Photograph a Silhouette

Silhouettes demonstrate how awesome it can be to occasionally break the "rules" of photography. It's pretty easy to photograph a silhouette--many new photographers do it all the time. They just don't always do it on purpose. Recently, I told you about "Five Common Photo Mistakes." This week, we'll intentionally commit the first mistake--underexposing your subject--for some creative effects.

Choose the Right Subject

What should you silhouette? Given the right lighting conditions, you can turn almost anything into a silhouette, but not every subject will look good as a shadow. Remember that a silhouette lacks detail--it's just an outline filled in with black. Consequently, you should look for subjects with strong, recognizable shapes. A complex, busy subject might not work, especially if you need to see details to make sense of it.

Configure Your Camera

You can get good results with any camera and any kind of exposure control.

First, turn off your camera's flash. We don't want to throw any light on the front of your subject.

Next, set the exposure mode. There's no need to get fancy; you can leave your camera in its automatic mode. We want to take advantage of your camera's exposure lock feature, though. As you might know, virtually all digital cameras lock the exposure setting when you press the shutter release button halfway down. This allows you to point the camera where you want to the exposure to be measured, lock in the exposure, and then reposition the camera to fine-tune the composition. See "Focusing When Your Subject Isn't in the Center" for more about that.

What if your camera doesn't have an exposure lock feature? Then you can try using exposure compensation instead. Take the picture normally, but set the camera's exposure compensation (usually abbreviated as EV) to -2 or -3. That will underexpose the photo, hopefully rendering the subject a deep black in the process. You might need to experiment with a few different variations to get the right effect. For more information about using this setting, refer to "Fix Your Exposure Before You Take the Photo."

Keep the Subject in Focus

Of course, you'll also want to keep the focus in mind. For best results, we want the subject in sharp focus. If your subject is far enough away, that's not a problem, since when you lock the exposure on the background, it'll set the focus to infinity, and you'll get good results. But if the subject is too close, it'll be in a different focal range than the background, and your silhouette will be fuzzy.

The solution? Check your camera to see if there's a way to lock the exposure and focus separately. If there is, use that mode to prevent the focus from locking in on the background when you set the exposure. If that's not possible, switch your camera to manual focus and focus on the subject by hand. It's not as convenient as automatic focusing, but it'll make a big difference in your photo.

Take the Photo

Now it's go time. The easiest way to photograph a silhouette is to position yourself so that the subject is between you and a bright background, such as the sky or bright artificial lights.

Point the camera directly into the brightest part of the scene and depress your camera's shutter release enough to lock in the exposure. Then, keeping our finger on the partially depressed shutter release, recompose your picture and shoot.

If all goes well, you'll get an inky-black subject, since the exposure was based on the brighter background. If your subject isn't quite silhouetted, you can try again, underexposing the image even more using the exposure compensation control on your camera. In the photo linked here, I silhouetted a child against the sunset.

And in this photo, I spied a bird that simply would not wait for me to walk around the tree for better lighting.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Afterburn," by Robert Florczak, Sunrise, Florida

Robert says: "I took this photo with my Canon S5 IS at the Warbird Museum in Titusville, Florida. It is not retouched in any way. It is actually the rusted afterburner section of an F105G Thunderchief. I slung my torso into the engine as far as I could."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Spider Found" by John Astolos, New Alexandria, Pennsylvania

John writes: "I was taking pictures of a sunset near Keystone State Park in New Alexandria, Pennsylvania. I had gotten the exposures I was after and then decided to sit down. In the weeds in front of me, I noticed the spider. I took a series of shots, and fell in love with this one."

To see last month's Hot Pics, visit our slide show. Visit our Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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