Play of Light and Shadow

Silhouettes tend to convey a larger story and mysterious vibe with very little information. Silhouettes are very often used in movies or art as a way to tell stories with shadows. If you go all the way back to the Han Dynasty of China you will find the earliest records of shadow puppets. This ancient form of story telling has captured audiences for centuries.

In my opinion the best use of silhouettes was in Hitchcock’s movie Psycho were the an entire sequence disguised the murderer in silhouettes without giving the audience a glimpse of the attacker. It’s fascinating how simple shapes can create so much interest in an image without giving away too much. I feel that photographers most often use silhouettes and play with scale to send out a bigger message and as a result of this play of light and shadow the viewer is captivated and immediately drawn to the image.

Gazing into the mirror, I saw myself as I was-a black silhouette in the room, a woman whose darkness had completely leaked through.

– Sue Monk Kidd, ‘The Mermaid Chair.’

A beautiful silhouette can take your breath away. If you break it down it’s as simple as a shape or form that is dark exhibited in front of a lighter background. Even though silhouettes are a common artistic device but they occur so often in our natural surrounding. But the fascinating part is creating an image where a silhouette conveys a mood, or evokes a feeling and that is where the artistic bit comes in. Visual artists usually treat silhouettes as elegant with a hint of magic.

Photo Credits Romessa

Purpose of using Silhouettes:

So why do we need to bother ourselves with a new technique when our main job as photographers is to shoot portraiture. And for those of us who have clients, we don’t often have silhouettes as a part of the gallery that is delivered because they want to see themselves not their shapes. This is where art comes in, when you find yourself using silhouettes it is usually to create a larger story or an impactful visual to grasp your viewers attention.

My understanding is the reason silhouettes are so engaging because they are open to interpretation and people find themselves drawn to it because of the strong play of light and dark. Also, because the silhouette is basically just a shape of a person the viewer automatically either puts himself in the image or try to fill in the details of what it does not know. In other words silhouettes provide a great unknown which we cannot help but interpret.

Most people chasing their dreams don’t see the bigger picture, they just see the silhouette. Make the vision real!

Joel Brown

Shooting Silhouettes:

Before you decide to shoot silhouettes I would highly recommend you think of a story or a message or mood you are trying to convey this will help determine your composition and the amount of light you need to tell your story.

Photographing silhouettes requires we use back lighting, think of it as the light being your background, your subject being your middle ground and you being the foreground. This way you would be easily able to determine where you need to position your subject and yourself to get an amazing shot.

Photo Credits Marie Helen


Once you have positioned your subject you have to make sure your camera is focusing on the subject and not the background. I highly recommend using a large aperture f8 or higher. This is a setting ideal for shooting outdoors during the golden hour to get the most amazing colors and silhouettes. For good results try setting the ISO at 200, shutter speed at 1/160 to 1/200 and play with the aperture to create as much drama as needed.

That’s what I’ll be. A silhouette, rarely seen, and yet believed in.

Ellen Hopkins

Creative Exercise

Here is a challenge, I would recommend trying to shoot silhouettes along with slow shutter. The blur of movement with the light in the background could potentially create some very interesting results.

A second challenge would be to place an object in front of a window and shoot with your ISO at 100 or 200 , shutter speed at 1/160 and a wide aperture. I would recommend shooting three to four images with all your settings being the same but just play with the aperture. You could start at f8 and keep going until you see something amazing.

Share your results in the comments below and who knows you might be our next featured artist.


Silhouettes add a so much mystery, drama and intrigue to an image. It is human nature to keep guessing what we do not know to try to fill in the blanks of sentence until we have the full story. So why not play on that idea and create a play of light and shadow to see what you can achieve. Leave your work open to interpretation but always have a story in your mind when shooting because it adds so much to the mood of an image then you can imagine.

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