Shape photography: how to balance your composition (and when to break the rules)

Managing shapes in silhouette photography

Managing shapes in silhouettes


Managing shapes in silhouette photography

Simple and recognisable shapes can produce very strong compositions. Shapes can be natural, or man-made geometric objects. Natural shapes are much more complex, but are generally more easily recognised, particularly if photographed as silhouettes.

As a rule, objects are too confused with detail to be easily recognisable as simple shapes. A skyscraper is a complex mass of intersecting lines and tones rather than a rectangle, while the human form consists of facial features and expressions, and the colours and textures of clothing, each of which tends to assume more prominence than their outline.

If you want to exploit the power of shapes as part of your compositions, you need to find ways of simplifying what’s in front of the camera.

One way to do this is to find a viewpoint that places your subject against a neutral or even-toned background, which emphasises the overall outline.

Shape photography: how to manage silhouettes

Alternatively, shoot your subject as a silhouette against a much brighter background, which eliminates all the superficial detail.

It’s not always easy to produce silhouettes with modern cameras, though. That’s because today’s multi-pattern metering systems are highly sophisticated and specifically designed to avoid exposure errors.

Quite often, if you attempt to shoot a silhouette, you’re likely to end up with a tolerably exposed main subject and a completely overexposed background.

The way around this is to switch exposure metering modes. Just about all cameras have Centre-weighted and Spot metering modes.

If you switch to Centre-weighted mode, the camera uses much cruder light measurements from the whole frame and you’re more likely to get the silhouette effect you’re after.

If this doesn’t work, switch to Spot mode and point the camera so that the spot metering patch is directly over an area of the background.

Half-press the shutter release or press the Exposure Lock button, then reframe the shot and press the shutter button the rest of the way to take the picture.

When you’re working with shape photography, you can use the Rule of Thirds to produce satisfying compositions, but you must pay equal attention to lines and tonal balance.

PAGE 1: Achieving balance in your shape photography
PAGE 2: Choose your own rules of shape photography
PAGE 3: How to manage silhouettes


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