Silhouettes on the water

Creating a silhouette can be a quick, yet powerful way of making a dynamic image. They cut out the extraneous details, bringing the photograph down to a simplified field of light and dark, to outlines and shapes. The fine details are removed, and only the big important shapes remain.

Today I will talk mostly about making silhouettes of a kayaker, while photographing from a kayak, but many of the technical details will carry true, whether you are on or off the water, shooting animals, people or plants, since creating a silhouette is essentially placing your subject between you and a light source.

The brightest light source is behind, under, and around the kayaker, turning them into the essence of kayaking, by removing the individuality and fine details, that sails through a sea of light

Notice that the kayaker is in mid stroke. She is in movement, frozen in action. Which makes sense, since kayaks are for movement, transportation, paddling. She is facing to the left, so I placed her on the far side, so that the audience feels like she has plenty of open space that she will be traveling through- it helps to lead them through the photograph instead of right off of the edge and out of the image (as would happen if I placed her on the left hand side of the frame).

A very nice image as far as exposing for a silhouette goes, but the audience’s attention is partially grabbed by the pelican flying by in the background, since that is where the action is. The kayaker isn’t doing much of interest.

A silhouette is created by exposing for a very bright light source behind the subject, and allowing for the subject to be completely underexposed. It is important to pay attention to things such as arms, legs, and head however, since the placement of these can become more powerful during a silhouette. Notice the kayakers arms and hands aren’t very visible. The head is blocked up within their shapes… we can’t really tell what they are doing (looking through binoculars), because not enough attention was paid to their outline. If the kayaker was seen in more of a profile, it would be a better image, with better defined body shapes. As it is, the pelican is the most interesting part of the image. A relative failure as far as photographs go.

A partial silhouette. We can make out some of the color and detail of the kayaker, yet they are backlit by strong light.

This image has nice composition. The sky and water have good color. The kayaker however is only a partial silhouette. It would be a more powerful image, if the contrast was a little greater, and the details of the kayaker disappeared into shadow a little more. As it is, the partial colors and details can be a little distracting. It begs the question of whether it was a poor attempt at creating a silhouette, or of only properly exposing the kayaker. Whole hog or half hog, which is better? Sometimes the light and composition can still carry the photograph through, other times…

In the end, silhouettes are really fun to play around with. Your best times will be early morning and late evening, when the sun is lower in the sky, and therefore easier to place behind your subject. When kayaking it can be a little easier, since the water will spread out the sunlight, creating a larger light source. Light mists and fogs, can serve the same purpose as they diffuse the sun into a greater source.

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About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in How To, kayak photography, nature photography, photography, portraits and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Silhouettes on the water

  1. mom says:

    nice shots Galen

  2. I think they look so peaceful. I appreciate you going through the composition of the shot.

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