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COMPOSITION & DESIGN PHOTO CHALLENGE: SILHOUETTE
Copyright 2021 Jack Neubart.
Silhouettes constitute some of the most dramatic photographs when executed correctly and, for the most part, when created intentionally. But what exactly is a silhouette? How do you define it? And, most importantly, how do you create a successful silhouette?
A silhouette is a featureless foreground positioned in front of a contrasting, often feature-rich backdrop. The foreground element may be the subject of the picture or it may simply be a supporting graphic element. For example, a person in silhouette in the foreground would likely be the subject; a fence or railing in silhouette in the foreground would likely be a supporting element - unless the eye is drawn to it as the focus of the picture.
By "featureless," we normally mean black, with no light hitting or bouncing off the subject in a measurable way. In other words, the subject is wholly underexposed, whereas the background has the proper exposure for the scene.
So, how do we create a silhouette?
Expose for the background, letting the foreground go dark. You can point the camera at the background, lock in the exposure, and, if needed, refocus on the silhouetted subject. But if the backdrop is the focus of the picture, as in a sunset, focus would also be trained on the sunset sky.
And avoid any fill-in lighting of any kind from illuminating the foreground.
Normally, a very bright background, such as a sunrise or sunset, is enough to silhouette foreground elements. In this case, the correctly exposed sunrise or sunset becomes the subject - unless it's not (see next paragraph). But to avoid underexposing the sunset as well (and creating a dark blob where much of the detail is lost in the background), you may need to open up the exposure by a half-stop to one full stop. You would do that by using the Exposure Compensation dial or menu setting - but only when shooting in autoexposure mode. The Exposure Compensation setting, for this example, might be +1 stop/step (or, EV = exposure value). When shooting in manual mode, manually use a larger F-stop or slower shutter speed that is the equivalent. For example, if your camera exposure was f/8 at 1/250, you might use f/5.6 at 1/250 or f/8 at 1/125 - either of which would increase the exposure by one full stop. If you find that this is too much, reduce the amount of exposure compensation, so you don't lose the rich color while recapturing detail in the background - all while leaving the foreground in silhouette. (Which setting do you change: F-stop or shutter speed? Depends on what's important to the picture: F-stop for sharpness front to back - depth of field; shutter speed to control blur/freeze movement.)
For instance, a gull flying in the foreground and silhouetted against that warm backdrop might be the subject, depending on your intent. If the gull is just a minor aspect of the scene, then it simply becomes a supporting element. If, on the other hand, it forms the focus of the scene, it becomes the subject, with the sunrise/sunset constituting the supporting element - although still properly exposed to bring out the richness of color and detail. And if we take this a step further, if the gull is the subject, then the shutter speed is likely of prime importance, so if you compensate exposure, you would sacrifice depth of field by using a larger F-stop, namely f/5.6 instead of f/8, in our example.
Create a silhouette. You can post old or new photos (no more than 6), in color or b/w. In the comments...
- identify what the subject of the picture is
- provide exposure details (ISO, F-stop, shutter speed, exposure compensation used)
- let us know what was the main light source
- provide a sense of time and place
- provide a backstory (what inspired you to take this shot?)
All members are invited to submit photos (no RSVP needed) & comment. Critique should be of a positive nature. Objectionable material will be removed.