Creating A Silhouette Portrait

Silhouette portrait photographed by award winning photographer Mark Laurie of Calgary Alberta

The silhouette creates very graphically driven photographic images. It’s startling to the viewer because it is not often seen. It can create such a void where the subject is, that the mind struggles to find meaning and detail. It is always gratified when it can make sense of it.

Once you grasp how light works with a silhouette, you will find it easy to create. It’s an ideal tool when working with nudes.

Before we get into the posing for the silhouette, I will take you through the lighting setup.

A perfect silhouette is when literally no light falls on the subject. They are a crisp black outline. The cleanest background to use is a white, or very light, background. You can control a lot of that through exposure. If no light is falling on the subject, then opening up the exposure will wipe out detail in the background even more.

The mistake that some photographers make is to light the background by putting lights off to the side aimed right at the background, then place the subject too close. Think of the direction of light like a billiards ball path. It will hit the background then bounce back. With the lights in close, aimed at the background, the light bouncing off the background comes back to the subject. It can create flairs in the lens, while it wraps around the subject making them grey.

Position the lights more to the side of the background so the angle of reflection takes the bounce light away from the subject off to the side. Or you can also bring the subject so far forward from the background that the bounce light cannot reach them.

Silhouette portrait photographed by award winning photographer Mark Laurie of Calgary Alberta

You will find it helpful if you use gobos to block the stray sidelight from the light from hitting the subject. One of the approaches I use in my studio is against my stone ruins. I have one light off to the side about four feet out from the wall it’s going to light. I aim the stronger center of the light to the far end of the set, with the weaker edge light hitting the part of the set closet to the light. This gives me an even exposure across the set with the one light. This is where a light meter is needed.

I then place a column out from the wall that casts a crisp shadow in front of and parallel to the background. There is no bounce light so when my client steps into the shadow she has no light wrapping around her.

You can recreate this outdoors. You just need a background that is relatively evenly lit and your subject in shadow, usually on the inside edge of the shadow. I have often used the sky as my background – overexposing it, but with the subject in a shadow, she goes to a full silhouette.

Silhouette portrait photographed by award winning photographer Mark Laurie of Calgary Alberta

For posing side poses, profiles will work best. Squint a bit when you look at your subject to wipe out detail on her. Be careful of arm placement and fabrics along with hair. You will want to create bends in legs and arms so the light can come through to show shape.

If it’s a full length then you will need to be mindful of the feet. If the shadow line falls too far back, they will disappear. This will happen if your shooting angle is also too high. Drop down until you see the feet becoming a visible silhouette.

Nudes or tight clothes usually work best. You need to watch for small bulges or bumps in their outline. For example, a baggy sleeve can double the width of an arm. A thick belt does not come off as a belt but as a thickness in the waist.

Bring in props that also have clean lines or distinctive shapes. When you approach the design of the image you need to think like a graphic artist, removing any clutter or shape that distracts from your design.

The background does not need to be white, or even really bright. It needs to lighter than the subject, generally by two stops.

For interest you can introduce a focused spot light on your subject. I often work with mirrors since their reflected light will have a crisp edge to you. I can very selectively light my client.

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