Tips to Create Good Silhouettes

In response to this week’s The Daily Post for their Weekly Photo Challenge: Silhouettes I’ve re-written and reposted one of my favorite posts.

What Makes a Good Silhouette?

After the Fire: Condo owner Ron Ibara of Aspen, Colo., left, surveys his place while repairing the damage from a fire recently. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

A good friend of mine once said to me: “You must be happy, you have your silhouette for the week.” Zach Ornitzz said this after seeing a photo of the cleanup from an apartment fire. It is actually a compliment. Silhouettes are fun and challenging to shoot.

When I was going to Western Kentucky University, one of the guest lecturers was Washington Post photographer Michael Williamson. He was going over his portfolio and a project he was working on when he said that if you are overstretched and can’t find anything to shoot, go graphic. And what a better way to go graphic than shooting a silhouette.

Bullnanza in Hooper, Utah - Cowboys wait at the chutes during sunset for the bull riding competition to begin during Bullnanza held at the Hooper Arena in Hooper, Utah. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Wikipedia defines a silhouette as a view of an object or scene consisting of the outline and a featureless interior, with the silhouetted object usually being black.

The term was initially applied in the 18th century to portraits or other pictorial representations cut from thin black card.”

Easing their Horses - Cowboys ride their horses to keep them calm during a show and sale at the Western Kentucky University Agricultural Expo Center in Bowling Green, Ky. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

The term is said to be named after French Finance Minister Etienne de Silhouette who liked making the cut-outs of people’s profiles. It was a cheap art form for many of the poor at the time.

Contre-Jour is the technique in photography that is used to create silhouettes. It is simply placing your subject in front of strong light and exposing for the light. Therefore, your subject becomes black against the lighter background.

Reaching for the Rebound - A girl reaches for a rebound while playing a pick-up game of basketball at a Bowling Green, Ky., park. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

They are one of my favorite feature photos to shoot. They’re easy and, yet, challenging and I’ve had more failures than successes. My archives are full of failures. But I keep them to learn from them.

But when one works, it can sing. It’s not just a matter of shooting into a bright light and underexposing, you have to think in terms of elements.

For a silhouette to work, the elements in the composition must not merge. They should be distinct from each other and add to the overall theme of the image. Otherwise, it looks like a big blob rather than anything else.

Blazing Runner - A runner jogs along the Boardwalk at Boulevard Park in Bellingham, Wash., during a blazing Sunset. (photo © Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography).

They must be clean. The main subject(s) should not meld into other subjects and stand on their own. Some of the best seem to be multiple pictures in one.

Some silhouettes will work if there is a slight overlap, but for most, keep them separate. Work the image until you see the elements separate. This may take time, moving, waiting for the moment, or simply pure luck. You may even have to come back and attempt to photograph the scene again.

Although sunrises and sunset are the easiest time of the day, you don’t have to shoot at those times. You can shoot them indoors, outside in the middle of the day, and even at night. You can use a light background. For example, the silhouette of hikers against a mountain range or baseball players against the bright sky.

Requiem II - The partial solar eclipse and the cross at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Walnut Street in Bellingham, Wash., on Thursday afternoon Oct. 10, 2014. (photo © Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Practice Makes Perfect - The Aspen High School Skiers baseball team practices at the El Jebel, Colo., baseball diamonds in preparation for their upcoming season. Due to heavy snows that remain on their diamonds, the Skiers head downvalley to practice on the dry fields. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

The one thing you must consider is keep the background clean. Again, the key is to keep the elements separate.

It means paying attention to the background and foreground. You may have to lie on the ground, seek a higher vantage point, use a light background, or any method that keeps the image exciting, fresh and different.

Sometimes a little luck goes a long way. When I was interning at the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner, I had an assignment to photograph the Bullnanza in Hooper. It was an annual bull riding competition. I arrived about 15 minutes prior to the start and the sun was setting vividly in the west. As I was in the center of the arena taking light measurements, I noticed a group of cowboys at the top of the chutes. On my camera was a 300 f/2.8 lens so I grabbed a few frames before the cowboys dispersed and now you see the result above. It was a lucky shot.

