How to make fun silhouette art from photos of everyday household objects

DCam 241 silhouettes project 15
Create a fun mountain-esque composite with just two easy-to-make silhouettes of household objects (Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

Whether it’s a teapot, a toothbrush, an iron or a table lamp, we interact with dozens of household items every day. 

Their design is often under-appreciated or overlooked, but lockdown has given us the time and space to view household items in a very different light – or in no light at all, as we’ll soon see. 

Silhouettes are created when the background is brighter than a darker foreground subject; a silhouette emphasises the outline and shape of the object in question. 

Take your daily exercise at sunrise or sunset, and you will see this effect in the natural world, when the outline of trees or buildings are emphasised by the rising or setting light from the sun. 

In this project I’ll show you how to create silhouettes, then combine them to create a fun, playful composite that is easy to design and assemble. 

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 2

(Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

To get started, first search around your home for household items with specific and interesting shapes. 

Don’t go too big with your choice of object, though, as your home photo studio is likely to be a confined space. Look for small- to medium-sized items, and think about which objects could go well together in the final composite.

This project will work with any lighting equipment you have available; whether it’s a softbox or an external flash, the setup can be achieved using a minimum of camera kit.

What you’ll need

  • Digital camera with standard-view lens  
  • Tripod
  • Off-camera flash, or studio lighting if you have it 
  • Household objects that will photograph well
  • Image-editing software
  • Time: one hour (shooting); one hour (editing)

How to capture silhouette photos at home

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(Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

1. Set up your studio space 

Round up your chosen objects – I assembled a variety of items. Ideally, find a plain light-coloured wall large enough to form a background measuring 1m sq. If you don’t have one, try hanging a white sheet in front of a wall. 

Place your lighting either high up, looking down towards the wall, or from below, aiming up at the wall. This way your flash will be spread evenly on the background, creating a cleaner look. 

Use a small table or chest of drawers to place your object on. 

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 4

(Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

2. Calculate your lighting and camera settings 

Take time to refine your lighting settings to determine the relative brightness of your background and foreground subject. 

Having selected raw file capture for more flexibility during editing and ISO 100 for high image quality, start off with high flash power and a medium-to-small aperture of f/11-f/32. (In many cases, f/22 will be the limit.) 

Adjusting your settings from that point, be prepared for some trial and error, as each object will bounce light off its surface at different intensities.

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 5

(Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

3. Experiment to see the effects 

Check your captures, see how they are looking and be ready to step in and adjust the camera-to-subject distance. Your subject will appear darker from a greater distance, but this may also affect the brightness of your background. 

Look at starting with a camera-to-subject distance of one metre and gradually increase the distance from there, regularly checking the results. Focal length is also a factor; different focal length ranges will create different looks. 

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 6

(Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

4. Choose the right angle for the silhouette 

Now finesse the angle you want to capture the object at. Remember that when you take the shot, the silhouette will appear as two-dimensional, and certain small features within the object may be lost. You’ll therefore need to move the object around to get the perfectly-shaped silhouette. 

For some variation in the images, try shooting translucent objects; light bouncing off a white surface and entering a glass bottle from behind produces a pleasing effect.

How to process your silhouette captures

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 7

(Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

1. Make basic adjustments 

In your raw image editor (I’m using Adobe Camera Raw, but there are many other alternatives) start by adjusting your blacks, contrast and brightness settings. 

Don’t be afraid to push the sliders to extremes. You can go as far as +120 for Brightness and +40 for contrast to boost the white background. 

Use Blacks and Shadow to further darken your object, until it is completely darkened. Each image will be different, though, so you may need to make some local adjustments. 

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 8

(Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

2. Strengthen the silhouette 

With the image now open in Photoshop, select Adjustments > Desaturate – this will produce a strong, completely dark silhouette. 

Occasionally, if the flash or lighting effect is too strong, red and blue lines may appear around the object you’re photographing. 

To make these disappear, change the image to black and white, again via Image > Adjustments.

Now create your composite image

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 9

1. We’re going to create a fun cartoon-esque mountain vista using just two silhouettes: the desk fan and the iron. Start off with a basic white background, or a silhouette image you are looking to use in your scene, then introduce some other silhouette objects to build up the composite image. (Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 10

As the silhouettes are fully black and the background is white, the Quick Selection Tool will select them easily. While selected, refine the silhouette’s edges so that the object will blend well into the composite. Click on Select > Modify > Feather – choose between 3 and 5 pixels, and you will get a smooth outline when you copy and paste the object into the composite image. (Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

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As you’ll be using multiple objects to create your composite, name each layer so you know which object you are moving. To change the size of an object, select Edit > Transform > Scale; if you are using Photoshop CC 2018 or earlier, hold Shift to maintain its proportions. You can save time by using the same object multiple times; to do this, duplicate the layer [Ctrl/Cmd+J] then rename it in the Layers Panel. (Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 12

Now that our scene is starting to take shape, it’s time to think about how the individual objects blend together. Objects in the foreground should have a white outer edge to avoid blending with objects behind. You can achieve this by clicking Select > Modify > Expand and choosing an amount of 3-5 pixels. (Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 13

Once you’ve finished you just need to merge the layers together via the Layers Panel. (Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

And here’s the final composite image

DCam 241 silhouettes project image 14

(Image credit: Simeon Meinema/Future)

That’s it! Congratulate yourself on your efforts and remember that the only limit to creating distinctive and original silhouette art is your own imagination – enjoy! 

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