How To Create Silhouettes With The iPhone

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by Emil Pakarklis – a passionate iPhoneographer and the founder of iPhone Photography School, a website dedicated to helping people take and edit better photos with the iPhone

Silhouetting is one of the most interesting iPhone photography techniques. Besides the fact that silhouettes simply look great, silhouetting allows you to eliminate unnecessary detail from your photos while drawing extra attention to your main subjects.

Since some key details are always lost in silhouette photos, they tend to have a lot more mystery to them. This allows the viewer to fill in the blanks in whatever way they prefer, thus unfolding a unique story inside the mind of each person looking at the photo.

Beginners tend to assume that it’s really hard to take silhouette photos. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. By following a few simple principles, anyone can take spectacular silhouette photos that are guaranteed to impress your friends and family.

Finding Strong Backlight

The first thing you’ll need in order to create silhouettes is a strong backlight. What it means is that the light source should be located behind your main subject or subjects.

Since sky is almost always the brightest part of the scene, one simple way to get strong backlight is simply pointing the iPhone towards the sky, as seen in the photo below.

The problem is that you’ll rarely find interesting subjects that can be shot from the bottom with nothing but sky in the background. For this reason you’ll often have to look for other situations where the light is coming from behind your subject.

Perhaps the most common way to find strong backlight is to shoot when the sun is low above the horizon, thus creating a strong horizontal flow of light. This is the case close to sunrise and sunset, or throughout the day in winter for those of you at a high latitude.

The photo above was shot right before sunset with the light coming from behind the subjects. This leaves the subjects in the shadow, and since the iPhone automatically exposes for the largest parts of the image, the people in the scene are silhouetted.

Note that this only works because the sun is shining from behind the subjects. If I were to turn around with the sun shining from behind my back, there would be no silhouettes and the entire scene would be equally exposed.

One potential problem with shooting against the sun is that the sun will often shine directly into your iPhone’s lens. Depending on the photo, this could be a good or bad thing. In the photo above the sun interferes with the main subject to create a very interesting effect, but in many other photos having the sun inside the frame could potentially be a problem since it blows out large areas and often leads to annoying lens flare.

However, the solution to this problem is very simple. All you have to do is hide the sun disc right behind your main subject, and any issues with lens flare or large blown-out areas will simply disappear.

While sunsets provide a wonderful opportunity for creating beautiful silhouettes, you don’t have to wait until the evening to shoot silhouettes. Often you can also find strong backlight throughout the day by making use of various architectural features.

Perhaps the most obvious such example – when bright daylight enters a dark area from the outside – was used to create the silhouette above. Did you notice that the silhouette is also seen in the reflection? That’s because water and wet surfaces in general do a great job at reflecting light, which can often lead to great silhouette opportunities as well.

In the photo above, all the light comes from the bottom of the scene since it’s reflected from the wet surfaces during a sunny summer rain. While it doesn’t happen very often, sunshine during or immediately after rain is perfect for creating silhouettes.

So far we have described a few of the most common light conditions that create a strong backlight. As you become more experienced with light, you’ll discover even more situations that allow you to create beautiful silhouettes with the iPhone.

Finding The Perfect Subject

Although it’s been implied throughout this tutorial, I want to emphasize the importance of finding the right subject(s) for your silhouettes. Since most detail will be lost anyway, is is absolutely essential that your subjects have a clear and interesting outline.

I often pick people as the subjects for my silhouette photos, and I’ve noticed that having a few distinct persons in the frame generally works a lot better than having many people in the scene. That way every silhouette gets the complete attention it deserves.

It is also very important that your silhouettes don’t overlap. Since you can only see the outline of each silhouette, overlapping silhouettes will quickly become indistinguishable from one another, thus creating a confusing and inharmonious image.

Finally, I’ve noticed that photos of movement often result in great silhouettes, especially if the movement results in the subject taking an unusual position as seen above.

Now that you know how easy it is to shoot great silhouettes, feel free to experiment with different subjects and light conditions until you capture your perfect silhouette photo. I’m sure that with a bit of patience and experimentation you’ll be able to capture something that will make you happy for years to come.


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