!

The last, and most important tip is to just try it! Practice on inanimate objects. Practice on people. Practice at different times of the day or with different light sources. Just practice! Play around with your settings to get a feel for what works for you in different types of light. And don’t feel discouraged if you aren’t jumping for joy with your results straight away. I have shot hundreds of silhouettes that were a hot mess. I messed up my settings, my composition is terrible or I end up with the dreaded black mystery blob subject. I do hope that one day I’ll be able to take in the scene, analyze the light, frame up my shot just right and get that perfect storytelling image in one or two clicks. But until then, I’ll keep practicing. 

But what if you don’t have a gorgeous sky hanging out behind your silhouette? Watch how Stephanie edits and uses a bit of magic in Photoshop to bring in a beautiful sky!

Remember that a good picture starts in camera – just check out Stephanie’s SOOCs below. But editing can enhance a photo to something even more beautiful! Don’t be afraid to push yourself as you edit your silhouettes! Thank you so much for the tips and editing video, Stephanie!


Images and Lesson by Stephanie Simon