Creating silhouettes in photography is a great way to explore the drama in your environment, wherever you are. The contrast and lack of detail in a subject creates a mystery for the viewer, which can be beautiful and mysterious. They are easy to make and fun to look for the next time you’re out with your camera.
The key to making an effective and interesting silhouette you must first focus on the subject, it is much more important than the actual technical skills involved. The simpler of a subject the better, when looking for great silhouettes. Remember, you want a pronounced shape because you will not have much detail on your main subject. Outlines of bodies, hats or recognizable items are always a plus.
If you pick a subject that is blocky or boring you may not have what you are looking for. Usually one person works much better than a crowd because of the overlapping bodies may look very unusual. For those shots that might work with two or more, like a kissing couple, try to shoot it just before the contact is made so the heads or faces don’t blur into one large block in the image as an example.
The key technical parts of making a silhouette are all about backlighting. You want the background to be so bright that it overpowers the foreground and the side or shape of your subject. A great time to achieve this on the streets is when the sun is rising or setting because it’s the lowest in the sky at these points of the day. That will always help light your subject from behind. It’s not easy and you have to think about what you are seeing because it does differ from the type of photography you may normally be performing.
Instead of trying to capture perfection in your images, instead focus on awesome expressions. One of the fastest ways to ruin a genuinely joyful expression in your child is to try to ask them to sit still and smile. Instead, play games with your child while you take pictures of them. Kids love to play. Whether it’s playing peek-a-boo with a baby, hide-and-seek with a toddler, or silly faces with your school-ager, giving them the opportunity to see the session as play time will ensure you get genuine smiles and it will make the session go faster. Older kids require less game playing, but if you want your pre-teen to give you some awesome smile, just give them some bubble gum and tell them to blow the biggest bubble ever. Give your teen the opportunity to feel like the session is a model shoot—both boys and girls can show off their greatest talent or best clothing.
Let’s talk more about subjects to select. Something memorable and simple like I talked about above is the first part of selection. The second is the shape. An image taken straight on may not work. Try to have the subjects off to their sides or in a profile. Remember the shape needs to be distinct. Keeping your subject away from other items in the picture always helps. If you take an image of a person leaning on a building it may just all blend together and not possess the type of shapeful subject you were looking for.
ABOUT MIKE BOENING
Mike commonly finds his inspiration on the streets of his hometown, Detroit, Michigan, specializing in street and urban photography. Over the last five years, he has worked with the Detroit Metro Convention Bureau, covering events and taking headshots for a Fortune 500 company, and shooting sports photography. Mike has shared his love of street photography by teaching and leading groups on urban photography in the Detroit area and beyond.