View Full Version : How to Create Great Silhouettes

22nd September 2006, 12:01 PM
The main component of any silhouette is shape—the shape of the subject defines the image. Clearly defined shapes are more distinguishable than those that exhibit clutter. In a silhouette, textures, patterns, and colors become irrelevant, as detail isn’t revealed. Silhouettes may be bold and dominating or soft and delicate. Mountain ranges with vast areas of darkness tend to be bold. Identifiable by their massive ridge lines, the abundance of darkness evokes a sense of dominance and stature. But it’s not necessarily the size of the subject that portrays its personality. For instance, the outline of a weeping willow can be very delicate, especially if the sunset behind it has a pastel quality.

Think Silhouettes

One way to train yourself to see silhouettes is to set up a very basic “testing studio.” This can be done in your home using a window that faces a bright portion of the sky. A more complex way involves using two table lamps, two pieces of cardboard, a dark platform and a white sheet.


The window setup requires a day with bright, overcast light. This is necessary because you want the light behind the subject brighter than the light falling on it. The room itself must be dark so that no ambient light hits the front or sides of the subject. All lamps should be turned off and the blinds or drapes on other windows should be drawn.

Once you set up the room, you can begin the exercise. Start by walking around your home looking for objects with interesting form. Place the object on the window sill and step back to evaluate its impact with regard to shape. Try rotating it to see if the composition improves. Once you’ve exhausted every angle, switch it with another subject and repeat the steps. Continue the process until you feel comfortable identifying shapes that work for you.


When creating a silhouette, choose a simple, distinctive subject that stands out against a bright background.

The test studio that utilizes lamps allows for more options. Begin by hanging a white sheet from a support. A plain white wall will do, providing it has no texture. Next, on either side of the sheet or white wall, place a shadeless lamp. On the camera side of each lamp, lean a large piece of cardboard (one that’s taller and wider than the lamp) against its base. The purpose of the cardboard is to direct all the light from the bulb toward the sheet or white wall and not let any spill onto the subject or cause lens flare.

The lamps should be about three feet from the wall and four feet apart. This allows for a large working area in which you can put a platform on which the subject is placed. This area should be dark so no bounced light from the lamps can illuminate its details. Turn on the two lamps and darken the rest of the room. As with the window test studio, begin placing your objects onto the platform to evaluate their impact. The subject should be positioned between the cardboard side of the lamps and the camera. If you put it on the opposite side of the lamps, you’ll reveal detail, which will diminish the effect of the silhouette.


Before sunset or shortly after sunrise, you can sometimes include the sun in your silhouette photos.

Again, begin by rotating the object, looking for strong shapes and lines. Turn the item slightly and reevaluate its impact. For diversity, add another object that complements the original one and see how they interact. Keep adding more subjects of varying heights to create a frame-filling composition.

Avoid limiting yourself to choosing only inanimate objects. For example, people’s hands or feet are easily identifiable and can be viewed in a whole new light. Place your pet dog, cat or bird into the test studio and study their outlines. Think shape and let your imagination go wild.

If you want to turn the indoor test studio into an area in which you shoot photos, there are important technical considerations. It’s important that the bulbs in each lamp have the same wattage, or the background won’t be evenly illuminated. Also, the type of bulb will have an impact on the color of the background. If you use daylight film with tungsten bulbs, the white background will take on an orange cast. This may work to your advantage, but if you want the background white, an 80A filter will color-correct the film and record the sheet as white. If you use tungsten film with tungsten bulbs, no filters are necessary. If you’re using digital equipment, set the white balance to tungsten or adjust your camera to manual white balance for best results.

With daylight film, there are other options that allow you to record a white background. Bulbs that are color-corrected for daylight film work well. They’re manufactured to produce the same color temperature that the sun radiates. Flash will also work, but it will require some testing to get the proper exposure of the white sheet depending on the working aperture. Too little light will produce a gray background, while too much may start to spill light onto the subject. If in doubt, slightly overexpose so that a gray background will appear dull. If you’re familiar with the guide numbers on a flash, it can save you the testing steps.

Creating Outdoor Silhouettes
The principle behind creating outdoor silhouettes is the same as I discussed with the indoor test studio. The light behind the subject must be brighter than the light falling on it. This translates to variables such as time of day, weather conditions, placement of the subject, angle of the sun, and contrast.

Two silhouetted photographers prepare to photograph a Yucca plant at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

Although you can create an outdoor silhouette anytime there’s daylight, the greatest opportunity to render one with vibrant color occurs at dawn and dusk. Before the sun rises, the clear sky in the eastern horizon takes on a graduated color that may range from red to cobalt blue. Every day is different depending on the atmosphere, clouds, pollutants, etc. An easily identifiable object positioned in front of a predawn sky usually nets a spectacular photo. Dusk produces the same effect, but via the western sky.

Wonderful times to create silhouettes occur when the sun crests the horizon at sunrise or nears it at sunsets. The sky won’t possess the same vibrant color that it had at dawn or dusk, but it has the distinct advantage of being very bright, making it easier to produce a strong contrast between the sky and the silhouetted object. You can add color by using filters to give the sky more punch. Warm-toned filters tend to work well and the results appear natural. Also, enhancing and sunset filters are very effective. When the sun is above the horizon, try positioning it behind the object you want to render in silhouette. This gives the subject a rimlit glow that can be very powerful.

