July 19, 2023
Silhouettes are a classic look that are trending in wedding albums lately. These portraits feature techniques that make this style up-to-date while also being timeless. (Scroll through to see examples of silhouette wedding portraits.)
Silhouettes have been making their enigmatic presence felt in many wedding albums lately. But these photos with little to no subject detail aren’t just styled like your great-great-great-grandmother’s cut-paper portraits anymore. Image makers are infusing the age-old technique with fresh creative ideas. We talked to a few of them.
Colorado-based Moira and Jesse La Plante set up back lighting at many weddings specifically to create silhouettes, and say it’s an option that has become more accessible as flash technology has evolved. “I think it’s become easier to bring off-camera flash and use it on a wedding day,” says Moira, “which then opens up a lot of options to do silhouettes that maybe weren’t there before.”
The La Plantes often create silhouettes to make the most of a tightly scheduled portrait session: “Typically it’s maybe 30 minutes tops,” says Jesse, “so we can’t go to multiple locations. Within one location, I’m trying to get as many different looks and as much variety in the portraits as humanly possible.”
They sometimes turn their back light around to bounce it and create a halo effect, or shoot dark-on-dark silhouettes by using a rear rim light to separate subjects from the background. Separating them from each other is also important. “Sometimes people will try to do a silhouette of their couple kissing, and then they just look like this amorphous blob that’s connected with the mouth,” says Moira. “Doing a silhouette at the moment before the kiss, when their faces are just almost touching is going to be more effective than the actual kiss.”
Silhouettes can capture the vibe of more spontaneous moments too. Backlighting a confetti-toss exit can transform it into a magical scene full of sparkles and dynamic figures. “Anytime there’s any sort of particulate in the air, whether it’s fog or rain or snow or mist or smoke or bubbles,” says Jesse, “backlighting is the way to make that pop, and when you backlight, you just naturally create a silhouette.”
While using a flash is the most reliable way to shoot silhouettes, it isn’t always required. Minnesota-based Bradley Hanson relies on available light and an eye for strong graphical elements. “I think I’m kind of wired to see things more abstractly,” he says. “I like things that are simple and clean, and exposing to turn people into shapes and make the background hot white is a way to simplify the composition.”
Hanson finds the graphical style of silhouettes especially useful in less than photogenic locations. “It’s those windowless basements where you have to push yourself to try to see things like silhouettes because the lighting is not good in a conventional sense,” he says. “You can take what could be perceived as bad light and make something out of it.”
Silhouettes work equally well to set the scene for a wedding or highlight gorgeous locations. Seattle-based Henry Tieu specializes in adventure elopements and weddings, and often creates silhouettes that feature Milky Way topped mountains or expansive seashores.
Some of his images are composites that use a silhouette to frame a landscape image, while others use the blue hour sky as a background. Tieu checks Google Earth Pro and the PhotoPills app to track lighting conditions and shoot at just the right time.
To add a little back or rim lighting, Tieu uses lanterns that are small enough to carry along on an adventure-wedding hike—a bit of lighting magic inspired by watching Harry Potter movies. ”Harry was in the hallway of Hogwarts, and he just used his wand and Lumos, the spell, to let the wand light up the scene,” Tieu explains.
There’s another kind of magic that promises to open up the possibilities of silhouette making even more. Bradley Hanson says he’s been experimenting with Lightroom’s new AI tools, which make it quick and easy to select subjects in an image and dial their exposure down to silhouette level.
The nice thing is that despite the brand spanking newness of the technology, the silhouettes it can be used to create retain their timeless look. Hanson speaks for many photographers when he explains why silhouettes will remain part of his repertoire, whatever tools he may use to make them: “I want things to look classic and timeless and not to be screaming out the year that they were shot.”