Silhouette Portrait Photography: Everything You Need to Get Started
Why Create Silhouette Portraits?
One of the questions I get asked many times is “Where do I put my light in relation to my subject?” It's a fine question and there are a lot of valid answers, each different from the other. However, there is one answer that's better than all of the rest.
Where you place your lights depends upon the story you want to tell. That's why Lee and I decided to play around with silhouette portrait photography after a recent marketing/product photo session that we set up in our living room.
The story was about Lee's fitness and muscular development. She's worked very hard lately and the results are noticeable. Not monstrous, but she just looks fit.
At the gym where she coaches people, new clients walk in and say “I want to look like her.” That's pretty high praise.
I knew that we could use some dramatic lighting and shadows to show off her development, but then I wondered how things would look if everything was in shadow.
Basically, we had to light the background behind her and allow her definition to tell the story. It's sort of like those old Apple iPod commercials with dancing silhouettes. The shape tells the story by itself.
What Gear Do You Need to Take Silhouette Portraits?
This list is pretty simple. I'm going to mention the bare minimum, and then mention some items that you can use to enhance your portraits. This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.
The Basic Kit
The concept is to light the background without letting the light hit your subject. So you need a location with a background and some space to move your subject away from it.
To light your background, you can use either one or two flashes. I recommend two, as it gives you more options to control the flow of light and eliminate fade.
For this session, I used a pair of Flashpoint eVOLV 200 flashes, also known as Godox AD200 flashes. These are the same lights, but I recommend buying them from Adorama under the Flashpoint brand. Why? Because Adorama gives you a warranty. Godox doesn't. You pay the same amount for Godox AD200 elsewhere, but you don't get anything but the product.
Next, you need a light stand for each flash. My recommendation is the Manfrotto Basic Lightstand. There are more advanced stands you can buy, but I had my best results with the Manfrotto brand. Having bought some Interfit and Impact stands in the past, my opinion is that they're not as good as Manfrotto.
Actually, my opinion of them is much worse, but I like to keep things family friendly.
Of course, you also need your camera kit. That's the minimum, so this isn't terribly complicated.
Optional and Recommended Gear
While you can create a silhouette portrait on a white background using the gear above, your creativity comes into play when you start adding colors. That's why we like using color gels.
Also, you may not always have just the right background in place, so we also recommend a roll of seamless paper.
We use Savage Fashion Grey seamless paper, 107″ width. If you want to make it white, the flashes can do that easily enough. It's also quite easy to use for your gelled lighting to get color – we think much better than either white or black. Fashion Grey is perfect for portraits, on their own or as a background to make compositing easy.
If you go with the seamless paper option, you need something to support it. There are kits just for supporting seamless paper, but we went with a different direction that's a bit more flexible.
The support kit starts with two more Manfrotto Basic Light Stands. We put a Manfrotto Superclamp with Stud on top of each stand. Those Superclamps hold a metal rod that we picked up at Home Depot – just a plain 1″ pipe about 130″ long. We run that through the Fashion Grey Seamless, drop it in the Superclamps and tighten them up. Then we just raise the extensions of the light stands.
You'll want at least one pair of A-clamps, but perhaps two pair. You can get this Spring Clamp from Tether Tools, or just pick up something from your local hardware store.
After you roll down your seamless paper, use an A-clamp on each side of the roll to prevent it from creeping down. Trust me, you do not want the seamless to bunch up. That causes lines and shadows on your background if it isn't uniform and flat. Use the second pair to add weight to the bottom of the paper if you're not shooting full length. That helps eliminate any wrinkles in the paper.
If you need to shoot full length, then roll out enough to separate your subject from the background and hold it down with Gaffer Tape – the photographer's best friend.
Adding Color to Your Background
There are a lot of different types of gels available for your flash. From my experience, I absolutely hate using flimsy gels. It's one of the reasons why I never did much of this kind of photography in the past – other than some necessary color correction gels.
Now I have a solution and I love it. It's from MagMod and it really makes flash photography a lot more fun.
If you haven't used MagMod light modifiers before, I'll admit they can get a bit pricey. However, they're exceptionally well made, rugged and delivery quality results better than their competitors. There's an off-band knock-off version of MagMod from Selens, I think. Don't waste your money on those.
You don't have to use MagMod to get results. I just find it easier, so I'll mention my kit.
The MagMod Basic Flash Modifier Kit will get you started. I suggest getting one for each of the flashes you want to use. That's because you need the MagGrip for each flash, as that's the piece that attaches magnets on your flash to hold the other modifiers. You can buy the MagGrip by itself if you don't want to get a whole kit for other flashes.
