Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to compose and expose silhouettes to dramatize landscapes in the sixth article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
One of the most effective ways of dramatizing a landscape or a wildlife subject is to capture its silhouette. The combination of a strong form with a beautiful background is unbeatable. What determines whether or not the picture will be successful, though, is only partially a function of how beautiful or dynamic the background is. The primary factor that makes the image have impact is the shape of the various elements that you photograph in front of the bright or colorful background. If the shapes are not artistic and graphically pleasing, the photograph will be less than ideal. If the shapes are amazing, then the result will be amazing. When the silhouetted subject is busy, out of focus, or confusing, the picture just won’t work.
Great shapes are not always easy to find, of course, but that's what you need to look for. Landscape photographers spend much of their time in the field looking for strong, graphic shapes in nature. Sometimes they can turn up in surprising places, such as in the middle of a city. There are many stately cypress trees along the coast in Monterey, California, for example, and I was captivated by the elegant forms of their branches against the light sky. The top image doesn’t have a brilliantly colored background, but nevertheless I feel it’s a very successful silhouette. Note the off-center placement of the trunk along the right vertical third and how simple the design of this composition is.
Simplicity is often the key to creating striking photographs of silhouetted forms. Equally important is the graphic design of a subject. For example, compare figures 6.2 and 6.3. In the former, the mass of trees is busy and somewhat confusing to look at. The beautiful graphic form of the tree in figure 6.3 is artistic and has strength in its shape.
The monolithic form of the Matterhorn in Switzerland (figure 6.4) offers a dynamic subject. Most mountains don’t have such a grand shape. The image shows one of the most exciting opportunities in nature, when an artistic form is combined with a dynamic sky. Not all successful silhouettes require brilliant color, however. Look at the picture of bare trees I photographed in fog in the Great Smoky Mountains (figure 6.5). The background is light—a requirement for a silhouette—but the contrast isn’t as extreme as in the photo of the Joshua tree. Therefore, I was still able to retain subtle detail in the bark. That wasn’t necessarily my goal, but the diffused light made it possible to enjoy this benefit.
The exposure technique you use is important when shooting silhouettes. You don’t want to allow the dark form that may be placed in the center of the frame to adversely affect the meter reading. What can happen in a picture like figure 6.6 is that the meter detects the large dark area and, in trying to interpret the scene as a middle tone (as all meters are programmed to do), it overexposes the scene so that the black silhouette comes out gray and the background looks too light. To prevent that, point the camera at the sky without the tree in the frame, push halfway down on the shutter release to take the light meter reading, press the AE lock button to lock the exposure in place, and then re-compose the photo as you wish and shoot. As soon as you take the picture, the exposure will unlock for your next shot.
The Huangshan mountains in China (figure 6.7) are extremely impressive because of their form. I photographed them in misty conditions and captured a semi-silhouette in the early morning. Chinese artists have painted them for centuries because they, too, recognized the artistic appeal of the landscape. The stunning shapes of the mountains, coupled with ever-changing atmospheric conditions, offer incredible photographic opportunities.
Wildlife subjects can make impressive silhouetted images as well. For example, the poison dart frog I photographed on a tropical leaf (figure 6.8) is one of my favorites. Notice that I didn’t use a brilliant sky background, but instead the backlit leaf was so much brighter than the frog that it created the type of situation needed to shoot a silhouette. On the other hand, the wood stork I photographed in Florida (figure 6.9) was roosting for the evening, and against the relatively bright sky I thought the bird made an intriguing image.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow