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How To Photograph Silhouettes With Compact Cameras

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Category: Studio Lighting and Flash

Shooting Creative Silhouettes With Compacts - Use your creative eye to see shapes and use your compact camera to shoot them as silhouettes.

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This article was updated June 2011.

Gear:

  • Point-and-shoot camera
  • Tripod - It's always a good idea to use a tripod, particularly when working in low light situations such as at sunset which is a popular time for shooting silhouettes. Those found in Manfrotto's 390 series are lightweight yet sturdy making them perfect for taking along on day trips to the coast or on your two week summer holiday where shooting silhouettes on the beach may be something you'd want to do. If you don't have the room for a full-sized tripod, one of Manfrotto's Pocket Series Tripods will, as the name suggests, fit into a pocket and when clipped to the bottom of your compact, they offer extra stability for shots taken from walls and other surfaces.

Technique:


Strong subject

 
  You can't fail to get good silhouettes with trees, especially when the weather is right. In this example the mist was heavy and has created a white backdrop.

You could go in really tight on the trunk and lower branches to create an inverted L shaped frame above a subject.
As silhouettes don't have any detail and are, essentially, just an outline, picking a subject that has a recognisable shape and strong detail around the edge will produce shots that are more interesting. Fairgrounds are superb places for silhouette, especially the big wheel which has a structure crying out to appear as a silhouette. As too are statues, which can be found in most parks and gardens, and stained glass and lattice windows. You can't fail to get good silhouettes with trees and silhouetted tunnels or bridges make great frames for subjects. A less obvious subject choice for silhouettes is rocks at the coast but as the example shows, the rocky silhouette sat against lapping waves does work quite well. If you're photographing people, shooting them side on will show more shape but if they're jumping or forming an interesting frame with their legs and arms, shooting straight on can work well.

Top: In this shot of the Sheffield Canal, the photograph is aligned so that the industrial buildings are framed neatly by the dark silhouetted bridge.

 

What light?

Any subject that is surrounded by bright tones can easily appear as a silhouette. The most obvious light source to use is the sun as you can use it at the beach, in town, in your garden or even inside as long as you're working near a large window or close to a set of patio doors. But really you can use any light source, you just need to make sure it sits behind your subject.
 

Switch the flash off

When you take a photo with a compact camera in auto mode and your subject's sat against a bright background, generally the flash will fire to lighten the foreground and even out the exposure. This is usually fine but as we want to deliberately underexpose our subject, you need to make sure the flash is turned off.

 
  Underexposed to ensure the walls came out black and the lattice work appears as the silhouette

Underexpose your shot

When working in auto mode, most point and shoot cameras will work out the exposure and where it needs to focus when you press the shutter button half way. So to trick it into creating a silhouette simply point the camera at the brightest part of the scene you're photographing press the shutter half way down and don't let go of it. Re-frame the shot then press the shutter button the rest of the way to take your shot. This should fool the camera into giving you the exposure you want but you may have to try exposing from different parts of the image to create the silhouette you're looking for. Try using the Sunset Mode too to further enhance the silhouette you're trying to create.

Focus

The problem with half pressing the shutter button to get the exposure you need is that the camera will also focus on that spot too which can mean your silhouette can lack crispness. If this happens and you can adjust the focus manually, pre focus before you take your meter reading. You could try using Landscape mode as this will let the camera know you want to use a small aperture so your shot has front to back sharpness. If your camera features exposure compensation you'll be able to select -1 or -2 to deliberately underexpose your shot. This means you shouldn't have any problems with focusing either as you won't have to move the camera.
 
Find the tripod to suit your needs at www.manfrotto.co.uk.

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