We previously discovered that the pretty colors in a sunset aren’t always enough. A winning sunset photo needs a star. In today’s lesson we’ll discuss adding silhouettes to get better photographs of the sun.
In previous articles, we have mentioned that the star could be an interesting palm tree, a seagull flying by, or basically anything. The gorgeous colors are the backdrop to our star, not the focus of the photo. But, much like our regular non-sunset landscape photos, the most effective star is a person—people like looking at people! You will get the viewer more easily engaged in a photo where there are people being shown.
In a sunset photograph there are two ways to add a person. In silhouette showing no detail and the traditional route that shows full detail. Today’s sunset photography photo tip will discuss adding a silhouetted person or other subject. The principles are valid no matter what your “star” is. Done well, the end result can be one of the most exquisite photographs you could create.
When adding a silhouette, the key element to keep in mind is that you are adding a shape, not a person (or bird or tree). Your shape will be pure black with no detail. In sunset photography, getting the pure black shape with no detail is pretty basic. In our earlier discussions, we learned that if we take our meter readings from the sky—everything else in our sunset photo is going to be underexposed and black. Ta-daaa!
Previously, our concern was to bring detail into the dark areas, now we just let them go dark. To add a silhouette, the first step is to meter from the sky, not the person. If you meter from the person, your camera will make a mighty attempt at setting an exposure to show detail. In other words, you have to take the camera off automatic. Meter for the sky and then re-compose to put your “star” in the correct place in the photo. Easy.
The second concern we have in adding a silhouette is actually harder to get right. Remember, you’re adding a shape and everything but the sky is black with no detail. Including the ground. When you add your shape, it has to “read” correctly. By “read” I mean when someone looks at your photo, they must be able to instantly tell what it is. If your subject is standing in front of some other object, like a palm tree, rock or whatever, the silhouetted shapes will blend together and distort the image.
This idea is hard to put in words, but easy to understand. I’m sure you have seen photos where the silhouettes blended together and neither looks right. A person with a palm tree growing out of their head, a palm tree with a seagull’s wing sticking out of the trunk and so on. Be sure that there is nothing intersecting with your silhouetted shape, including the ground. I frequently see silhouettes where the top half of the model is in silhouette, but the bottom half is lost in the ground. You may have to shoot up at your star from a slightly lower vantage point to avoid this sort of blending.
The third factor to consider is the shape itself. Not only do you have to watch out for your silhouette not reading correctly because it blends with others, it can blend with itself too! Arms crossing in front of the body or hanging (with no gaps) along the sides, legs together and so on. To get an effective silhouette, the pose is vital, more so than in a normal photo of this person. The fact that she is a pretty girl doesn’t matter in this case. In a silhouette, no one is going to be able to tell what she looks like.
Take photo examples from magazines and color them with a black magic marker. Would that pose “read” and be effective if that was all you could see of the person? Hats and other clothing could dramatically alter the shape and look weird in silhouette. It may look like a tiara in the wedding photos, but in silhouette, it looks like devil’s horns sticking out of her head. Study various poses for their shapes and find several you can use when you are creating silhouettes. Add them to your notebook so you will always have them at hand when the situation arises.
Silhouettes are not only effective in sunset photography, but also at weddings. For example, pose the couple in silhouette in front of a stained glass window. Or, at the door of the church with the light from outside silhouetting them.
Practice today’s landscape photography photo tip on how to get better sunset photography by including silhouettes. There are many times when a silhouette is just the thing you need to separate you from the crowd, its worth learning how to do them well.
About the Author:
Dan Eitreim writes for ontargetphototraining.com. He has been a professional photographer in Southern California for over 20 years. His philosophy is that learning photography is easy if you know a few tried and true strategies.
Here are some more great photos with silhouettes in them: