How to Create a Silhouette Photo in the Studio
I had an interesting and unusual assignment of creating a silhouette photo for a string quintet. Silhouette photography is beautiful, but it requires planning. I have seen photographers do a few silhouette shots of their clients if they're doing a photoshoot and the sun is setting. There is usually a short window of time while the sun is setting to get that perfect silhouette look.
Since I knew it would be virtually impossible to have 5 people available on the same day and time for a photoshoot, I decided that I would have to re-create the silhouette look in the studio. The process turned out to be much easier than I had thought it would be, but there are some factors to consider before you plan your shoot.
Background and Composition
Before I contacted any of the musicians, I spent some time thinking about how I wanted the final product to look. The client wanted the photograph to be artistic and fit the personality of the quintet. Because I was working with 5 people, I needed to know ahead of time, how I wanted to position them. I also looked for possible backgrounds, so I could make sure that the arrangement of the musicians would fit with the background. One challenge I did face was that most silhouettes involve a sunset, and most stock images with sunsets have a lot of scenery. Eventually I found what I needed, but it was important to take the time and look before I started photographing people.
One nice thing about silhouette shots is that you don't have to worry about makeup or people's facial expressions. Wardrobe and hair, however, are important. When photographing your model, you're not going to get enough light on your background to make the person completely silhouetted. Wearing dark colors help separate the model from the backdrop and it's easier to turn into a silhouette in Photoshop. In addition, form fitting or tailored clothes are much more flattering for silhouette photoshoots. Flowy outfits tend to make people look heavier.
Because I did this photoshoot in the studio, I didn't have to worry about scheduling everyone on the same day. Each person took about 10 to 15 minutes to photograph because I had already set up the studio and developed a system before they even walked through my door. I used a seamless white backdrop and set up two soft boxes at a 45 degree angle so that the light would hit the backdrop instead of the model. Even though I already knew how I would position them, I took multiple shots from different angles. I also took photos of them standing, just in case I needed a second option. Always get more shots than you need. As it turned out, I had to use those standing shots as a second option.
While I was photographing each musician, I had to be aware of how they posed with their instruments. You lose details once you convert the image to a silhouette, so you have to be careful how things overlap each other. For example, I had to photograph the cellist from the side or an angle. If I had her face me, I wouldn't have been able to differentiate her body from the cello. The results would definitely not be pretty. When working with silhouettes, think of your models and objects as shapes.
Editing the Photos
Once I had photographed everyone, I had to convert them to silhouettes. There's more than one way to do this, but I'll explain the process that I used.
I always start in Lightroom. I first bumped up the contrast and lowered the exposure as much as I could before exporting them to Photoshop.
Once in Photoshop, I deleted the background.
Beneath the Images tab, I selected Adjustments --> Levels
At the very bottom of the dialogue box, there's a bar labeled "Output Levels." Slide the white triangle to the left.
I saved each musician as a separate PNG file so that I was able to move and edit them separately.