Shapes and Backgrounds in Silhouette Pictures

One of the signs that you are getting better as a photographer is hitting the delete button more often. Most of us tend to think our pictures are better than they actually are when we first start out. This is perfectly okay… we just develop higher standards for our photography as time goes along. Raising the bar and deleting pictures that don’t meet up to our new higher standards is a good thing.

One of the easiest types of images to overrate is the silhouette. Silhouette pictures can be cool. However, the image essentially hangs on a shape and a background. If the shape isn’t interesting, the picture will not work. If the background is boring, the image is a tosser. You need both elements for a successful silhouette picture.

The following picture works well because the frog forms a good graphic shape against the colorful orange leaf.

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Frog Silhouette : Prints Available

Frog silhouette on an orange leaf

For the picture below, the background is nice, but the tree is pretty messy and cluttered. So, in spite of the good background, the picture doesn’t really work in my opinion. More simple graphic shapes generally work better than cluttered shapes. I had this image on my site for awhile, but later tossed it.

Lone Tree at Sunset

The following image really depends on the shape of the woman. The hat really helps out, as does the fact that you can see both her arms. It is a relaxed pose and it is obvious that she is looking at the fountain. If she was turned to her side, the image would have been tossed a long time ago in spite of the nice background.

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The Fountain : Prints Available

Elegant woman watching a fountain during a brilliant sunset

The lighthouse picture has a great sky and also a good graphic shape with the fishermen on the pier. The fishing poles and fisherman holding the coffee cup really adds to the overall shape of the silhouette in my opinion.

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All is Well : Prints Available

Silhouette of two men fishing off a lighthouse pier during sunset

Here is one last silhouette picture that works well because of the very strong graphic design combined with a nice sunrise on the lake.

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Morning Dance : Prints Available

Silhouette of woman exercising in the morning on the beach of Lake Michigan

Using Leading Lines to Draw Attention to the Subject

I generally try to avoid saying things that sound corny. But I’m going to make an exception here. Okay, so here goes… ahem…. “good photographic composition should take the viewer on a visual journey through an image and arrive decisively at the subject of the photograph.” Okay, yes, that is super corny sounding, but you should not view me as being a writer of corny blogs since I recognized the statement was corny and warned you ahead of time.

So, now that the corniness is out on the table, let me explain what I mean. If you look around an image and your eyes don’t know where to land, then it is usually compositionally unpleasing. Why? Heck, I don’t know, but smart people have done studies on this. A good compositional technique is to get your viewer’s eyes to move around the image (this takes a fraction of a second) and land on the subject. How do you do this? One way is through “leading lines”, the topic of this blog.

You can use lines within your composition to direct the viewer’s attention to the subject. In the picture below, the retreating waves make lines which move your eye through the image until arriving at the cape in the distance.

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Morning at Cape Kiwanda : Prints Available

Retreating water forms a leading line to Cape Kiwanda

In this next image, the wooden posts in the water make a line which brings your attention to the Chicago skyline. Note that straight lines in images don’t always work. In scenes with man-made structures (such as this one), you expect to see straight lines, whereas you generally expect more curved lines in nature.

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Chicago Sunrise : Prints Available

Beautiful red sunrise over Lake Michigan

The winding fence makes a perfect leading line up to the barns of Jenne Farm. Jenne Farm is the most photographed farm in the U.S. and for good reason… it’s a very beautiful place to spend a morning in Autumn.

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Jenne Farm in Autumn : Prints Available

Morning light and Fall foliage at the Jenne Farm

The path below brings your attention to the hikers in the distance who would otherwise be lost in the image.


Three Hikers : Prints Available

Path forms a leading line to hikers in the distance

The “Rule of Thirds” – Part 2 – Breaking the Rule

This is the 2nd part of a 2-part blog on the “rule of thirds”. Part 1 focused on demonstrating what the rule is and how to follow it. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you should probably read that first. Part 2 focuses on breaking the rule.

I should start out by saying that the rule of thirds is a good guideline which more often than not results in a better overall image. However, sometimes breaking the rule is a good thing. This blog is going to focus specifically on the #1 reason I break the rule… that is to create or take advantage of symmetry in a composition.

For example, in the following image of the Green Tree Python, I placed the snake’s head dead center. This goes against the rule of thirds, but works well because of the symmetry of the snake. If I had placed the snake’s head at one of the four intersections of the rule of thirds grid (see Part 1), the image would not have been as strong.

