Secrets to Creating Powerful Silhouettes

By Marty Snyderman

This month's question, from Hank A. of Mobile, AL, focuses on silhouettes. In his e-mail, Hank commented that he thinks 'silhouettes can make an incredibly powerful impact,' however, he added that many of his silhouettes are 'too blah.' His subjects are good, but his 'photographs don't do them justice.'

The positioning of this Manta Ray between the
sun's rays and the photographer's lens,
makes a powerful silhouette.
I completely agree with Hank that properly exposed, well composed silhouettes can make extremely powerful images. While viewers don't see the details and colors they see in portraits or seascapes, the mood of a silhouette is often one of awe, power and intrigue. Perfect positioning can aid in the capture of an incredible silhouette. Often the subject is positioned directly between the camera lens and the sun. If the subject is not positioned correctly, you may want to check your location. Try changing your orientation toward the subject, the relative position of the subject or yourself with regard to the sun, your depth or your distance from your subject.

A fast shutter speed will help you freeze the action of a moving subject such as a shark, making the subject's outline more distinct. A faster shutter speed can also help separate the individual light rays of the sun, a feature that usually adds impact. I suggest using a speed of at least 1/250th of a second or faster when possible, but I see little need to shoot any faster than 1/500th in most scenarios.

When creating a silhouette you will want to take a light meter reading on the water that immediately surrounds your subject. As long as you see a silhouette with your eyes and properly expose the background water, you will produce a silhouette on film. As a rule you will use your light meter to determine the correct f/stop no matter what kind of camera you are using. Light meters are built into cameras such as a Nikon V and Nikon F5, while independent light meters such as Ikelite's DM 4200 are also very accurate and the bigger dial makes it easier to read. Manual exposure systems work far better for silhouettes than do TTL (through-the-lens automatic metering) exposures.

Your light meter reading will give you an f/stop to start with, but you'll definitely want to bracket the exposure by shooting frames that are one f/stop more open and one f/stop more closed.

Many types of film work well for creating silhouettes. Because you are shooting at strong upward angles it is usually possible to use comparatively slow films that have very small grain structure.