Street Photography Silhouettes

I love candid photography.  It is the way I photograph weddings, the way I photograph events and of course, the way I shoot most of my street photography.  The never ending variety of images intrigues and excites me because I am only limited by my vision and by my creativity.  With all of that variety, it is fair to say that backlit silhouettes are one of my favourite types of street photographs to make.  Silhouettes are defined as:

The great thing if you are newer to photography is that these are technically very simple images to make, once you understand the exposure and the timing.  And, they look great!

Here are some simple tips for making silhouette images:

  1. Point number one is the hardest part of the whole process:  You have to learn to see the light.  Maybe your backlighting is coming through windows or doors.  Maybe it is the light shining between two buildings.  Maybe it is from a light at the end of a hallway.  Maybe it is bright sunlight as you emerge from a subway station.  Images like this always start with seeing the light.
  2. Consider your composition:   You may have strong backlighting, but do you have a composition that can utilize it effectively?
  3. Consider your subject:  You now have great light and a strong composition, but are you in a location where you have appropriate subjects to frame against the light?
  4. If you are happy with all of the above the next step is to expose for the backlight, which should throw everything else into shadow.  There are several ways to do this:   Manual exposure works well here, especially in conjunction with spot metering.  If I am moving quickly and have my camera set to Aperture Priority mode (which I usually do on the street) I will often just use the Exposure Compensation dial to bring my exposure down by 2 or 3 stops, which is usually enough to expose for strong backlighting and throw everything else into shadow.   It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong here… this is very much a “season to taste kind of thing”.  It is ok to blow your highlights or crush your shadows.  Make the image look the way that YOU want it to look.
  5. At this point my final preparatory step is usually to manually focus on the place in my composition were I want my subject to be.
  6. Everything is locked in now:  Your light is good.  Your composition is good.  Your exposure and focus are both good so there is nothing left to do now but make photos.
  7. When considering your main subject, shape is everything:  You want a defined subject, not a black blob.  Think about the lines people create as they walk:  The separation between their arms and their body, and between their legs.  Think about how a great hat can add to your silhouette, or how a backpack can distort it.  Be patient, and wait for the right subject to make the shot look the way you want it to look….  It is always worth the time and effort.
  8. In post production (or in camera) I find these images always work well as contrasty black and white photographs.  Play with it though, and find your own style.  Again, it is YOUR art… make the photos that make you happy.

That last point is important.  Always remember:

There is NO right or wrong, only right or wrong FOR YOU.  This is art, not math, and what works for one person’s aesthetic may not work for another.  I cannot say it enough:  Experiment, practice, play and make the images you want to make.  Make the images that make you happy.

Here are a selection of silhouette images that I have made over the last year or two, all shot with either the Fujifilm X-Pro2 or the X100F.   With all of these images I saw the light first, found my composition, set up my camera, and waited for the right subject to enter my frame.

On an unrelated note, I need to take a short moment to express some gratitude.  Over the last few weeks I have had amazing conversations with people from all over the world, wonderful feedback on my last podcast and chat with my friend Valerie Jardin, and rewarding experiences with my online mentoring students and the students in my street photography workshops.  I have always loved being a part of the photography community, specifically the Fuji community, but the last few weeks have been especially rewarding for me so many thanks to you all.

And, finally, I encourage you to follow me on Instagram where I regularly post photos, stories, and tips between my larger blog posts here.  I can be found on Instagram at:

https://www.instagram.com/ianmacdonaldphotography/

Until next time!

Cheers,

Ian

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