The last refuge of the desperate photographer

Originally posted in January 2009, this piece is one of the ‘new’ technique pieces that I published around that time.

The use of the silhouette as a deliberate ploy in photography was once branded as “the last refuge of the desperate photographer” – a label that I have always contested. I have used the technique many times when I have not been allowed to identify the subject of the picture (usually children or vulnerable adults whose identity needs to be concealed) but I also use it when there is a need for an image with real impact. Creating a silhouette with flash isn’t difficult, using the technique sparingly can be.

Once you have made the decision to try a silhouette using flash, there are a few basics that you need to consider:

  • The subject must have little or no available light on them
  • You must have a background that can be lit easily
  • If the background has important detail you need enough depth of field to keep both subject and background sharp
  • The subject to be silhouetted should be in sharp focus and have a distinct outline

Once the basics are in place, then there are creative decisions to be made such as composition, placement of flash. This first example is of a member of my family who spends time at the gym so that he can show the world his physique. We were chatting one day and he said that he wanted something striking for the top of his Facebook page. I showed him a couple of ideas using silhouettes and we shot this…

©Neil Turner, October 2008

I was shooting with a Canon EOS1D MkII and a Canon 24-70 f2.8L lens. I wasn’t able to move myself around too much without shifting furniture and would have preferred to be shooting nearer the telephoto end of the range to deliberately remove any clutter. As it was, the lens was at 34mm (add the 1.3x factor and you get a 44.2 full frame equivalent field of view) and I cropped the image to the “letterbox” shape.

In this case I used the subject himself to mask the flash which was a Canon 550ex speedlight triggered in manual mode by a Canon ST-E2 transmitter. The first few frames had the background (a wall in my dining room) pretty evenly lit, which was a bit boring. The background is unimportant in this image and so the depth of field doesn’t matter too much. The exposure was 1/90th of a second at f13 on 200 ISO. I don’t recall why the exposure was 1/90th instead of 1/250th to utterly eliminate any available light but in a normal situation I would have gone for 1/250th.

I have some grid attachments for my Lumedyne flash heads and so I taped one of those over the flash to give me more of a circular pool of light. I aimed the flash slightly upwards so that I achieved the effect that you see above. It’s a very simple image that works for the intended purpose very well.

The second example is from a story I shot for a magazine about two brothers who work together at a school in London. I had shot hundreds of images of the buildings and a lot of portraits of the elder brother who is the boss. I had a lot of more conventional portraits of the two of them together as well so I decided to try this two person silhouette which shows the special cladding used throughout the central core of the building.

©Neil Turner, September 2008

The cladding itself has a yellow colour and so I decided to place a Lumedyne flash unit directly behind the seat that they were sitting on. It was very close to the wall, which give far steeper fall off of the light and a more dramatic outline. I find that the best place to focus for a silhouette is on the edge of the subject rather than the normal eye or face. I was shooting with a 16-35 f2.8L lens on a Canon EOS1D MkII at the wide end of the scale and the exposure here was 1/250th at f9.5. The flash was dialed down to 1/8th power and at that aperture I had easily enough depth of field to get the brothers both sharp and to have easily enough detail in the background.

Magazines seem to like this kind of image if they have a spread to fill or they want something a bit different for the contents page. You don’t always have to use flash to create silhouettes but the conditions required in nature to get a good one aren’t easy to arrange! Low level winter sunshine here in the UK is good and of course dusk and dawn without cloud cover anywhere in the world are great. I have also used illuminated signs and billboards when they are bright enough but for the sheer degree of simplicity and control, these flash-lit examples are hard to beat.


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