Create a compelling silhouette of your subject.
First, remember what makes a silhouette interesting. You’ll want something clean, graphic, and almost iconic. Perhaps the image utilizes motion, strong graphic lines or even a compelling prop. The visual should be something more than an outline of a person against a white background. Select your subject matter carefully and choose something or someone that makes for a silhouette that excites the eyes!
Whenever I decide to use a silhouette in my images, I choose the subject matter carefully. A silhouette strips an image down to the most basic of elements: the outer shape of the subject. I must be compelled by this shape to create an image.
Silhouettes have been done a million (billion?) times before — so what do I have to offer that is new or visually engaging?
What makes for a good silhouette? If a person has an usual or elegant profile, I might use a silhouette shot to emphasize this unique feature. I once had a subject enter my studio with a large mohawk. My mind instantly went to silhouette because it would be a way to really draw attention to this unique element of this person. Albert Watson has a famous shot of Naomi Campbell, where her silhouetted profile in the image shows off the elegance of her long neck and her beautiful features.
When you shoot in silhouette, the image becomes almost like an icon or logo. Its monochromatic, simplified and easy to digest visually. What do you want to communicate about the subject? Maybe you are showcase someone’s features, showing off unique clothing, creating a graphic image, or allowing for high-energy movement to be showcased. When a prop (like an instrument or sports gear) is essential to a person’s identity, sometimes silhouette might be the best way to draw attention to this prop.
When you are considering silhouettes, there a few things to keep in mind.
Typically you want people’s heads turned to the side in profile in a silhouette. This helps give an additional identifying feature to your portrait. When someone faces straight forward to the camera, you lose a way to show who they are. The profile adds additional interest to the photo as the viewer studies the curves of the face to help identify a subject. Be sure to have a clean profile. If your subject has long hair, pull it away from the face and the neck. I’ve seen far too many images where a person looks like like have a goatee or nose hair because the hair wasn’t pulled back from the face, certainly not something most people will want!
There are instances when a subject can face straight on to the camera, but this would be when seeking something that creates emphasis on the graphic nature of the image and anonimity.
In silhouette it is easy for people to start to look like blobs. Be sure that the pose and clothing you have selected allow for separation between the body and the limbs. Select clothing carefully. Clothing that is more form-fitted or has interesting shapes will add impact to your image. Maybe you select a flowing dress with beautiful movement captured in silhouette. Perhaps you select more form-fitting clothing but pose your subject in ways where the legs are separated and the arms not tight against the body. Try adding movement for another level of energy to the photograph.
Use Manual Mode:
When shooting a silhouette, your camera is likely to get very confused. Your subject is very dark, and your camera if on Program Mode or Aperture Priority, may not understand that you are doing this on purpose. For this reason you may need to outsmart your camera. Either try shooting on manual (I shot manual for this challenge) so you have complete control, or use exposure compensation as necessary when shooting Aperture Priority. In short… you must take control of the exposure and not let your camera control you!
Give a REASON for silhouette:
Make sure when you look at the image it is clear WHY silhouette was the best option. This might be a cool prop that is showcased, or maybe you add really interesting movement, or maybe the individual is wearing clothing that creates graphic elements when photographed in silhouette. If you go for the simplicity, play up its benefits. In other words, a silhouette should be created with a purpose. Silhouettes can have a lot of impact and easily communicate and idea to your audience… just be sure YOU know what that idea or visual concept is.
Creating a silhouette in the studio:
When in a studio, light a white piece of fabric or seamless with at least two strobes. Typically I have one strobe pointed toward the top of the seamless, another aiming toward the bottom, and both are feathered across. This gives me more even illumination. Be sure the strobes are pointed toward the background, and use the modeling light to be sure you have lit all of the edges. Watch for any spill of light accidentally hitting your subject. Next, pull your subject as far from the background as possible. When they are too close to the background, the light hitting the background will start to wrap around your subject. Next, if you are in a confined space, be sure to avoid white walls or ceilings. White walls or ceilings act like large reflectors that catch the light, bounce it around the room, and make it very challenging to accomplish a true silhouette. If you are working in a confined space, use large pieces of black fabric or black foam core (V Flats) to block off the light-toned surfaces. Set your aperture to expose for the background at pure white, and let the subject fall to shadow. I’ll discuss another way to create silhouette in the studio a little bit further down this post!
