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Exposure Basics - Shutter Speed

Original article:  Silhouette Photograph

A silhouette is the outline of a dark subject against a brighter background. The source of light for the background can be anything, but commonly it is the sun at sunset. The subject in silhouette can be a person or persons enjoying the sunset. A well executed picture of a person in silhouette can be emotive. My theory is, because the facial details are in shadow it's easier for our imagination to place ourselves in the picture. We then move past being a casual viewer becoming an active participant in the picture. The silhouette picture of the guitar player strikes a chord with musicians because it stirs memories of creating music at sunset.

Meter the background
There are a few basic things to consider when shooting your silhouette pictures. A silhouette is the outline of a dark subject against a brighter background. This is important when metering the photograph, because you want the detail of the background to be properly metered. In the case of the guitar photo above, I took spot meter readings on the cloud formations so the detail of the lighting refracting would came out in the final picture. After a reading was taken I set the exposure.

Focus on your subject
Because the subject will be in shadow it's important to make sure the outline is sharp and well defined. So while the exposure is set to the background the focus should be on the subject. This may seem counter intuitive since it is hard to get focus on an object in the shadows. But by doing this the outline of the subject will be sharp and recognizable. By using a small aperture (high f-stop) more of the picture will be in focus.

Our eyes and brain have the ability to see detail in both shadow and bright light simultaneously. The camera’s eye and brain can’t compete with ours (although HDR is a start, but another topic). When composing a silhouette it's important to see the subject in outline as the camera will see it. I needed to move to the right spot in order for the guitar to be recognizable for this picture to work.

Sunset is a dynamic time for light, not the time to be shy with the shutter button. The light is changing rapidly and a great time to use your cameras bracketing functionality. Experiment with the exposure and fill up your memory cards.

Once the sun goes down passed the horizon, resist the temptation to pack up and go. I see so many people do this. Sometimes the after glow of the sunset is the most spectacular light show. Hang around to see if it happens, what’s the rush anyway?


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