Feature Story

Silhouettes in Photography: Images That Move & Dramatize

Ocean Silhouette

No matter how advanced and innovative our technologies become, beauty lies in vintage techniques and old-fashioned perspectives. Before the advent of photography during the mid-19th century, the silhouette was the primary method for capturing the image of a scene, a portrait or an object.

TIME magazine's photography blog, LightBox, explains that "the silhouette reduces an object to its most basic form" and "the subject is backlit." Popular between the late 1700s and early 1800s, silhouette portraits were painted or drawn by skilled silhouette artists who, at that time, developed this timeless technique of visual documentation that all photography schools recognize and, most importantly, appreciate. Upon the invention of the camera, the silhouette became more of a nostalgic and artistic way to enhance portraits and heighten the imagery of a scene.

TIME's LightBox | "Silhouettes in the News"

Whether near or far, the silhouette provides anonymity for individuals and dramatizes what a photograph is meant to convey. LightBox highlights a collection of breathtaking silhouette images in the news that have left a lasting impact. Among the LightBox's beautiful 61 photos from around the globe, the collection includes images of soldiers in Afghanistan, deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest, President Barack Obama campaigning in Ohio, and an exhibition of fish crafted of plastic bottles in Rio de Janeiro.

With the sunlight streaming through the Jomblang cave near the city of Yogyakarta in Indonesia, the silhouette of a college student descends from sunlight into darkness. A dimly lit image of a mother dancing with a child on her back in front of a blazing fire in Freiburg, Germany. Silhouettes of young Afghan refugees gather outside of Islamabad on 'World Refugee Day' against a blood-orange sunset. A paragliding silhouette is captured sailing through the sky, overlooking the Algodonales mountains amid a glaring sun in southern Spain.

The silhouette lives on today as an influential way to photographically evoke emotion, express hardship, share stories and display beauty from all around the world.

How to Photograph Silhouettes

Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind the next time you set out to shoot some silhouettes.

  • LightRoomPresets.com recommends using "certain subjects [that] stand out more than others." To capture people as silhouettes, avoid composition and elements that blend with objects. Silhouettes appear clearer and, more distinctly, without a background filled with clutter and distractions.

  • Keep your subject backlit, don't use your camera's flash and set your camera to a manual setting. Your goal is to expose background light. Setting your camera to a manual focus will also help achieve a sharp and defined silhouette. Focus on your subject and meter the background; your subject's outlines will remain intact.

  • To enhance the background of a photo's contrast, depth or saturation, LightRoomPresets.com also advises using a circular polarizer or lens filter.

  • Because a silhouette is created by maximizing bright light in the background, TheDailyDigi.com suggests placing subjects in the foreground of an opened door or window; the horizon or the sun setting will provide an excellent backdrop for accentuating a silhouette.

Silhouettes are aesthetically and visually elusive, and photos are open for interpretation, which make them so appealing. Explore how you can share a story or dramatize emotion with silhouettes.

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