Sometimes when shooting a portrait the drama created by a silhouette can reveal a more powerful sense of character than a more traditional portrait. One major downside of a true silhouette, however, is that it fully blacks out the subject sacrificing any opportunity for expression or detail within said subject. In a recent shoot, I experimented with an alternative to a true silhouette that uses a light source near to the subject to wrap light around them in a way that creates a sense of a heroic silhouette of the style that could be found on film posters or the cover of a book.
Shooting the Silhouette
The key to being able to wrap the light around the subject is in silhouetting them in front of a large light source that is very close. The further away the light source is, the less it will wrap around the subject. The best tool I found for this is a large sheet of diffusion material hung a few feet in front of a strobe in order to create what is essentially a massive light source directly behind the subject. In order to control the spill, the light also needs to be flagged either with v-flats (as in the diagram) or an easy alternative is to shoot using a doorway so that any spill remains outside the door and doesn't bounce around in front of the subject (Which is what I opted to do).
Don't worry too much if your diffusion material isn't quite tall enough as the subject's feet will be effectively hidden with a gradient in post-production. In terms of lighting power level aim to set it so that the white background is only barely blown out. If you turn the light excessively bright too much light will spill onto the subject ruining the effect. I would also suggest shooting at a relatively deep depth of field as there is no benefit to shooting wide open for this sort of shot. My version of the shot was created at f/6.3 on a 35mm lens.
It is important to shoot in a location that allows for you to control all ambient light so that the background light is the only light source having a meaningful impact on the exposure. If you cannot control ambient light the option of using a very fast shutter speed coupled with High-Speed Sync for the background light is a great option that allows you to heavily mitigate the amount of influence ambient light has on the exposure. Shooting tethered can be helpful in making sure that the amount of light falling on the subject is perfect as the LCD display on the back of your camera tends to be a bit small to judge accurately.
Building the Base Effect Using Photoshop
The first step to creating this silhouette effect is several very simple tasks in Photoshop. The first being that you need to crop out your flags so that the white around your character extends to the edges of the frame. Next, create a curves adjustment layer and raise the blacks to generate a slight hazing effect. Finally, use the gradient tool on a new layer to draw a gradient from the bottom of the frame upwards to effectively hide the feet and give the sense that the character is engulfed in light. Make sure the floor and any shadow cast by the subject cannot be seen after you add the gradient layer or the visual effect will become muddled.
Add Some Cinematic Grading
Next, the addition of cinematic grading can really give the image a grittier feel. For my version of the image, I used two of Photoshop's built-in LUT presets which worked great. For those who have never used a LUT simply create a new "Color Lookup" adjustment layer to add a LUT to your composition. The first LUT I used was "Foggy Night" set to 70% opacity and the second was "Kodak 5218 Kodak 2395" at 100% opacity. When used together the image adopts a very cool but also dramatic feel to it. This particular grading also dims the white background to be a subtle gray which is critical to the final step.
Add Some Flare
In order to provide a final touch to the image, the character was wreathed in a blue-ish flare to create the sense that there was actually a smaller light source directly behind the subject. This both draws the viewer's eye to the center of the frame but also creates more of a sense of atmosphere as opposed to making the image just look like just a portrait shot in front of a white background. In order to achieve this, I used to Knoll Light Factory to render a variety of subtle flares that I positioned around the subject and in gaps of the silhouette. This effect can be achieved with virtually any method to create lens flares. Experiment with your favorite technique to create your own version of the shot.
Shooting a heroic silhouette doesn't require much in the way of expensive gear. An entry level DSLR with kit lens is more than capable of creating a shot just like this one. Diffusion Fabric can be purchased for under $10 and can be hung with a few strips of gaffer tape. Finally, the only other gear needed is a single light source that will allow you to blow out the background without needing to skyrocket your ISO or shoot it a low aperture. I used to an SB-700, which worked great. I would also recommend using a tripod in order to lock your frame down while you experiment with position and light levels, though it isn't required as the flash will help ensure your image is sharp.
As with any technique, such as the above, the key is in leveraging it to find inspiration and use it in conjunction with your own creative vision. Experimentation will be the most effective tool at your disposal for designing your own version of a heroic silhouette. If you do create one, make sure to come back and show me in the comments below, I'd love to see what you come up with.