Creating a silhouette on location:
When shooting on location it may be more challenging to control light to create a silhouette. Commonly you see silhouettes against the sun or an evening sunset. You are ideally looking for a situation where the background is 2 to 3 stops brighter than your subject. Sometimes on a sunny day, I will look for a situation where the sun is hitting a light-toned surface like a large white wall. If I put my subject in the shade with the large lit surface behind them, it makes it possible to achieve a silhouetted subject. These are not the only ways to achieve this on location, but a couple I use most often.
Other artists for inspiration:
If you want inspiration for some brilliant silhouettes, check out the work of the following photographers that have created stunning silhouettes. Hengki Lee, for example, has derived his entire style from utilizing the mood and powerful of silhouettes. Karel Vojkovsky fine art nude images utilize silhouettes to emphasize shape and form. Herb Ritts (one of my favorite fashion photographers of all time!) utilized silhouettes in several of his most iconic images.
For this creative photo challenge, I decided that I wanted to create an image that showcased really graphic shapes of clothing in the silhouette. I would keep my lines simple, clean and give my viewer dynamic shapes to explore.
As a fashion photographer, I know there are many designers that create incredible pieces with structure and the graphic silhouettes that I required. That being said, I know many of you watching these creative challenge do not have access to beautiful clothing or more avant garde fashion. Not to worry! I’ve got your back.
Because I am shooting in silhouette, I know that I cannot see the details or textures on the front of the outfit — only the edges. What does this mean? I can make my silhouette out of anything I please, and I can even totally change the shape in post!
Here’s the final image we’re going for:
For this shoot I decided that I would use pieces of foamcore/cardboard and fashion them into the shape of my desired silhouette. I cut a large circle to create a vintage-looking hat, and then positioned the two rectangular piece of board to make a large triangle shape for her ‘dress’. It tried several different configurations until I was able to find the perfect shape. In short… I created an avant garde look for under $20! Not too shabby! For her top I bought an inexpensive bodysuit from amazon.com (link below).
Once I had figured out my overall concept and the ‘outfit’, it was time to figure out the light. One way that I create a silhouette in my studio is by using a very large softbox (4x6ft) positioned directly behind the subject with no fill light in front. This creates a pure white background with a bit of wrapping light around the subject’s face. For this particular shoot, however, I decided to create a natural light version of this setup for those of you that may not have studio strobes.
I used a large window and created my diffusion that would give me a pure white background. I used a set of thin white curtain sheers (doubled up) hanging from a stand to create an even white background behind my subject that would allow light to pass through. Fundamentally, this acts quite similar to a softbox!
Next, I made sure there was not too much light in the room bouncing around and lighting my subject from the front. I closed all of the other curtains from the many windows in the space (the extra office area at CreativeLIVE). If you are working in a small space and using a window, you may need to find a way to eliminate all other light and cover up large white walls that are bouncing too much light in.
I had my lighting setup, my avant garde outfit, and then it was time to lock in the correct exposure. I shot on manual so that I could dial in just when I had a dark subject but still had a white background. Even if it wasn’t perfect, I knew I could darken the blacks and pop the whites in Lightroom to give me the cleanness I needed! Here you can see the image if I had not correctly exposed my image, then an image where I achieved and ideal silhouette, and finally the changes I made in post to perfect the shape!
Before Shot/After Shot:
What I love about the results is that the entire thing cost under $40 (I could have done cheaper), and I think it looks like an expensive shot out of the 1950s Vogue. Silhouette are timeless, and I tried to channel this timelessness in fashion for this creative photo challenge!
Shutter: 1/250 second
Metering: Manual Mode
Focal Length: 55mm
Total shoot cost:
I’ve shared my resulting image, and now it is time to share yours! Embrace the creativity and share your images by adding the hashtag #creativephotochallenge to the images you create for this challenge! Each month I’ll personally be selecting a couple of winners to be featured by @creativelive and to win some great prizes (including a Canon imagePROGRAF 1000 printer). Be sure to sign up to receive notifications about each month’s newest challenge, and don’t forget to check back on my blog for more details and inspiration!
Join the Creativelive Photo Challenge
If you’d like even more inspiration, check out my book “Creative 52” for more ideas to invigorate your photography portfolio! I can’t wait to see what you create! I hope I inspire you, because my photographic community is always inspiring me!
Used during this shoot