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Silhouette Photography: Beauty in Two Dimensions

Silhouette photography is a great example of how simple shots can create some of the best images. For silhouette photography, you shoot your subject matter with backlighting so that only its outline is visible in the image. With the subject matter lost in shadow, the viewer doesn’t see the color or three-dimensional depth, which leaves only its two-dimensional shape.

Choosing a subject

For successful silhouette photography, it’s essential to choose a subject matter that’s identifiable from its two-dimensional shape. Although a strong outline helps in silhouette photography, it’s not enough, and you need to capture the subject from the correct angle to emphasize its shape. When photography a person, a side profile works well and for a building, you will need to move around it until you find the correct angle and perhaps come back at a different time when the sun is in the best position to capture the silhouette. It’s best to isolate the subject against a plain bright backdrop such as the sky because trying to get a good silhouette of a single subject in a crowded area can be nearly impossible.

Special conditions

Silhouette photography can work in most types of weather, but the shot is more impressive when the background is a dramatic sunrise, sunset or bright blue sky of the day. Achieving a dark enough silhouette can present a problem with silhouette photography, especially if you try to use auto mode, so you need to adjust the camera settings manually. Following are some tips on the best way to do that to achieve a great silhouette image.

  • Right times of day – At the beginning or ending of the day are the best time to shoot silhouette because the sun is lower in the sky. The sun should be in front of you, and your selected camera angle should reveal the best outline of the subject matter.
  • Deactivate dynamic range enhancing feature – Most cameras have a default feature that enhances the dynamic range to bring out details in shadowed areas. On a Canon DSLR, this may be called an Auto Lighting Optimizer and on Nikon DSLRs, it’s an Active D-Lighting feature. As these options adjust contrast to maximize elements in the shadows, and this counteracts your desire to capture only a silhouette, so you need to turn them off.
  • Low ISO setting – Use a low ISO setting between 100-200 and set the camera to Aperture Priority mode to minimize image noise and color fringing that can occur when shooting directly into the sun. This can help create a crisp outline of your subject matter.
  • Use exposure compensation – The settings listed above won’t be enough to capture a dark silhouette, so you need to use exposure compensation with a setting of -1 to -3 EV. Having a good amount of sky in your shot means you’ll need less negative compensation.

Ideas for silhouette images

The best thing about silhouette images is that they can be simple and still be beautiful. A shot of a lone tree, border of trees or a barn standing amid an otherwise empty field can create great shots. As stated before, shooting people in profile can be the perfect way to capture the Victorian feel of silhouette portraits. Although you shouldn’t stare into the sun while shooting, you can still include it in the image by hiding it slightly behind the subject matter. To create more interest in the foreground, use a burst of flash that illuminates up close while preserving the silhouette in the distance. When the sun is low in the sky, and the subject is right, use backlighting to give the edge of your silhouette a unique glow.

Once you’ve captured some stunning examples of silhouette photography, framing, and mounting help bring out their vivid details. Baboo Digital offers expert custom framing and a variety of mounting techniques that will make even your two-dimensional silhouettes vividly appealing.

Featured image by JulieAnn Corbin

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