Silhouettes can make very powerful impressions, and they are surprisingly easy to create. Fortunately for underwater photographers, the world’s oceans are filled with great subjects for silhouettes, like the sea lions pictured here.
When creating a silhouette, the objective is usually to contrast a dark subject against more lightly hued surface water. The effect is derived from the captivating shape of the subject and the distinct lines of contrast that separate the subject from the background.
The first “rule of silhouettes” is that your eyes must see a distinct silhouette when you compose your frame. You can’t wish your way to success. If you don’t see a distinct silhouette before you release the shutter, you need to change your camera-to-subject distance (you might be too close), angle of orientation to your subject with the sun, or some other factor.
While not absolutely necessary, powerful visual effect often results when your silhouetted subject is framed directly against the whitish pool of light photographers often call the sunburst. However, when using a digital camera and the sun is in your picture, try to have your subject block the sunburst. In images created with film cameras the sunburst often looks natural and inviting, but with many digital cameras, the pool of light in an “unblocked” sunburst often looks unnatural and the image appears flawed.
Once you “see your shot,” the key is to properly expose the water next to your subject. To accomplish that you will either need to take a light meter reading on the water next to your subject (not on the subject), or you can use the playback function of a digital camera to determine if you have properly exposed the water. If your background is too dark, open the aperture (i.e., change from f/22 to f/16), and if the background appears overexposed, close down the aperture (i.e., switch from f/11 to f/16). If you use a light meter in either a film camera or a digital camera, you will want to dial in your film speed (ISO) and shutter speed, and the light meter will “tell you” the correct f-stop to use to expose the water.
If you can, shoot a bracketed sequence of shots using the f-stop indicated by your light meter as well as the adjacent f-stops so that you have some choice of the best exposure when editing your images. I prefer to use my camera in the manual mode, but some experienced shooters use an automated shutter priority mode.
Use a fast shutter speed such as 1/125th, 1/250th or 1/500th of a second to help “freeze the action” and to produce crisp edges in your subject. A fast shutter speed will also help “freeze” individual shafts of light rays that might be in your shot.
It might seem like there is a lot to remember when creating a silhouette, but with a little practice, shooting silhouettes is fairly easy, and the results can be very powerful.