Put the Sun Behind Stuff!

Silhouettes are pretty irresistible. Graphic, powerful, design-y, all that stuff. The sun behind something or someone is a powerful silhouette maker. And then there’s the silhouette with a twist. Add a bit of flash up front and you still have graphic shape and power, but you have, in the face of the impossible odds the all powerful Oz of the sun gives you….detail! You got this bazillion foot candle source behind your subject, but sometimes, just a little bit of flash can pull your subject back from the shadows.

We’ve done a few of these over on our Instagram account and there have been some questions. Here we go.

But straight up sun is fun thing to play with. The below I shot onboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) in the Persian Gulf many years ago. I mean, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, you know? Establish your lines and graphics, and if you have a human in the frame, make sure enough of that human’s parts are available and discernible. If the crucial element you are silhouetting blends too much into a dark area, like below a horizon line, you’re screwed.

Just to note, the military makes great stuff to silhouette.

Long lens is often a good strategy, and, many times, using a low angle works. Again, you gotta make sure crucial graphics are up in the highlights, and not buried in surrounding blackness. I know that sounds a bit basic, but I’ve done it, where I get so excited about the colors and the dropping sun and managing a long piece of glass that I look at the picture later and the silhouette is not articulated in the way I might want.

The below was shot, back in the day, as they say. Kodachrome, F2, 1200mm lens. The word back then, in the saturated days of chrome film, was to meter just off the sun, so you might retain a bit of environmental detail. Didn’t matter in the below so much, I just needed to retain some glow around the orb of the sun.

And then, there’s that spice you can add to the mix, with flash. The below is a 600mm f/4D5 camera, and the lighting, to camera left, is a Profoto B1, fitted with a 1×3 strip soft box, with a grid placed in it. The result is you get to see the fireknife dancer, and not just render him as a flame carrying stick figure.

But, final tip—turn around. Onboard the carrier, it is easy to be seduced by the clean horizon line of the sea, and the impressively graphic planes. But my favorite pic that day was not the eye candy sunset sky. I turned around and the fading sun was gracing a diminutive member of the flight deck crew, taking shelter from a stiff wind in the exhaust funnel of what I believe is a F/A 18 Super Hornet. Improvise and adapt. A human scale picture in the midst of the mechanical wonders and the blazing sun.

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