Learning Your Camera: Photo Tricks for the Perfect Silhouette

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If one looks at the portfolios of the world’s top wildlife photographers, you’ll see that they have one common thread – variety.

Conditions aren’t always perfect in the field. Difficult light, rain, un-cooperative animals that just don’t seem to face the camera when you want them to, the odd bit of grass covering the leopard’s eye… the list goes on. What is crucial therefore, is an ability to make the conditions work for you.

When the light starts fading, only the best and most expensive equipment can really handle it. Entry-level and even decent amateur cameras will soon start struggling, and increasing the ISO can lead to grainy images. One doesn’t have to have $10,000 worth of equipment to be able to take great shots in low light though. Trying something slightly more artistic can get you a photograph that has way more impact than a simple animal portrait. Although there are a number of creative roads to go down in low light, I’m only going to focus on one here, silhouette photography.

Still one of my favourite images this year, on the airstrip, with the rising sun behind this beautiful cheetah. Mike

By ticking only a few boxes, you will be be able to take great silhouette shots with even entry-level camera gear.

1. Camera Settings.

Cameras have a certain idea about what type of photograph they want to take. You feed them the information by depressing the exposure/shutter butter button, the camera takes into account the lighting conditions and a few other factors, and makes a decision. The problem is that the camera was probably programmed in a studio a few thousand miles from where you are on safari, and has no idea that you now want to take a silhouette shot of a cheetah against the skyline, so it will be up to you to tell it what you want. The more you shy away from the Auto modes on your camera and start shooting in Aperture or Shutter Speed priority modes, the more control you have over what you want your camera to do, but this is something we’ll go into in another post.
The bottom line is that you want to let in less light than you normally would in order to capture a decent silhouette. This will mean that the the subject you are silhouetting stays dark, and no detail or colour emanates from it in the final shot.
To do this you have to dial down your exposure.

exposure

Pictured above is the exposure display on your camera. In order to get a great silhouette, you generally want to be shooting with a negative exposure (to the left of zero on the dial). How many stops (measured in thirds) you want to underexpose by depends on the situation, but the beauty of digital is that you can take a few shots to compare, at no extra cost.
How you change your exposure will depend on the type of camera you have, but your ranger should be able to help you with this.

2. Positioning.

A silhouette, as I’m sure most people know, is a photograph of an animal, or tree, or anything really, in which the subject appears as a simple black shape against a much lighter/more colourful background. The silhouette occurs because the camera is unable to read enough light off the subject to bring out any detail in it whatsoever.
In order to capture a decent silhouette shot, you therefore need to be facing the light source, which, in most cases in the bush, will be the sun. The rule I always heard when I was young was “always shoot away from the sun”, but rules are made to be broken!

Tree_Silhouette

The wonderful thing about silhouette photography is that you don’t need high drama to capture a great scene. An isolated tree against a colourful background can lead to a striking image in itself.

3. Isolation.

Ideally you want minimal clutter around your subject. The more you can make it stand alone, the more impact your image will have. Branches, grass or anything that cuts the subject’s outline are a no-no. If your subject is above the horizon (cheetah on log, leopard on termite mound etc…) it’ll make your job a whole lot easier.
On that note, the shape of your subject should be something distinct and recognizable. Textures and detail and colour are removed in a silhouette shot so the shape needs to speak for itself.

Kingfisher_Silhouette

A pied kingfisher at dusk. The light was too low to shoot away from the sun with the camera gear I was using, but by moving to the other side of the waterhole and shooting back towards the light, the increased shutter speed was able to freeze the action.

Cheetah_Bad_Silhouette

This is what you DON’T want in a silhouette shot. Too much clutter around this cheetah’s head detracts massively from the impact of the photograph.

Still one of my favourite images this year, on the airstrip, with the rising sun behind this beautiful cheetah. Mike

This IS what you want in a cheetah silhouette. Mike Sutherland has absolutely nailed it here. An uncluttered background, the cheetah isolated and pretty much level with the skyline.

Giraffe_Silhouette

Sometimes the stars align and present you with an opportunity that you know you’ll probably never have again in this lifetime. I’m cheating here in that this photo was actually taken at a salt pan in Botswana, but the isolation of the giraffes, the fact that they were on the skyline and the fact that they had the setting sun behind them made for an incredible photographic opportunity.

Next time the conditions don’t lend themselves to easy photography, try think outside the box and imagine what other ways there are to encapsulate a scene. You’ll be surprised by what you can come up with…!

Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell
Additional Photographs by Mike Sutherland

Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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