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Creating Silhouettes in Photography

Words & photos by Olympus Visionary, Mike Boening. (source:
Click images in this post to enlarge.

Creating silhouettes in photography is a great way to explore the drama in your environment, wherever you are. The contrast and lack of detail in a subject creates a mystery for the viewer, which can be beautiful and mysterious. They are easy to make and fun to look for the next time you’re out with your camera.

The key to making an effective and interesting silhouette: you must first focus on the subject; it is much more important than the actual technical skills involved. The simpler a subject the better, when looking to capture great silhouettes. You want a pronounced shape because you will not have much detail on your main subject. Outlines of bodies, hats or recognizable items are always a plus.

If you pick a subject that is blocky or boring you may not have what you are looking for. Usually one person works much better than a crowd because of the overlapping bodies may look very unusual. For those shots that might work with two or more, like a kissing couple, try to shoot it just before the contact is made so the heads or faces don’t blur into one large block in the image as an example.

The key technical parts of making a silhouette are all about backlighting. You want the background to be so bright that it overpowers the foreground and the side or shape of your subject. A great time to achieve this on the streets is when the sun is rising or setting because it’s the lowest in the sky at these points of the day. That will always help light your subject from behind. It’s not easy and you have to think about what you are seeing because it does differ from the type of photography you may normally be performing.

Let’s talk more about subjects to select. Something memorable and simple like I talked about above is the first part of selection. The second is the shape. An image taken straight on may not work. Try to have the subjects off to their sides or in a profile. Remember the shape needs to be distinct. Keeping your subject away from other items in the picture always helps. If you take an image of a person leaning on a building it may just all blend together and not possess the type of shapeful subject you were looking for.

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