What is a Silhouette?
Silhouette, what does it mean? The word came into being as a result of severe economic demands imposed upon the French people by their finance minister Étienne de Silhouette in 1759. His name became linked with anything that was thought to be done cheaply. In the days before photography, making a portrait cheaply and quickly from paper became known as a silhouette. It is a term used to describe the image of a person or object that is represented as a solid shape. The interior of the shape is totally black and featureless. Only the edge of the object describes what the object actually is.
The term silhouette was originally thought to describe pieces of paper that were cut out and stuck to a contrasting coloured backing sheet, although the actual name ’silhouette’ didn’t become a well-used term until the early 19th century. Portraits cut from black card, became a very popular and quick alternative to the portrait painting or portrait miniatures.
From that original meaning, it has now become a popular term to describe anything that appears as a shape dark against a much brighter background. The fields of architecture, moviemaking, fashion and photography all use the word silhouette as a descriptor for the form, shape and outline of an object, person, building and so on.
In photographic terms at least, a silhouette is actually similar to a black and white shot. A black and white image relies on form, texture and composition since one of the key ingredients, colour, has been removed. Silhouettes are similar in the sense that they have had most of their detail and texture removed. The shot now relies on the composition, the form of the subject and being able to convey a mood, or story with the kind of presentation that is more akin to shadow puppet theatre.
Basic Ingredients of a Good Silhouette
So what do you need to make a silhouette happen? First, you’ll need your subject to be backlit. Backlighting is the term used to describe a lighting technique whereby a strong light source such as the sun, flashgun or even just a bright window in a dark room is positioned in such a way that it is directly facing the camera, or is at a slight angle to it.
The subject is then placed between the camera and the bright source of light. Because of the strength of the backlight, the subject is reduced to a dark shape since they are in shadow. Depending on the angle of the backlight, you can create a highlight on the edges of your subject which is known as rim-lighting or kick-lighting.
Embrace the Dark
Shooting this technique requires you to throw away the rulebook in a sense, to achieve the very specific look that defines a silhouette. For a conventional backlit portrait, you would use some additional lighting from a flash or a reflector to make sure your subject didn’t fall into completely dark shadow and make sure detail is preserved.
Now though, you are going to reduce the subject to solid black or at least as close as we can get to it without ruining the rest of the shot. The basic premise here, is that you are deliberately going to underexpose the shots by a specific amount to correctly expose the very brightest parts of the scene, which should then render the subject totally dark.
Although the capture of silhouettes is fairly straightforward, there are a few things to be aware of to make sure you actually get what you are hoping for. Modern cameras will always do their best to meter the scene for the best overall exposure and if you use a camera in fully automatic mode, then you lose any input in the decision making process when you take the shot.
For the best control of the situation, you should consider shooting in fully manual mode. Now the decision making is yours alone and you can fine tune your shots to make sure they turn out as proper silhouettes.