Creating Silhouettes

This image of a shorebird at sunset was captured on the west coast, in San Diego.

This image of a shorebird at sunset was captured on the west coast, in San Diego.

Silhouettes use shape and contrast to create a timeless, dramatic and often emotional image. Lacking detail, a photo is taken to its simplest structure, however, to create the best silhouettes a bit of technical know-how mixed with the artistic eye is needed.

As with many photo techniques there are multiple ways to get the desired effect, so I will share my favorites. Start with these suggestions and modify them to your needs as you incorporate them into your personal style.

These Great Blue Herons were active well before sunrise, when the pre-dawn pinks and blues were just beginning.

These Great Blue Herons were active well before sunrise, when the pre-dawn pinks and blues were just beginning.

These courting Great Blue Herons were cooperatively active at sunrise in Florida.

These courting Great Blue Herons were cooperatively active at sunrise in Florida.

This image of a single Great Blue Heron was taken the day after the image above. Every day can be very different in the same location!

This image of a single Great Blue Heron was taken the day after the image above. Every day can be very different in the same location!

First, with your camera on a tripod, position yourself so that your subject is placed in front of the bright part of the scene, without distractions blending with the subject (like a tree branch across the face).

Next, using the aperture-priority mode of your camera is often best in this case, determine if you want the background to be as sharp as possible (like the big ball of the sun in the images to the right). If so, use a small aperture like f/16 or f/22. If you want your background out of focus use a larger aperture like f/2.8 or f/4.

Most cameras have an ‘evaluative’ or ‘matrix’ metering mode which reads the light throughout the scene. If using this mode, begin by setting your exposure compensation to EV -2.0. This may need to be adjusted according to the contrast of the scene. An EV of -2.0 will make your subject black, as desired, and help eliminate any clipped highlights so you have proper color throughout the scene.

This sunset was over an island off the coast of Honduras.

This sunset was over an island off the coast of Honduras.

This sunset over Cape May Point looks tropical.

This sunset over Cape May Point looks tropical.

Cape May Point is a wonderful place to photograph. An EV -1.0 was perfect for this capture.

Cape May Point is a wonderful place to photograph. An EV -1.0 was perfect for this capture.

Another option would be to use your cameras ‘spot-meter’ mode and place the meter’s spot on the brightest part of the scene. In this case, using the manual mode is best to be sure that your exposure settings do not change when you compose your image.

This frog was lit from behind by the sun. Though the sun is not in the image, it was bright enough to give me this silhouette using an EV -1.0.

This frog was lit from behind by the sun. Though the sun is not in the image, it was bright enough to give me this silhouette using an EV -1.0.

Sunsets and sunrises are not always needed for a background. Here the palm fronds and tropical leaves were lit by the sun.

Sunsets and sunrises are not always needed for a background. Here the palm fronds and tropical leaves were lit by the sun.

As shown in the above two images, you do not always require a sunset or sunrise as long as it is a bright background with few distractions.

You may need to do some clean-up in post-processing, but remember, creating the best image possible in-camera will give you the best image possible after post processing.

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