Learn how to make more mysterious photographs with silhouettes.
1. Film noir and silhouettes
If you’re new to film noir, I highly recommend the following films:
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- The Third Man (1949)
- The Big Combo (1955)
Here are some great compositions in the films, where they effectively use silhouette to add drama, mood, and mystery:
Citizen Kane (1941):
The Big Combo (1955):
The Third Man (1949):
One of the way that these famous film noir directors were able to achieve these silhouettes were with smog machines, harsh spotlights, and (of course) shooting black and white film.
Also, in order to achieve silhouettes, you want the light source to be behind your subject.
For example, if you’re photographing your subject, you want the sun to be behind them.
One of the ways I find inspiration through silhouettes in film noir (besides watching them) is searching “film noir silhouettes” on Google. As well as searching “Citizen Kane Silhouettes” or “Citizen Kane Compositions.”
We have a wealth of film history and composition to derive inspiration from. Let us not waste it.
2. Shoot high contrast black and white on your LCD screen
For all of my photos I shoot in RAW on the Ricoh GR II, and use the “Eric Kim Monochrome 1600” preset in Lightroom.
I also shoot with a high-contrast JPEG preview on the back of my LCD screen, which helps me pre-visualize my silhouettes.
You can use this preview (when shooting JPEG+RAW) or just RAW. This will work if you’re shooting with an LCD screen, or using an EVF (electronic viewfinder), to pre-visualize silhouettes.
Some of my silhouettes:
3. Darken the faces of your subjects
Another tip to achieve more dramatic silhouettes in your photos is to darken (burn) the faces of your subjects, like I did in these image I shot in Tokyo, 2011:
When I photographed the man, I saw that his face was already pretty dark. So I then used Lightroom (adjustment brush) and darkened his face. To me, I love the darkened face, because it adds more mystery, and mood.
Funny enough, there is another photograph I shot in Tokyo (2016) that was very similar, this time just rending the image in high-contrast black and white was enough to render a silhouette (by ‘crushing the blacks‘, which means, to drag the blacks slider to 100% in Lightroom, or in post-processing):
But isn’t using Photoshop, Lightroom, or any other software to darken the faces of your subject ‘cheating’? No. The masters did it in the (film) darkroom. Why not do it in the (digital) ‘Lightroom’?
To access the ‘adjustment brush‘ in Lightroom to darken your subjects, first open up an image and do the following:
- “D” for Develop
- “K” for Adjustment Brush
- Use the [ or ] keys to adjust the size of the Adjustment Brush
- Set the “Exposure” slider to -1 (or whatever you want)
- Paint in the area you want to darken
4. Use a flash
Another way to create a silhouette when shooting is to use a flash. Use a flash to a subject very close to you, and many things in the background will turn dark, and silhouetted, like this photograph I shot of a man in Tokyo.
I focused on his boot, shot in macro mode with flash (P/Program mode) on the Ricoh GR II, and it rendered the man pitch black:
I find that using a flash silhouettes the subject’s face, if the flash is eaten up by another subject closer in the frame (in this case, the man’s shoe).
5. Minus-exposure compensation
To better render dramatic silhouette photos, set your “exposure compensation” to -1, or -2 (or even -3).
This will render the darker parts of your frame even darker, to silhouette certain subjects in your frame.
For example, I wanted this cross to be pitch black, in an eerie silhouette. I set the Ricoh GR II to -1 exposure compensation, high-contrast black and white mode, to get this image:
6. Blur your photos
Use ‘gaussian blur’ in Photoshop to see whether you have a strong silhouette or not. This also helps you determine whether you have good ‘negative space‘ around the head of your subjects, which is critical.
Ultimately, I think silhouettes are a great technique to get more mystery, a darker mood, and a nostalgic feel.
Try to experiment by shooting in different lighting situations. Shoot late at night, or shoot during the day using minus exposure compensation.
Ultimately, the silhouette isn’t important — it is the mood, emotion, and open-ended story that makes the photo unique.
Video slideshow of silhouettes
Learn more composition
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