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A simple technique for creating eye-catching silhouettes

The silhouette is an old art form, said to have been named after �tienne de Silhouette, Louis XV’s finance minister. Apparently, he was so stingy that anything cheap, including portraits, were labelled “a la Silhouette.” Silhouettes became very popular in the 18th century but went out of fashion after the invention of the daguerreotype, an early form of photography. And now here we are, creating silhouettes with our digital cameras. Ain’t life grand?

A silhouette is simply a dark outline filled with a solid color, usually against a light background. Those dancing iPod ads are good examples of silhouettes. You might think that creating these types of images with your camera is a difficult or highly technical task. Well, you’d be wrong.

The trick to creating silhouettes comes from an understanding of how your camera calculates exposure. The light meter in your camera doesn’t know anything about the scene in front of it except how much light is shining through the lens. That light is analyzed and measured and shutter/aperture settings are calculated. This works best if the lighting in your scene is even. But if the scene has very bright areas and very dark areas then it doesn’t do so well and will often underexpose your subject (making it too dark). This is one of the reasons for the advice to keep the sun at your back when shooting photos.

Silhouette
Shooting into a very bright background
is all it takes to make a great silhouette.
1/640s @ f/13

How can you take advantage of this to make a silhouette? The simplest way to make one is to place your subject in front of a very bright background. This could be anything from a bright, cloud-filled sky to the sunset to a window with sunlight streaming in. The brighter the background the better. This mixture of bright background and darker subject will confuse the camera’s light meter — exactly what we want. Make sure your camera is not in portrait mode, zoom out or take a few steps back to make sure the bright background is included in the scene along with your subject, and then shoot. It’s as simple as that. The reason for not wanting portrait mode for this type of shot is that sometimes portrait mode will activate a different kind of light reading that diregards light from the edges of the frame (called “center-weighted” exposure).

To really boost the effect, you can use your camera’s “exposure lock” feature. Many cameras allow you to “lock” the exposure from one subject, recompose on a different subject, and then shoot the photo. Cameras that have this feature usually allow you to do this by simply holding the shutter half-way down. Other cameras might have a separate button to temporarily lock the exposure. Here’s how you use it: point the camera at the bright background so that it fills the frame. Now lock the exposure. Then, recompose to include your subject and the background together and take the photo. Since the exposure was locked on the bright background, the camera will expose the background correctly and underexpose the subject, often making a perfect silhouette.

Sunset silhouette
Silhouette made by locking exposure on the sunset.
1/800s @ f/5.6

Full-body portraits and faces in profile make good subjects and shooting them in this way can be a lot of fun. One final tip: when your family and friends are “oohing and ahhing” over your artistic silhouettes, don’t forget to let them believe that they were very difficult to make.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you’re interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.

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