One of the times you can break all the rules of photography and get away with it, creating silhouettes, can produce some dramatic pictures. What do I mean, "break the rules", what would you want to do that for? Well, it's for when you want the subject to deliberately be underexposed and you have a brightly lit background to show it against.
The subject should be something with a distinct shape, easily recognizable. Horses, people, even a palm tree on the beach, can make interesting subjects when silhouetted against a sunset. Normally I cringe when I see some travel photos where the poor subject, usually the photographer's better-half shows up in the picture underexposed, yet the background is crystal-clear. It may be a bright and sunny day on the beach or posed at some easily recognizable attraction but, the poor human subject has their face shrouded in dark shadows. I tactfully remind the photographer it would have looked a lot better had they used their flash.
So, what I mean by breaking the rules is deliberately setting your camera exposure for the bright light. That's exactly the opposite of what I'd normally do. You will not adjust your settings for the best exposure on your subject, you will be underexposing and creating even more shadows on your subject.
Just how much to underexpose is entirely up to you so, it may take some experimentation. This is one time you may want to let the camera decide, just by putting it in AUTO MODE. Then, review the shot on your LCD screen and decide if you'd like to darken the silhouettes, even more. A faster shutter speed or stopping down on the aperture will make the shadows more dramatic, totally blacken the subject, if you like.
A few points to consider are the position of the subject in relation to the bright and dark spots in the background and the profile of the subject. If the subject is a person leaning on a tree, rock or building and it is in the shadows, as well, underexposing will blend them together and you'll loose the shape of the subject. You want the subject, as a silhouette, to stand out.
The profile of the subject will be more dramatic if your composition is from their side, not head on; this will make their nose, eyes and lips stand out more than if you were to attempt a frontal portrait shot.
After shooting at festivals, after a long day of shooting in the bright sun, I take silhouette shots. When there are bright lights in the background and I don't want to be bothered chasing subjects down to get their permission. Just hide in the dark and shoot. After all, that's what silhouettes are for, breaking all the rules. Until next time, Happy Shooting!
A wildlife photographer living in Okinawa, Japan, Mike has been published in Apogee Photo Magazine, Boots N all, Brave New Traveler, Go Nomad, Matador Abroad and Trips, The Nihon Sun, Travel Thru History, The Okinawan , Wend Magazine and Photo Guide Japan. He has recently joined the ranks of travel writers, capturing Nature, Festivals, Castles and Cultural shots of the Ryukyu Islands to share with the world.
I love this because it take a situation that I have come across one too many times — light background, dark foreground — and make lemonade with it. Mike, where the hell were you when I was in Spain and New Zealand and several dozen other places stuck trying to cope with unfavorable lighting condition?
Another great tip!
Thanks, Devin. Mighta been me hidin’ in the shadows behind you, snappin’ away!
That’s really the finer art of photography. Mike, one thing: please tell me what do to when I use my digital camera and the sun shines on the screen so I see nothing. I just point and hope for the best, but that’s truly amateurish. Perhaps you can do another piece on that subject?
Ahh, the dreaded glare on the LCD screen, eh?
Well, besides Silhouettes, we have a couple more words for things we borrowed from the French to remedy that.
One is the LCD Screen Loupe, a gadget that covers your screen and you peek through it just as if it were a viewfinder.
The other, a parasol, derived from Latin, I now see but, I just picture some Madamoiselle totin’ one around to shade LCD screens, for some reason.
Me, I have been known to use a huge golf umbrella (Works great reducing glare in Museums, as well) or just pull my shirt or jacket up over my head and the camera to block the sun, being the-not-so-Madamoiselle-like-person that I am.
Another option you may have which would eliminate carting extra gadgets around may be found in your camera manual. Some have the option allowing you to boost the lighting on the LCD screen temporarily. Hope that helps.
More cool tips! This is all very useful, Mike. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you. One of these days I’ll get my “Which Camera Should I Buy?” post together for you. I know you’ve been looking for the ideal travel camera. Lookin’ for a lightweight Point and Shoot, myself; one that’ll do everything !
Mike, this subject seems like it is meant for a more evolved photographer – in other words, one quite unlike myself 🙂 !
Sophie, if I may reply, Mike helped me a great deal (along with a bunch of very knowledgeable folks in ‘Matador’) with my choice of camera before I went ahead and bought it !
Take his advice and you will not go wrong 🙂 !!!
You’re doing just fine. I’m looking forward to seeing you post some silhouettes on JPG, anyday now.
Always a difficult shot to take. Thanks for the tips
Thanks for stopping by. Not all that difficult, with a little practice. Just remember it’s like trying to take an underexposed picture, not what I’d normally recommend !