Obtaining the proper exposure may be tricky if the sky is extremely bright, or if the silhouette takes up a large portion of the frame. If the sky is bright and the silhouetted object is small, the meter will be fooled by all the brightness and underexpose the image. On the contrary, if the silhouetted objects take up the majority of the frame, the picture can be overexposed because of all the black areas the meter reads.


In this image of the Yucca, an FLD filter was used for added color in the sky.

I always base my exposure on a percentage. If 50% of the image is very bright and 50% is dark, the two cancel each other out. I don’t dial in any exposure compensation because the overall reading is averaged. On the other hand, if the bright areas outweigh the dark, I add a little exposure. If the dark, silhouetted areas outweigh the bright ones, I dial in a little underexposure. The amount of compensation is dependent upon how much the light or dark areas vary from the 50/50 split. The higher the percentage, the more I compensate. For instance, if the dark area is about 75% of the picture and 25% is light sky, I’ll underexpose the image –1¼3 and –2¼3 stops. This will ensure that the blacks remain black and the color in the sky is vibrant.

Another way to get proper exposure is to take a reading off a mid-toned area of the sky and lock in the exposure. I do this on the manual setting and ignore the camera’s reading when I recompose the picture. I also recommend bracketing, as each exposure will alter the color of the sky, producing tones that range from super-saturated to pastel.

Silhouettes can be created during midday hours, but the camera settings are more limited and restrictive. The subject must be placed at a transition point where no bounced light hits it. You can also use a dark, shadowy area of a building or archway. Canyons with tight quarters often leave small windows of light that you can utilize.

If you have access to a large east- or west-facing window, you can create an indoor silhouette studio. Place a piece of light-colored diffusion material over the window and darken the rest of the room. The light coming through the window should be brighter than the ambient room light—this will allow you to create a silhouette. Add variety to your images by modifying or changing the diffusion material. A set of Venetian blinds diversifies the effect. They can be angled to direct the light at the subject or can be adjusted to angle the light in an up or downward direction.

Photos that make you say “wow” have three things in common: good lighting, proper exposure and great composition. The rules that apply to good composition in any photo also apply to silhouettes.
The rule of thirds suggests you place the main subject at a “power point” within the frame. These points appear near the top left, top right, bottom left, and bottom right positions of the viewfinder. If you were to trace an imaginary Tic Tac Toe board over the ground glass, the power points would appear where the lines intersect. Placing the subject so it falls onto the coordinates of the rule of thirds makes the image more dramatic than if it was located in the center of the frame.


Dawn or dusk provides the greatest opportunity to render an outdoor silhouette with vibrant color.

Filling the frame is important for the composition to be successful. Photography is a subtractive process. You need to eliminate extraneous items by zeroing in on the main subject. No matter how intriguing the subject is, the image will fall short if the background is cluttered. Work the composition by zooming the lens, moving closer, or changing the angle. Make the silhouette the focal point and make sure the background supports the reason for making the photograph.

Lines and shapes of a silhouette are important, as are the secondary subject matter. The circular arch of a cave that creates a frame around the subject is important to the success of the image. If it’s cropped awkwardly or it leads the viewer’s eye out of the frame, it won’t have the desired impact.

The same backlight that creates a silhouette can wreak havoc on the image. If a strong pinpoint source of light enters the lens, the contrast may be softened or streaks of light may appear in your photos. The key to preventing this is to block the path of the sun’s light from striking the front element of the lens. The most common way to do this is to create a shadow over the front of the lens with your hand, without including your hand in the picture. Another way to cut down on flare is to keep your lens clean. A dirty front lens element will soften the contrast when light begins to strike it. A lens hood may help, depending on the angle of the sun. The more perpendicular the sun is to the film plane, the less effect the lens hood will have.

When the sun is just above the horizon and there are no clouds or pollutants in the air, it’s very difficult to combat flare. Rather than fight it, I position the sun behind the subject I want to silhouette. The object takes on a radiant glow, giving it a halo of light. Another rule of thumb to help combat flare—especially when the light source is intense—is to use as few filters as possible. Each additional layer of glass increases the potential to create lens flare.

As with black-and-white photography where everything is recorded in shades of gray, photographing silhouettes removes elements and simplifies the world as we see it. Challenge yourself to record the outlines of the objects you encounter. Go out and get “in shape.”

Text and Photos by Russell Burden,

22nd September 2006, 12:27 PM
tq dome.. tips ni.. dapat paham.. :D
dok mencari selama ni.. lom jumpa yg tepat+padat :D

22nd September 2006, 01:00 PM
panjang teh dome taip.. dok lengoh ke jari jemari?

22nd September 2006, 01:04 PM
tue aaa skeaping lagi tue pelaris :P

dR ali
22nd September 2006, 02:21 PM
Jazzakallah khair dome... baguih amat penerangannyer... :D

22nd September 2006, 02:31 PM
Thanks for the Info Dome... nicely done...

22nd September 2006, 03:54 PM
sungguh bermanafaat.. worth to read..
thank you dome..

31st December 2006, 01:51 PM
mungkin ada yg belum atau terlepas lihat topik ini, baca...quite interesting, mungkin boleh cuba dgn lembu korban? :wink: