How to Photograph Sillhouettes

Sillhouettes are the outline of a subject or object whose inside is featureless. The object is usually black, almost shadow-like. Traditionally, sillhouettes are made by cutting a black card into the shape an object. The black card is then placed over white card to create contrast. We can easily replicate the sillhouette effect in photography with some creative lighting.

Traditional sillhouettes are black objects on white backgrounds. We can achieve the same effect in photography with a birghtly lit background and a dark foreground where our subject will stand, wrapped in shadow.

Step 1: Find a Background

Your background does not have to be pure white like the traditional ones. It can be anything. A brick wall, a doorway, anything that catches your artistic eye. But, for practical reasons, the background you pick should not be a tight area. Although it may look good, you need space to place and manipulate your lights to make the silhouette. Also, the background needs to be indoors so that you have full control over the lighting.

Step 2: Choosing and Placing Lights

Your silhouette is achieved by creating a high contrast between the brightly lit background and the dark subject in the foreground. You'll need fairly large lights, 2Ks or above, to create the contrast so the subject will be as dark and featureless as possible. You want the background to be evenly exposed and the foreground to be under.

Place the lights on each side of the set and aim them equally at the background. Position them so that the most minimalist amount of light is spilling. 

Step 3: Flag the Lights

Once the lights are is position, you should set a 4x4 floppy flag behind each one to block the light that is reaching the foreground. This way, it is all contained on the background. 

Step 4: Have the Subject Stand In

Now that you've made your broad strokes, it's time to have the subject stand in to see how you're doing. Maybe everything looks the way you want and you're ready to shoot. Maybe the subject is still recognizable and you need to add more light to the background, while upping the exposure. Perhaps the background looks great, but the front is now too dark. That's okay; there is a quick fix for that.

Step 5: Add Backlight

If you find the subject being lost in the shadows, then add a backlight to highlight their edges to give them more shape. You can either rig the light above the subject or have it on the side out of frame. Wherever you want to place it is up to you, as long as it makes the subject pop out of the dark.

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