If one looks at the portfolios of the world’s top wildlife photographers, you’ll see that they have one common thread – variety. Silhouette shot is a classic in wildlife photography. Conditions aren’t always perfect in the field. Difficult light, rain, uncooperative 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 the 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 shot photography.
By ticking only a few boxes, you will be able to take great silhouette shots with even entry-level camera gear.
Our Photography Tips for a great Silhouette Shot
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.
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.
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!
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.
Next time the conditions don’t lend themselves to easy photography, try thinking 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