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The magic hour

Tricks to shooting the perfect shadow portrait

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It’s late in the day and the sun is setting. As you look to your friend after a long day on the trail you notice a beautifully colored sky behind him. He’s engulfed in brilliant light and appears featureless, but you know he’s smiling back. Wanting to document this spectacular contrast, you grab your camera, point, and pull the trigger. Your flash fires to fill in the shadows and ruins the shot.

What happened?

Your camera metered its exposure on your friend, not on the brilliant sky. Shooting in such limited ambient light can be frustrating, but learning to create photographic silhouettes will add an entirely different mood to your photos.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Cathrine L. Walters

To create a successful “shadow portrait” you need to consider three key elements: subject, separation and backlight. When photographing a silhouette, all surface features will be lost and the subject will appear black and one-dimensional, so it’s important to frame the shot on something the human eye can easily recognize. Think of trees, mountains, bicycles, animals and, of course, people.

In order to make clear that your subject is, say, a mountain biker on a hillside and not an elephant in a tar pit, you or your subject will have to move to an appropriate vantage point. Typically, this means getting low and shooting up, framing the mountain biker against a bright sky. This ensures that you get the best outline and create separation between the biker and his surroundings.

Most automatic digital cameras determine the exposure and focus of a shot when the shutter button is pressed halfway down. In silhouetting situations, if you follow through and press the button all the way, the flash will fire. The trick is to fool the camera by pointing it toward the sky with the shutter button pressed halfway down. Now, still holding the shutter button halfway, re-frame the shot onto your subject and press the button all the way.

Shooters with a little more experience may prefer to use the camera’s manual setting. Once you’ve mastered still subjects, try moving targets. This takes a little more skill to get proper focus, but can result in even more dynamic images. There are worse things to do with your time than spending magic hours in search of a perfect shadow.

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