Shooting a silhouette correctly can give you a striking picture--especially in color. But too often, a silhouette is little more than a mistake--the flash doesn't go off, the subject is backlighted or you forgot to correctly adjust your film speed.
The first thing you should determine is what you are trying to accomplish. Is your silhouette the dominant part of the photograph or a small element giving an added dimension or character?
A silhouette brings the image down to its simplest elements by eliminating the middle tones in your subject. It is also surprising how much information a simple silhouette can reveal--a person heavy in thought, a young child frolicking on the beach or a winter snow scene of a naked tree.
It is a method of bringing your information to the front but in a subtle way. A properly exposed and composed silhouette will bring drama and excitement to your images.
Make sure there is a balance between your light and dark areas. The rules of composition still apply. Make sure your subject isn't stuck right in the center of your frame. Also remember that this style is used to create mood or emotion. Visualize as you create, though some of your best images will probably happen by experimentation--bracket your exposure, change lenses and angles.
The easiest rule to follow is to have your light source behind your subject. Put your subject in front of a window, in front of a sunset or in front of a white wall and direct the lights at the wall instead of your subject.
Window light. Your exposure should be read off the window light. Take your light reading with the subject away from the window, then move your subject into position. In the case of a fully automatic camera, this will not be possible. Instead, compose your picture with a large portion of the window showing so that your light meter will be fooled and underexpose for the silhouette. If you have the time, experiment. Use a white piece of cardboard or reflective material to the side to bounce a small amount of light toward the subject. This will give just a hint of detail.
The beach at sunset. Probably the most frequently photographed location for a silhouette is the beach. However, the beach gives light meters nightmares. With the bright relections off the ocean and the white sand, your camera will normally expose for this bright highlight area and underexpose your subject. This is perfect for silhouette but not if subject detail is important.
Your best silhouettes will come at sunset. It is hard to do it wrong with the vibrant colors in the sky at this time of day. Your camera will probably give you an exposure that is fairly accurate as you point it toward the horizon. Your subject will be a shadowy figure because the exposure will be taken from the bright sky and setting sun.
For an even more dramatic look, bracket your exposure if your camera has a manual setting. Try closing down at least one f-stop. The colors will become more intense as you underexpose film. This is especially true when shooting color slides.
A white wall. This image may be shot against a wall in the home, a white bed sheet or a studio backdrop--only your imagination will hold you back. You must direct your lighting toward the background and take your meter there. A good rule to follow is to have your background four f-stops brighter than your subject.
If you're using color film, the style of light source and film type will produce different color backgrounds. With daylight balanced film, incandescent lights will produce a warm orange cast, fluorescent lights give a green cast and strobe lights produce a whiter cast. Try using color gels over strobes. This will add color to the background, giving you more flexibility, creativity and drama.
The Photography Column, which runs Saturdays in Orange County Life, is intended to help the serious amateur and weekend shooter. Questions and ideas are encouraged. Write to: Robert Lachman, Chief Photographer, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif., 92626.