How a silhouette works

Sparrow Singing In The Sunset // tobias.knoepfli

Have you ever wondered, why some silhouette photographs are absolute magic, while others just don’t seem right? Well, take the image on the right, for example. It’s not a special occasion, no fancy shot of a motocross biker jumping over bench on which a couple is kissing or anything. No, I took this photograph with my Nikon Coolpix P1000, which, as you probably know, has an extreme focal length of up to 3000mm. It was one of the last shots of the day, and I didn’t really have time to compose it properly. So, why does it work?

One word: Minimalism

Yes, it’s that simple. I’ve seen tons of silhouette pictures that were simply overloaded. General rule of thumb: if the black parts of the picture, hence the silhouette, fills more than half the frame, it usually doesn’t work. There are always exceptions, but for a beginner it’s always a good thing to have a few rules in mind, right?

As you can see, I’ve kept my photograph to a minimum. You can see some houses in the background that give the shot some structure, but the eye wanders along the wires to the silhouette of the bird. You might notice a few basic rules of composition, such as the rule of thirds and the diagonals, but what I want you to focus on here is the simplicity. It’s a bird sitting on some wires, singing. These are the key elements of the picture. You might notice some details on a closer look, for example that there is some piece of wire sticking out of the pole on the left, or that the bird is actually singing, because it opens its beak. But the theme itself is a bird who’s sitting on some wires. Very unspectacular. But the backlight reduces everything to a mere silhouette, and our brain has to figure out what these two-dimensional shapes might be. Experience tells us what it is, if the photograph is made well. So don’t overload your shot with unnecessary objects, or the viewer has to think too much and gets bored or even overwhelmed.


Tobias Knöpfli

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