When to Create Silhouettes Instead of HDRs

360 Bridge Silhouette

360 Bridge Silhouette – Austin, Texas

At first glance silhouettes and HDR (High Dynamic Range) photographs do not seem to have much in common. Silhouettes tend to have less dynamic range, so much so that part of the image appears black with no detail. HDRs, however, have higher apparent dynamic range since 3 or more images at different exposures are blended together. These blended photographs show lots of detail throughout the entire range — the dark areas are brightened while the brighter areas are toned down. But I would argue that deciding between creating a silhouette and a HDR are indeed related. Both techniques can be used to create interesting images under similar conditions where there is a wide range from bright areas to dark shadows. While HDRs may have a striking look, silhouettes, if done correctly can be equally compelling though with a more subtle, subdued look.

When I started out in urban landscapes, I was guilty of looking at every landscape photograph as an opportunity to do a HDR. High Dynamic Range photography is currently popular and I certainly have been influenced by this bright, colorful and detail enhancing technique. Over time, my HDR processing has gotten more and more subtle and I’ve started to move away from always using it. My goal now, even though I may not always achieve it, is to create interesting photographs, not to apply a predetermined technique. It’s this evolution in my photography that started my experimentation with silhouettes.

So when do I consider doing a silhouette? Many times it’s in similar conditions as when I consider doing an HDR — when there is a lot of dynamic range in the scene, so much so that one exposure can not adequately capture the entire light range. With HDRs I often think about enhancing detail and texture. With silhouettes, I look for great looking shapes that would look fantastic even if its details and texture are omitted. Concentrate on the outline of subject that you want to silhouette. It has to be distinctive or interesting enough to stand on its own. The background is also important. A cool background with a lot of color or texture can also add to the composition. However, it should be uncluttered so not to overpower the silhouette.

A silhouette is also a powerful vehicle to add abstractness to an image. A silhouette of a person, for example, makes that person abstract or generic. You don’t see any details so your imagination takes over and your mind can insert anyone into that image. You may even imagine that it is yourself in that scene. So a silhouette adds mystery and tickles the imagination. I believe an HDR has the opposite effect of making the scene visually “more real”. The odd thing is, sometimes your imagination can create a scene that is more real than a visually rich image. That is why a book may seem more detailed and rich than a movie. So if you want to insert a bit of mystery and possibly engage the viewer’s brain, a silhouette maybe a technique to consider.

Creating silhouettes are easy as long as the scene has enough dynamic range. Just set the exposure compensation down on the camera. This has the benefit of darkening the blacks of the silhouette as well as bring out the rich color and details of the background. On my photographs on this page, I’ve dialed down the exposure compensation anywhere from – 1 2/3 to -2 stops. Your exposure compensation will vary. Just make sure to look at the exposure of the background to see that is does not get too dark. You can click on the photographs to see a larger version.

Mission San Juan Silhouette

Mission San Juan Silhouette – San Antonio, Texas

Trees Silhouette at Sunset

Trees Silhouette at Sunset – Austin, Texas

My Thought Process

Image 1: As I was waiting to take 4th of July firework photos from this famous bridge in Austin, I noticed the beautiful sunset. I also liked the curved shape of the bridge supports. I framed this image several different ways, changing where the arch of the bridge cuts through the frame. I also played with different exposures to get the silhouette I wanted. Without the colorful skies, the image would not look as compelling however a photograph with just the sky will lack focus and interest. I also believe that having detail in the steel structure would take away from the simplicity and shape of the bridge.

Image 2: Mission San Juan is the smallest and least impressive mission out of the 5 missions of San Antonio. The shape of the bell tower is the most notable feature of the church. Given the direction of the sun, I decided to capture a silhouette of the church façade. I purposely aligned the start of the roof line at the bottom left corner. I used the sun and clouds to balance the frame against the church silhouette. Lowering my exposure 2 stops allowed me to shoot directly into the sun and still capture the sun’s rays and the cloud details. I also tinted the sky bluish-purple to add some abstract interest. It’s a different type of image for me but I like the way it turned out.

Image 3: This image is an observation I made while I was leaving the office. The blue hour sky with the glow on the horizon looked great. I used the trees to add some foreground interest. The principle used here is very similar to image 1. Instead of the bridge support I used the tree details to add interest against the colorful sky.

[Note: Click on the images for a larger version]

Image Details

All of the photographs were post processed using Aperture 3. Saturation, brightness and sharpness was increased for image 1. I used the black and white conversion and monochrome tinting to change the sky in the mission photograph. The third image received minimal changes with just some sharpening.

Image 1: Canon 7D, f13, 1/13 sec, -2 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 10mm
Image 2: Canon 7D, f13, 1/1600 sec, -2 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 20mm
Image 3: Sony NEX-5, f3.5, 1/80 sec, -1 2/3 exposure compensation, ISO 200 at 16mm

11 thoughts on “When to Create Silhouettes Instead of HDRs

  1. Nice post Andy and I agree. I am still experimenting with HDR and do love it but agree it is not always a fit or even needed. I love silhouette shots and these are great examples. Thanks for sharing! Jim

  2. Excellent point….

    Last night I stopped to take a few quick shots of the sunset. I set my camera to bracket the shot for using HDR and then snapped a small bare tree. I posted the last shot, a silhouette, on flickr.

  3. Good post Andy. Silhouette’s are very interesting. I like shooting in camera raw and can often bring out a bit of details in the shadows in Lightroom (fill light) without going full blown hdr.

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