The MagMod Basic Flash Modifier kit includes a gel holder and a selection of color correction gels. The reason I suggest that over getting one kit and a MagGrip is because you also need the gel holder for both flashes if you need more than one flash.
What's the difference? Mostly because they have different colors and that provides you with more options. I don't find that one kit is more creative or artistic than the other, but they have to call the product something.
I love these gels. They work well, they're tough, easy to use and easy to store.
Kicking it Up a Notch
Having a variety of colors to use on your background is great. Do you know what makes it better? Using some masks to add shapes with gelled light on your background.
To do that, I bought the MagMod MagBeam and some additional MagMasks (Yes, everything starts with “Mag”).
The idea for the MagBeam is to extend the range of your flash. Wildlife photographers use it to light up critters they want to photograph. However, there's another purpose for this little beast.
You can use it to hold a gel and a mask to display patterns on your background. You can show anything from a window frame to some really spaced out patterns that add some extra punch and dimension to your photos.
So you can tell I spent a bit of money going in for the kit, but I'm very impressed with the MagMod tools. There are other light modifiers, grids and accessories to give you a lot of combinations and options for your photography.
Things We Learned With Silhouette Portrait Photography
While the results are interesting and we're very happy, there are some lessons we learned along the way. Here are a few things that we thought would be nice to know before we started.
Have Ample Space
Our living room is fairly large from front to back, but we ran into issues when trying to move the lights away from the background.
You need to have your subject away from the background far enough that the light doesn't bounce onto the subject. How far? That depends upon the size of your background and the power of your flash.
We found that you don't need to blast flash power to saturate your background with color. In fact, too much flash power causes your color to fade on the background, so less is more. If you're trying to use bare flash to create a solid white background, you run a greater risk of light bouncing off your background and onto your subject.
Moving your flash away from the background increases the size of your light on the background. This makes sense. If you put the flash right against the background, it doesn't have room to fill it up with color. Move the flash back to increase the range of its output on the background.
You can see the shape from our eVOLV 200 head when it's too close to the background. Pull it away and the gradient goes away, leaving you with a saturated and even background.
That was one of our problems in our home studio. One side had room to back up, the other side had a wall in the way.
Think About Your Pose as a Shadow
Remember, there shouldn't be any detail on your subject. That means the result should look like a shadow, which gets entirely defined by its outline. There are some poses that work well when you light your subject that just won't play out as a silhouette.
If your subject puts her hands behind her back or on her hips, then the result looks like her arms end in stumps. You need to make sure the pose includes definable features.
There are cases where you can get away without complete definition. If the subject faces you, then we recognize the shape of a human head and we don't need to see the nose. Turn that same head for a profile and it better be a complete profile.
Now we're looking for a definable nose, lips and jawline. If the head isn't in a right angle profile, it just doesn't look right.
The same thing happens if one hand is too close to the body. You lose definition in the shape. Silhouette portraits are a bit more demanding for specific poses.
One issue you may have is explaining these issues to your model. They can't see what you're doing, so you may need to shoot tethered so they can understand how to adapt their pose.
Watch Your Color Combinations
There are two problems you need to consider when using more than one color on a background.
The first thing you notice is that complementary colors, or those that are on opposite sides of the color wheel, don't really work well on a background. There are color combinations that may look good if you're putting them on your subject in a controlled manner, but they just don't seem to play nicely on the background.
For example, Christmas is full of Red and Green together. Yet it's a hot mess as a background.
The second problem happens when colors bleed together. As you can see in this photo, combining Red and Green doesn't blend well. We found that Analogous colors work better as combinations on a background.
Clothes Show Every Bump and Dip
We didn't take these photos through Photoshop and Liquify to illustrate a point. Lee's clothing has a plethora of bumps. No matter how many times we stopped to smooth out her shorts or top, they bunched up with her first movement.
I'm not suggesting you go nude for your portraits, but keep in mind your clothing choice can make the difference in how much retouching time you spend after the session.
Silhouette Portrait Photography Ideas
Lee and I decided to do this as a test concept, but we enjoyed the results. You may not want to have an entire portrait session with silhouettes, but it may be part of your bag of tricks for portraits.
Imagine how you can use this for pregnancy portraits, engagement or wedding portraits with the couple, or practically anything else with a recognizable shape. I may do this with my Labrador Retriever (or both of them).
I hope this gives you some ideas for a new and creative way to tell a story.
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