Why is the silhouette such a powerful, beloved style of photograph? Perhaps it’s because the technique makes it easier for the photographer to obscure what would normally be the obvious focus of the photo so that in withholding details and information, they force perspective to make a more impacting piece of art. You can do this with the best cameras in the world down to the simplest, from a top-of-the-line Canon Powershot camera down to Polaroid Instant cameras.
The essential element of a silhouette is backlight. When the strongest light source points directly towards the lens instead of originating from a source on the same side of the subject as the photographer – loosely called front lighting – it makes the side of the subject facing the camera relatively much darker than the light, obscuring the front of what is usually a person.
This doesn’t mean your photo is composed exclusively of blasted, overexposed portions and complete blackness, which can happen with a bad exposure. To take beautiful silhouettes, you need to master the art of controlling the exposure so you still get the colors, details, and light you want from the background or other areas of the photo that are lighted, while maintaining enough detail and contrast around the subject that that person remains the obvious subject of the shot.
Step 0: Have a purpose – Unless you’re just practicing, you should have a reason for the silhouette or a story to tell with the technique. The common image of the brooding individual is somewhat cliché; think about the storey beforehand and choose your location appropriately to avoid this.
Step 1: Turn off auto – If you haven’t already figured out how to shoot in manual or at least shutter and aperture priority (usually “M”, “S”, and “A” respectively on the function wheel), now is the time. Automatic mode will try to chance the exposure and force you to use the flash so more light highlights the details of the main subject and balances out the contrast between the backlight and the light on the subject. You want more control to prevent that. So switch to shutter speed priority and set it to a comfortable speed, which for most people is at least 1/80. You also want a lower ISO to decrease light sensitivity, so stay below 400, choosing depending on the conditions of the shot.
Step 2: Set up your shot – Get your subject in front of a light source and frame it up so the important details are present but not overly obvious. Take a few shots to be sure you are not overexposing the lighted areas, and use the shutter speed and aperture to work on that if you are. Underexposed is better than overexposed because it’s easier to fix in editing.
Step 3: Review (and shoot more if the subject is patient or stationary) – Use the histogram setting on your DSLR or Canon Powershot camera’s review function to get more details about the exposure. This will help you focus on each individual light and dark area so you can figure out if your composition is good and if you got the exposure right. According to pros, “the histogram should have spikes on the shadows and highlights, with little in between. If your histogram shows positive spikes on the mid tones, then your shot will contain unwanted detail.”
Use this information to take more photos and get closer to what you want.
With practice you can get beautiful shots from Canon Powershot cameras and even from the lowly outdated smartphone camera. You will discover how to take silhouettes you love that do more than just demonstrate loneliness or isolation.