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Silhouettes


Two-dimensional shape, not form.


Most silhouetted subjects look best in profile, as in this mystical image provided by photographer, Karen Meeks.
Most silhouetted subjects look best in profile, as in this mystical image provided by photographer, Karen Meeks.

Silhouettes are similar to back-lit subjects with one important difference. With back lighting, you will usually want at least some detail visible in your subject. This is generally achieved using fill flash or a reflector. In a silhouette, it is strictly the outline of the subject you are looking for, with as little inner detail or texture as possible.

BRIGHT BACKDROPS ARE GENERALLY BEST

For a silhouette to be a dramatic, dark outline, it is best taken with the subject in front of a clear, fairly neutral and well-lit background.

Sky, water or a snowscape are all good choices here. Morning or evening - with the sun still below the horizon - may provide ideal lighting conditions for silhouettes, although the sun itself is often the backdrop for an eye-catching silhouette.

EXPOSURE

Set the camera to expose for the bright background. In case you missed that, because it is the important part, we repeat: Expose for the bright background. That is what creates the silhouette — the background is very bright and your subject is quite dark, and therefore featureless.

LOOK FOR SUBJECTS IN PROFILE

Most human or animal subjects will appear best in profile, allowing you to pick up some suggestion of facial features, body attitude or costume (in the case of people) or the most striking or identifying features (sheer size, horns, trunks, etc.) of an animal.

KEEP YOUR COMPOSITION SIMPLE

Be aware of whatever else might get into the picture (trees, posts, other creatures) and keep the composition uncluttered.

WHY DO SILHOUETTES APPEAL TO PEOPLE?

A viewer recently asked this question of us, and here is our reply:

They lack detail.

Silhouettes do not show any detail in a subject, except for the subject's outline.

That is, they have no three-dimensional form, only shape.

It is more difficult to provide visual information about a subject when it has no form, and therefore a good silhouette shows artistic creativity and technical skill on the part of the photographer.

The element of mystery

A silhouette also has a degree of mystery, since it contains less information about a subject than a normal photograph.

People like mystery, and silhouettes cause their imaginations to become active, trying to fill in the missing information.

Mood

Finally, a silhouette has a certain mood to it that many people find appealing.

The exhuberance of this young wave-hopper can be felt even though he is a featureless silhouette
The exhuberance of this young wave-hopper can be felt even though he is a featureless silhouette

Sometimes you have little choice but to shoot a silhouette if you are going to get the picture
Sometimes you have little choice but to shoot a silhouette if you are going to get the picture

Objects partially silhouetted can make an interesting composition
Objects partially silhouetted can make an interesting composition

A subject must be identifiable for a silhouette to be effective
A subject must be identifiable for a silhouette to be effective

The hint of detail from an overhead rear light provides three-dimensionality to this dramatic silhouette
The hint of detail from an overhead rear light provides three-dimensionality to this dramatic silhouette

A visitor to White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico, is silhouetted against an evening sky.
A visitor to White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico, is silhouetted against an evening sky.

 
Further information...
Planes
Related topics...

Shape and form

Silhouetted foreground