The Silhouette

by William Lulow

A silhouette is defined as an image made by lighting the background only, so that no detail can be seen in the subject. This is kind of an interesting proposition when you are photographing people! When can you ever use it? Well, it turns out that there are times when it can come in very handy. I believe it was the famous photographer Bill Eppridge (the photographer who made that famous shot of Bobby Kennedy lying on a kitchen floor in Los Angeles after being shot), who made an equally famous portrait of Bill Cosby (in his heyday). It was a silhouette profile with his signature rimless glasses and a cigar. You knew instantly who it was without seeing any detail except those two items.

Here is one of my silhouette samples:


Here, I just lit the background so that no light fell on the subject. The simplest way to do this is to place a single light behind the subject and aim it toward the background.

A number or years ago, I was asked to shoot a concept for a movie poster for “Endless Love.” it was supposed to be a silhouette of a kiss. We got two models to pose for the picture and they were told simply to get their lips as close together as they could without actually touching. The concept was that the positive and negative space in the image would sort of merge together creating a kind of spell-binding, visual excitement. Here is the shot:


If you stare at this image long enough, the white space becomes almost liquid, flowing from one side of the picture to the other. When doing silhouettes, it’s always a good idea to have the background at least one f/stop brighter than its reading so that it will register pure white in the image. For this shot, since two people had to be in the shot, I lit the background with two lights, one on either side of the set, so that I would have a complete white background to work with. Actually, white backgrounds are better for silhouettes, but I had another instance when it came in handy.

Here is another example of a silhouette in action. My shot of blues singer, Taj Mahal had to be photographed with the light behind him. But, again, his tell-tale cap and pointed chin, really defined him.

There are uses for silhouettes after all!