Often when we photograph we are concerned about good light throughout our subjects and light that provides enough detail to tell the story we want told. We might use reflectors, flash, or HDR techniques to maintain important detail with strongly lit subjects.
But there are also times when we can create simpler photographs that tell a strong story and silhouettes are easy way to do that. They can tell just as effective of a story, set a mood, or create mystery and it’s those storytelling images that buyers of imagery look for when licensing images.
Last year we ran a post on creating nature images using the silhouette technique. These images included Sajuaro cactus, lighthouses, forests, and windmills. What’s different is these images are adventure images and add the human element, a proven ingredient of top selling images. If you are an adventure photographer then silhouettes are one more approach to telling the adventure story and create more marketable images.
Silhouettes are simple to create. What you need is a brighter background than foreground and a subject that will be dark with no light hitting the subject. That means no flash or reflector as the goal is a subject lacking in details.
You want to watch your backgrounds as well. While they need to be brighter they shouldn’t be to contrasty or cluttered. This means watching the shadows as well. If your subject is a silhouette it is technically a shadow and if your background has large distinct shadows and the subject overlays those shadows the subject will blend into those shadows and you might lose the cleanly defined edges that make a good silhouette.
The best approach is to base your exposure on the brighter background which can be a sky, a sunset, or light on any background that is brighter than the light hitting your subject.
You point your lens at the background and leave out the silhouette subject, then set your exposure based on that metered background. However, be mindful of the background and its reflectance values. If it is a snow covered mountain peak, metering off of it will result in an incorrect exposure, so do as you would any bright surface, adjust accordingly. Then re-frame the subject and start shooting.
What is very important to creating that successful image is a strong subject. Since we are talking people outdoors here then it is important that the placement and pose of the subject tells us what they are doing to convey the story.
A person standing still with arms at their side is one approach, but can be boring. They can still stand there but have them hold a water bottle in their hand or move the ski poles away from their body a little. Slight degrees of separation from the body make the difference and you can do that by separating the legs and feet and posing the arms. Any props they may use can also be helpful. A subject standing is one thing, but holding a climbing rope or ski poles in each hand define what the story is about. You want the subject distinct and devoid of clutter.
Take a look at some of these images.
While shooting a series on retired people active outdoors, the sun had set and we stopped along a ridge-line and set up the tent. After a few frames of them standing I switched to him kneeling and digging around in the backpack and she drinking from the bottle. This is one frame from a lot of different poses, but the simple silhouette says plenty. I used a Cokin Sunset filter as well as the sunset had little color that night.
In California’s Buttermilk area of the Eastern Sierra, I went there with two adventurers to shoot plenty of outdoor activities. We were out at sunrise and sunset shooting a variety of climbing and mountain biking and here, hiking. We were actually moving from one location to another when I saw the back-lit scene and had her stop and pose. While she could have stood there with arms at her side, I asked her to separate her feet more and put her hand’s on her hip and it created a much stronger storytelling image with attitude.
The next morning we shot these two images with the first being a silhouette simply by putting the sun behind the rock she was standing on. Not long after she was bouldering in the slot and again the exposure was based on the blue sky. Here however the contrast was not so strong that all detail in the rocks disappeared. What is important is that in both cases the arms and legs have clear separation against the brighter sky and by showing more outline you make it clear what the story is.
On a Grand Canyon rafting trip we made a stop at Redwall Cavern where everybody played. Right before we left I asked the group to move inside the cavern a bit further and lineup. This was because the light was soft and almost flat. Even though I based the exposure on the brighter canyon wall, I still had detail in the foreground sand, but the silhouette effect still works well and it tells a good story beyond just an adventure image.
On a backpack trip in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, I simply set the camera on the tripod and using a wireless trigger, shot away using myself. And it was licensed more than a few times.
This is about as basic of a silhouette technique as you can get, but this was easy and only took a couple minutes to shoot. I don’t know if it was ever published my my stock agent went nuts over this image, suggesting he was going to put it in promotional materials and more.
What’s the story? This simple pose: Lending a helping hand, was exactly what Backpacker Magazine was looking for to illustrate this story on couples who backpack. The exposure was based on the background brightness where the setting sun still hit the higher peaks while the foreground was in shadow.
Silhouettes are technically one of the easiest techniques to creating marketable images. What is a bigger challenge is how you position the body and whether you use props. Keep hands and legs separated and clearly defined so the viewer is not wondering what the subject is or is doing.
If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment.