Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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The trick to creating silhouettes in the field, as far as I know, is to use spot-metering and to expose for the background. However, this is a bit more difficult in a studio environment. What is the key to creating "artificial" silhouettes?

One solution that I'm considering is placing a bright flash directly behind the subject - would that work?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The easiest way is to light the background, not the subject and meter for the background. It's really not all that different than doing it outdoors, it's just that you have to position the light(s) and make sure it's strong enough so that it does make your subject very dark. Obviously, this will work better if the background is very light in colour and there is no other ambient light. Also, be aware of the room size and light bounce, if the room is small, you may still end up lighting the subject more than you want.

To answer your specific question, if the subject is small enough, a flash behind diffusing material, which is behind the subject, may do the trick for you with the diffusion material acting as the background. But if the subject is a person, it may be more difficult to do with a basic flash. Also, if you're remote controlling the flash with the onboard popup, make sure the onboard flash doesn't fire or you shield it.

If your light source isn't continuous, you may have to do a few test shots to get the exposure right. Which, with digital, isn't really a problem. :)

Anyways, if you get very close, you may be able to complete the effect in post processing with some exposure, curves, or black level adjustments if you shoot RAW (which I always recommend anyways).

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I can't add much to what John says, basically light the background only (the best way of achieving this is with the flash behind the subject pointing directly at the background) and expose for that light, prevent spill onto the subject (easiest way to do this is to get the light as close as possible to the background) and you'll get a good crisp silhouette.

I thought I'd share a few examples I have. These were from portrait shoots, I wasn't aiming for a silhouette, but my process for lighting these is to start with the background light only, checking it doesn't spill onto the subject, then I shoot with the subject light only, checking it doesn't spill onto the background. This means you are lighting each totally independently, which reduces the number of variables you have to correct.

This last shot shows the foreground only and background only setups (same camera settings for each):

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Wow, that's really cool. Thanks so much! –  Maxim Zaslavsky Dec 14 '10 at 3:16

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