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Symmetry : Prints Available

Perfectly symmetrical sleeping Green Tree Python

Close-up portraits where the subject is looking straight at the camera generally look better composed dead center. I really like the composition in the Carnivale model portrait below because of the symmetry in the mask and costume.

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Elegance : Prints Available

Close-up portrait of a gorgeous Carnival model in a bright purple costume

The same applies to the cathedral shot below, which works well because of the perfect symmetry of the cathedral. I could have composed this shot with the top of the church pews 1/3 from the bottom of the image. However, the church pews are much less interesting than the beautiful walls and ceiling, so I opted to de-emphasize the pews by keeping them at the very bottom of the image.

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Saint Nicholas Cathedral : Prints Available

Interior shot of Chicago’s own Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral.

Combining symmetry with a slightly off-center subject can work very well as a composition. Notice the foreground below is mostly symmetrical, while the sea stack (the main subject) is composed slightly off-center. The sea stack is not quite at the top right rule of thirds intersection. The symmetry of the foreground holds the image together, while the slightly off-center sea stack really draws your eye in this case.

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End of Day at Rialto Beach : Prints Available

A beautiful sunset on the shores of Rialto Beach

Look for opportunities to create symmetry in your photos and don’t hesitate to break the rule of thirds in those cases.

If you would like to read more about the rule of thirds, you can also check out the following article at Photography Talk:

The “Rule of Thirds” – Part 1 – Following the Rule

Welcome to Part 1 of a 2-part blog on the “rule of thirds”. The rule of thirds is perhaps the most well-known guideline in art and photographic composition. Part 1 focuses on creating images that follow the rule. For you rebels out there, Part 2 focuses on breaking the rule. So, there is something for everyone in this blog.

First, what is the “rule of thirds”? Let’s start with what it is not. Take a look at the image below. This is your typical awful, boring vacation snapshot that your college roommate just brought back from a weekend trip to Chicago. Only it is not just this one picture… your roommate has seven of the same shot and you need to look at all of them. Notice how the subject is dead center (left to right), the horizon line is very close to the bottom (and crooked) and there is too much sky in the picture. The picture just looks off-balance and compositionally boring. This picture is a snapshot and does NOT follow the rule of thirds.


Now, take a look at this next image of a fisherman I shot in Guilin, China.

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Morning on the Li : Prints Available

Chinese fisherman silhouette on the Li River

Notice that this image really works compositionally. This one doesn’t look like your roommate’s vacation snapshot. One reason this picture works so well is because it follows the rule of thirds. Now, I haven’t forgotten that I still haven’t really told you what the rule is. So, let’s do that now. Let me take this same image and put a “tic-tac-toe” grid over it using two horizontal and two vertical lines, each 1/3 of the way into the scene.

Morning on the Li

To follow the rule of thirds, you place “points of interest” (the subject, horizon lines, etc) 1/3 of the way into the image, using both the lines and the intersections of the lines to guide you. You would often place your subject (or a key part of your subject) at one of the intersections and also use the lines themselves for important parts of the picture. In the image above, I placed the fisherman at the lower right intersection, while the horizon line and mountains are generally along the top line.

So, how do you know which line(s) and intersection(s) to place your subject and points of interest at or along? Good question! Remember, photography is more about what works as opposed to following rules. However, here are three guidelines to consider:

  • If your subject is moving, you usually want them moving into the image rather than out of it. Notice my placement of the fisherman on the right of the above image means he is moving into the composition. Placing him at the lower left intersection would have looked awkward… like he is moving right out of the image.
  • Similarly, if your subject is someone or something with eyes and is looking left or right, you generally want them looking into the picture, not out of the picture. In the image below, the woman on the left is looking into the image which works well. I’ve also placed the two women along each of the vertical lines. I’ve placed the main subject (the face of the woman on the right) at the top right intersection.
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Older Chinese women sitting on the stairs

  • You typically want the most important part of the picture to take more space. This factors into a decision on where to put the horizon line in a landscape photo. Placing the horizon on the bottom line would generally result in about 2/3’s of the image being sky. This might work if you want to emphasize the sky. However, you may not want to short-change the main subject of the image… the landscape foreground. In the image below, I placed the horizon along the top horizontal line because I wanted more emphasis on the lavender fields than the sky. Notice the tree (the subject) is at the top left intersection.

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Late evening light strikes a tree in the middle of a lavender field

There is more to say on the rule of thirds. However, hopefully this helps with an introduction to what the rule is and how to follow it. In Part 2, I’ll show you that it is often a good idea to break the rule.

Also, if you would like to read more about the rule of thirds, you can also check out the following article at Photography Talk: