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By Jim Heid | Thursday, February 13, 2014

Shooting Silhouettes

Ben and Musician

Sometimes shapes tell a better story than details. When you photograph a subject in silhouette, you emphasize body language instead of facial expressions. A silhouette can be a powerful way to tell a story or convey a scene in an abstract way.

Encounter: ©Jim Heid 2014

Encounter – ©Jim Heid 2014

Shooting in silhouette is the subject of this week’s installment of The Practicing Photographer. Ben Long heads to an ocean bluff with musician Stephen Kent to shoot some silhouettes as the sun is setting.

That kind of strong backlighting is a helpful ingredient when you’re shooting silhouettes. You want to severely underexpose your subject so that you capture very little detail. Your camera’s settings can help here: Dial in some negative exposure compensation to underexpose your subject. It also helps to simplify the frame so that your subject’s shape really stands out. Ben does this by getting down on the ground and shooting upward, so that his subject is silhouetted against the sky.

The photo below is an example that I shot at a small-town festival in Northern California. A highlight of the festival is a tall pole that’s coated in grease and topped with a $100 bill. All day long, kids and adults alike attempt to climb up and grab it. Northern California’s wind-driven coastal fog provided the perfect uncluttered background for my subject.

Pole: ©Jim Heid 2014

Pole – ©Jim Heid 2014

To try your hand at silhouette photography, find an uncluttered background and a strong backlight, such as the setting sun. Adjust your camera to underexpose the subject. You may also find that some post-processing in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom can help increase the contrast in your scene and reduce the amount of detail visible in your subject.

Experiment with silhouettes. You’ll get some geometrically interesting photos—and you won’t have to ask your subjects to sign model releases.

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