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Photographing a Silhouette

 

Leica M6 camera and Leica 35mm Summicron f2 lens with Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film

Leica M6 camera and Leica 35mm f2 Summicron-M Aspherical lens with Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film

Backlighting can add a heightened sense of drama to the scene. It produces arguably the most dramatic form of lighting that, when teamed with the right subject, will produce dynamic results. The image in question features a fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma). I made the image from one of the local canoe-like boats that are used to ferry tourists to various spots of interest on and around the lake. Fitted with a small outboard motor these boats provide the visitor with a quite exhilarating experience as they cut and bounce their way over the surface of this absolutely beautiful lake.

In the case of general portrait photography front lighting, where the light comes from behind the photographer and illuminates the front of the subject, is the safest option. It is only when the subject is lit that we can define subject specific information (gender, age, ethnicity, clothing, occupation, etc). Side lighting places part of the subject into shadow, but provides a more three dimensional result by emphasizing shape and texture. As it highlights wrinkles and prominent facial features (nose, chin, forehead, etc) side lighting is well suited to character portraits.

The same portrait lit by strong back lighting will render the subject dark, probably black, against a (usually) mid tone sky. Cameras do not recognise subject. They have no concept as to whether you are photographing a baby, bar mitzvah or birthday cake. Like the eye, the camera’s light meter is drawn to the brightest part of the scene. Its job is to record what it sees as a mid tone. That is the function for which it has been designed. So the bright background, which it considers to be the subject, is brought down (actually underexposed) to a mid tone. As a consequence a light blue colored sky photographs as a significantly darker (mid tone) blue. This will produce a more dramatic background, but your subject will also be recorded darker, which will result in your portrait recording as a shadow.

There is a new ‘face recognition technology’ about to hit the market. But that’s little more than the camera recognising a face, probably by its shape, and basing the moment the image is made on when the subject smiles. This has no bearing on exposure, regardless of the direction of the light. So, if you want to produce a pleasing likeness of your subject, ensure you light them. Light coming from an angle slightly behind and to one side of the photographer will produce the best mix of information (identity), shape and texture.

However, a subject photographed in silhouette can provide a very striking image, particularly when positioned in such a way as to emphasize its shape against a vividly colored sky. The trick is for the subject to form a graphic shape. So, a backlit portrait of Gil, a professional Gymnast, will not allow the viewer to identify Gil by occupation and possibly even by gender. But, placing Gil in a graphic pose, such as a cartwheel formation, will allow the viewer to identify her as a gymnast. Silhouettes tend to be less about the identity of the individual and more about the activity or occupation in which they are involved. The results are, therefore, less revealing but more iconic.

When photographing a subject against a significantly brighter background your camera will bring the sky down to a mid tone. This will usually produce an unnaturally dark, flat looking image. A more natural looking result with a greater sense of three-dimensional depth will often result from a MAR +1, or greater, exposure compensation.

This image was made with a Leica M6 camera and Leica 35mm f2 Summicron-M Aspherical lens with Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film. I particularly like the graphic shape of the fisherman set against the rich blues of the sky and water.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography

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One Response

  1. this is stunning image

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