Getting a proper exposure is rather easy. The light behind your subject is what you want to meter. Manual exposure mode is best. When in one of the automatic modes, the camera will attempt to compensate for the extra darkness by “overexposing” and you’ll blow out the background, hence, giving your subject some detail. This isn’t always bad. Some detail in your subject can add a little dimension.

Shoot something unique. Sure, shoot some clichés for practice, but go out and find some activities that allow you to shoot something different. There is a multitude of possibilities to make cool silhouettes.

Simply, silhouettes are:

  • Clean
  • Simple
  • No Merging Elements
  • Have a Theme
  • Are Fun To Photograph

So go out and have some fun. Shoot to your heart’s content. But most importantly: practice, practice, practice.

Add a link in the comments with your sample of a silhouette that you’ve shot.

Thank you for stopping by and reading. All comments are appreciated.

Paul Conrad

Paul Conrad Photography – Bellingham Seattle Photojournalist

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Harvest Moon Rising

Hello Everyone.

Testing a new and easier workflow to see how this works.

I’m uploading my photos to my website and linking everything from there. From Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and here. Hoping this may help in my website rankings. You know, all that fancy SEO speak.

Here is the first one.

Last weekend, I went out to shoot the Harvest Moon rising over Mt. Baker. Using the Photographers Ephemeris, I discovered if I drive along Lummi Shore Drive, I’ll have an excellent view of the moon as it rises over Mt. Baker. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. Clouds rolled in and I missed it.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad PhotographyThe Harvest Moon rises near Mt. Baker east of Bellingham, Wash., as seen from the Lummi Reservation on Lummi Shore Drive.

This vertical is my favorite. Though I like the one with the boat, below, I like this one best. One of my Facebook fans pointed out why: “this is more interesting. I like the long reflection, no boat, and the clouds over the moon. And the portrait version keeps the eyes from moving around too much.”

However, I went the next evening and the view was incredible. So I set my camera on a tripod and used my 80-200 f/2.8 to shoot it. I used my 1.4X converter for the first few shots of the distant Moon rising over the range just north of Mount Baker. But took it off as the composition was too tight.

The view of Mount Baker itself from this vantage point is awesome. You have a clear shot of this dormant volcano rising high above all the other surrounding peaks.

And it’s not that high in altitude as far as mountains go. It is only a 10,781 feet above sea level. What makes it impressive is that it juts out high above the surrounding peaks.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad PhotographyThe Moon rises near Mt. Baker east of Bellingham, Wash., on Sunday September 30, 2012, as seen from the Lummi Reservation on Lummi Shore Drive.

Using the self-timer set for 5 seconds to help eliminate vibration for a crisper photo, I almost missed the boat as it went through the Moon’s reflection in the water. Timing is everything.

In addition too using The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I also have a tool on my phone called “Moon Trajectory.”

This is a really useful tool in that it helps you find what day and time would be best to get photos of the moon as it rises through the sky.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad PhotographyThe Moon rises near Mt. Baker east of Bellingham, Wash., on Sunday September 30, 2012, as seen from the Lummi Reservation on Lummi Shore Drive.

You simply point your cell phone’s camera at the object you want, and it overlays the trajectory of the moon with ticks stating local time. I’ll have a review later with screen shots.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad PhotographyThe Moon rises near Mt. Baker east of Bellingham, Wash., on Sunday September 30, 2012, as seen from the Lummi Reservation on Lummi Shore Drive.

As the Moon rose over the mountains, I initially had my D300s with my 80-200 f/2.8 with the TC-14E 1.4X converter. After a few of these shots, I realized it was way too tight of a composition so I removed the converter.

Thank you for stopping by and reading. All comments are appreciated.

Paul “pablo” Conrad

Pablo Conrad Photography

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