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Creating photographic portraits have us concerned about adjusting the lighting, posing, and exposure just right. Beautiful silhouette photography is a memorable style that we can add to our repertoire. Best of all, we can learn how to use silhouettes in a few simple steps.
How to Take Silhouettes
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To know how to take silhouettes in a controlled method, we need an understanding of modern camera light meters and backlit situations. Most cameras have multiple metering modes with the default mode often being some form of evaluative metering, also called matrix metering or smart metering.
Evaluative metering will usually try to avoid silhouette camera settings, the built-in computer having “evaluated” that you want the main subject properly exposed. So, if you have any of the auto exposure modes on, the evaluative metering computation will tend to provide a very bright, washed out background and a subject as properly exposed as possible.
There are a couple of silhouette photography tips that will take care of this situation.
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Using any of the automatic exposure modes except the green dot full auto mode, the camera control for exposure compensation can be used for making a silhouette portrait.
Before evaluative metering was common, and even now in some extreme lighting situations, we would have normally dialed in about 1 ½ to 2 stops of overexposure when snapping a picture with the light source behind the subject in order to end up with the subject correctly exposed.
If we’re wanting a silhouette now with our camera in auto, we would need to adjust the exposure compensation to underexpose from it’s computed settings. Taking the opposite approach, we dial in to the minus side by 1 ½ or 2 stops, up to 3 stops is actually preferred if your camera control has that much range.
Manual Exposure Control
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For a more predictable method of how to use silhouettes in portraits, taking the camera exposure settings out of auto is a good method. We can still use the fantastic meter in our camera, but we decide how to adjust the settings of ISO, shutter speed, and lens aperture.
Even out of the automatic modes, some cameras' default metering pattern may still be the evaluative type, so you should check your camera instruction manual to find out for sure. It’ll likely be in the larger manual or on the CD-ROM or the downloadable version and not in the brief printed flyer style basic instruction manual.
An excellent method for calculating exposure settings is to find the spot or selective area metering pattern of your camera and meter on the brightness behind or surrounding the person you’re photographing.
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If it’s silhouette photography outdoors, pointing the camera meter at the bright area of sky will work, but not directly at the Sun. Pointing your lens right at the Sun while looking through it could damage your eyes, the camera meter cell, or both. Then meter the person and see how many stops difference there is. We’ll come back to those meter readings in a minute.
When doing silhouette photography indoors, you may not have a bright area to meter because of how the lights are positioned. So an 18 percent gray card can be used. Meter the unobstructed light falling on the card, then meter the subject from camera position. See how many stops difference there is.
A little bit different result can be achieved by placing a light so that it illuminates only the rim or edges of the subject. Careful light placement will allow this style of image.
How Dark a Silhouette Is Wanted?
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Calculations for how to use silhouettes have several variables. The difference in light levels from background or backlight to the part of the subject facing the camera might be extreme or slight. The intent of the photographer will be a factor as well. Do we want the silhouette subject to be completely in shadow or do we want some detail to show?
The difference in exposure values between the back light and the part of the subject facing the camera give us the information needed to make the changes from complete shadow to merely a darkened figure.
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A difference of about 3 stops of exposure can be used to make a silhouette that looks like a black cut out figure. If there is at least that much difference, basing the exposure on the background brightness or light source brightness will yield an image with detail in anything directly lit and the deep shadow areas to be virtually free of detail. In fact, underexposing a little bit from those reading might even be better for creating some interest in the silhouetted subject.
If there are less than 3 stops of difference and your intent is making a dark figure, you will need to underexpose the entire image a little. Otherwise, you’ll begin to see some detail in the silhouetted figure. Sometimes, that style of silhouette is preferred.
When making silhouette photography outside, the position of the Sun might determine how great a difference in exposure values there are. The Sun high in the sky will likely cause a lot of reflected ambient light to fall on the subject, while a low Sun will result in higher contrast.
Post-Process the Contrast Level
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Since we’re working in digital photography formats, we have another fantastic option for controlling contrast levels of the final silhouette portrait. The exposure sliders for highlights, midrange, and shadows are the tools for this bit of fun.
You will still need to expose the camera as well as you can calculate, but the post-processing program will let you fine tune how much contrast there is and what detail shows in the subject.
To create a partially silhouetted subject, the control sliders for shadow and midtone will be adjusted up and the highlight slider either untouched or adjusted down by a small amount. For a greater contrast result with a very dark figure, bump up the highlight level slightly and turn down the shadows until you see the detail in the shadow area disappear.
These settings are not a rule, simply a rule of thumb, since the exact amount will be determined by the initial camera exposure and the intent of the type of silhouette.
Be Careful of Noise
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Unless we want to evoke a certain nostalgic feel of older high speed celluloid film stock, we want to be very careful of the digital noise level within our image. Digitally, noise is more apparent in the shadow areas of our images.
Since our subject is going to be either completely in shadow or partially in shadow, excessive digital noise might detract attention from the intended subject. There are several ways to control noise.
The primary way to limit noise in our shadow areas is to shoot with as low of an ISO as we can use. The higher the ISO is set, the more sensitive the sensor is to light but that comes at the cost of increased noise. It’s almost exactly the same as how high speed celluloid had larger grain than lower speed films. The reasons are different but the result is similar.
A lower ISO of any size sensor will produce a cleaner image file than high ISO settings. In an APS-C format camera, ISO between 100 to 800 is likely to be pretty clean. Full Frame format sensors have better performance overall in this regard, while MFT is going to be a little more difficult at much higher ISO settings.
Another method used to reduce noise is to adjust for noise during post-processing. Most of the popular programs have excellent preset values that let you clean up the file with one mouse click or you can adjust the thresholds yourself.
Don’t Take My Word for It
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Try it out yourself! Use silhouettes in portraits in both major styles, try it out indoors and outdoors, use auto exposure with exposure compensation and setting shutter speed and lens aperture manually. Post-process to enhance either style and then try out more extreme and more subtle settings.
Any way you attempt it, silhouette photography makes great portraits, so enjoy the process and the end result.