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Silhouettes; Shadows And Form Bookmark and Share

One of the most effective ways of dramatizing a landscape or a wildlife subject is to capture its silhouette. The combination of a strong form with a beautiful background is unbeatable. What determines whether or not the picture will be successful, though, is only partially a function of how beautiful or how dynamic the background is. The primary factor that makes the image have impact is the shape of the various elements that you photograph in front of the bright or colorful background. If the shapes are not artistic and graphically pleasing, the photograph will be less than ideal. If the shapes are amazing, then the result will be amazing. When the silhouetted subject is busy, out of focus, or confusing, the picture just won’t work.

Finding Shapes
Great shapes are not always easy to find, of course, but that’s what you need to look for. Landscape photographers spend much of their time in the field looking for strong, graphic shapes in nature. Sometimes they can turn up in surprising places, such as in the middle of a city. There are many stately cypress trees along the coast in Monterrey, California. In this shot (#1) I was captivated by the elegant forms of their branches against the light sky. There’s no brilliantly colored background, but nevertheless I feel it’s a very successful silhouette. Note the off-center placement of the trunk along the right vertical third and how simple the design of this composition is.

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All Photos © 2009, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved

Simplicity Is The Key
Simplicity is often the key to creating striking photographs of silhouetted forms. For example, compare these photos (#2 and #3). In the former (#2), simplicity is what makes this so compelling. In the comparison picture, the mass of branches are too busy with no central focal point. Even though the sky has great color, the graphics of this image are not attractive at all.

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Using Sky
In the sunrise photo in Joshua Tree National Park, California (#4), I was able to capture a strong silhouette with a brilliant sky as the backdrop. This is one of the most exciting opportunities in nature when an artistic form is combined with a dynamic sky. Not all successful silhouettes require brilliant color, however. Look at the picture of bare trees I photographed in fog in the Great Smokies (#5). The background is light—a requirement for a silhouette—but the contrast isn’t as extreme as in the photo of the Joshua tree. Therefore, I was still able to retain subtle detail in the bark. That wasn’t necessarily my goal, but the diffused light made it possible to enjoy this benefit.

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