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Shooting Silhouettes

African elephant ( Loxodonta africana) herd kicking up dust as they feed late in the day, Okavango Delta, Botswana

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) herd kick up dust as they feed late in the day, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Before photography, the first silhouettes were made by cutting shapes from black paper. A French politician, Étienne de Silhouette (1709 – 1767) is invariably quoted as being the first person to produce head profiles of people. Paper was invented in China at the end of the first century and it was here that paper-cutting originated as a craft five centuries later, where it is still practised today.

Left: Angel of the North by Anthony Gormley at dawn, Gateshead. Right: A Chinese paper cut of Heather Angel with a film camera

Left: Angel of the North by Anthony Gormley at dawn, Gateshead. Right: A Chinese paper cut of Heather Angel with a film camera

Whether made as a paper cut or shot in the camera, a silhouette highlights shape and form whilst losing all colour and texture. The best silhouettes are the simplest ones, where the subject is seen against a clean backdrop – whether it be a colourful sky or bright water and it does not overlap with any other object.

A saguaro cactus (Cereus giganteus) blocks out the bright sun in Arizona

A saguaro cactus (Cereus giganteus) blocks out the bright sun in Arizona

Do a reccé for static subjects – such as a single tree or a line of trees – on raised ground and check weather forecasts for clear skies at dawn or dusk to gain colourful backdrops. With animals it is more difficult to plan ahead, but some may make regular treks or flight paths at the begining or end of the day.

Fan palms or mokolane (Hyphaene petersiana) at sunset. Mombo, Okavango, Botswana

Fan palms or mokolane (Hyphaene petersiana) at sunset. Mombo, Okavango, Botswana

Side views of animals are preferable to head-on ones, so that characteristic shapes are instantly recognisable, such as the long neck of a giraffe or a swan, the trunk of an elephant, or the horn of a rhinoceros.

King parrot (Alisterus scapularis) silhouette at dusk after sun set in Lamington National Park, Australia

King parrot (Alisterus scapularis) silhouette at dusk after sun set in Lamington National Park, Australia

Aim for simplicty. Avoid taking trees or animals that overlap since it then becomes difficult to see where one begins and the other ends. Winter is a perfect time for showing the branching paterns of leafless deciduous trees and also to make a survey of the rounded clumps of mistletoe.

Silhouetted clumps of parasitic mistletoe (Viscum album) are easily counted on a poplar tree in winter

Silhouetted clumps of parasitic mistletoe (Viscum album) are easily counted on a poplar tree in winter

Wide angle lenses work for taking huge and ever-changing starling murmurations, while tele lenses are useful not only for wildlife nut also hanging tree flowers and fruits as well as leaf mosaics.

Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) leaping from the sea against the setting sun, Roatan, Caribbean

Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) leaping from the sea against the setting sun, Roatan, Caribbean

Spot meter off the bright sky or water to ensure the subject is underexposed by several stops and to avoid overexposing the background. Remember to use a lens hood when shooting into the sun, otherwise flare may appear in the frame and spoil the image.

Silhouetted unidentified leaves that have been extensively eaten, leaving the venation pattern, Xishuangbanna, China

Extensively eaten silhouetted leaves showing the venation pattern could be used as a fabric design, Xishuangbanna, China

10 tips for Shooting Silhouettes

  1. Select simple subjects
  2. Avoid overlap of objects in the same plane
  3. Check backdrop is uncluttered
  4. Check prime angle for silhouette
  5. Shoot against a colourful dusk or dawn sky to add colour
  6. Meter off bright sky or water to ensure silhouette is a true black
  7. Make sure to focus on the silhouette itself
  8. Use a lens hood to cut out flare on the lens
  9. Do a recce before dusk or dawn to find a tree with open branches on a hill
  10. Can use any lens for silhouette: tele for wildlife, macro for close-ups or wide angle for scenics
A loan pine tree on Huangshan placed to left of image to allow space for copy on right of a double page spread China

A lone pine tree on Huangshan, China placed to left of image to allow space for copy on right of a magazine double page spread

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