Silhouettes are a special way to bring a creative element to portraiture. Their simplicity makes them striking, timeless and iconic. While beautiful, silhouette portraits present a set of challenges quite unlike any other genres. Here’s some insight into creating remarkable silhouettes.
Rethink Light and Spot Meter:
From the moment you dedicate any part of yourself to the art and the science of photography, you are officially enrolled in the study of light. How does it move? How do varying colors of light change the mood of your image? Do different light sources change the quality of light? You’ll never be able to look at a sunset or a light bulb the same way. With silhouettes, you have adjust the way you are evaluating light. Normally, you are lighting your subject but in this case you will be lighting your background instead.
And while you are learning to see light in a way that embraces the idiosyncrasies of silhouettes, think about spot metering. Your camera’s light meter measures the light reflecting off your subject. Most DSLRs camera have it auto-set to evaluative metering which takes all the light in your chosen frame into account. When you use spot-metering, the camera only uses the light at and around the middle focus point to calculate what the ideal settings are. Focus on the background behinds your subject or subjects for proper exposure. When you actually take your photo, you'll want to focus on your portrait subjects and ignore your meter for a second.
Shoot in Manual Mode:
When your camera is in automatic mode it is trying to find perfect balance. By nature silhouettes are, in principle, underexposed and your camera cannot compute that idea in auto. In manual mode, you are the lord and master of all your settings.
Your individual settings will depend on your environment and the strength of the light behind your subjects but there are some rules of thumb to keep in the forefront of your mind. Setting a moderately high shutter speed, at least 1/500th of a second, is necessary to avoid blurry, muddled outlines. If you need to drop the shutter speed significantly, using a tripod might be a good idea. Use a small aperture, signified by a larger number, to keep your background and your subject in focus. F/8 or F/11 tend to be good starting places. Then use your aperture and shutter speed settings to set your ISO. Using the aforementioned spot-metering, simply focus on your background and adjust the ISO for proper exposure. Keep in mind, the higher the ISO the higher the chance of unwanted noise, aka grain, in your photo.
Seek Out Distinct Shapes:
Silhouettes are by their very nature devoid of many of the details we look to for meaning. Facial expressions are one of the major lacking components. To make up for the lack of detail the outline needs to be strong enough to tell a story. That means body language is going to be paramount. It’s time to up the theatricality. Ask your subjects to make big, obvious gestures to convey how they are feeling.
Utilizing negative space will also strengthen your outlines. Usually portraits, especially those featuring more than one person, require closeness and subtly. Silhouettes shine when there is space around and between your subjects. Don’t be afraid to ask people to move from a visually cluttered area that will distract from the power of the silhouette or take a step back from each other. Force people into their own personal space bubble and find a way to link them together. Have them hold hands, lean in for a kiss, or even just pose them in similar fashions to connect them together without huddling them together.