Silhouettes are a compositional technique, rather than a compositional principle. They are a tool. As such, this is the fist article in a slightly different series from the others. But the model will be maintained.

The basics

A silhouette is, in its most fundamental form, a part of an image that is under-exposed (usually to the point of blackness), with whatever is behind it being brighter. It provides an outline of form, which has enough context that the dark item is still recognisable. The simplest form of this is the scene (people, structures, etc.) against a colourful, brightly lit background such as a sunset.

Leaf Exchange, High Park, Toronto by Pavel M

Leaf Exchange, High Park, Toronto
While this image includes two people playing, the subject of the image is the feel of autumn. The silhouettes come in two parts: tree and people. The tree and darker part of the foreground provide framing. The two people give depth to the beautiful tones. Both of these help set the scene while leaving the array of tones to dominate.


As the silhouette concept is a dark foreground against a brighter background, this can be taken to an extreme: the monochrome. At this point, everything becomes simplified. There is only the minimal form of the dark subjects against a relatively plain background. This returns the primary interest from the bright background to the outlined shapes.

You lookin’ at me? by Art Rock (Hennie)

You lookin' at me?
This image does not need colour or in-subject detail to stand out. Everything we need to know is conveyed directly through the basic forms: the tree as multi-part framing and leading-line texture, and the goat’s attention on us as we look back at it. The animal’s outline tells as much as any facial expression could.


Minimalist detail can be taken a step further by confusing the actual subject, thereby transcending into abstraction. Given that many abstracts are simple – vague forms – the starkness of silhouettes are a very effective tool for creating them.

forest fire by kate mellersh

forest fire
Still life shot through a frosted window, and coloured by early morning sun, the distinction between silhouette and shadow is as vague as the source underlying many of the lines. Shapes and forms have a meaning beyond whatever they represent – they are primitive and so abstract.

As anchor

In the non-minimalist silhouette, the real subject of the scene – the aspect that one is supposed to eventually settle one’s attention on – is the background scene. The use of a silhouette in the foreground, as a pseudo-subject, can work as an anchor to set the scene, providing a sense of reference (such as scale).

Guardian of the Frosted Kingdom by cormend

Guardian of the Frosted Kingdom
This scene of the Nepalese mountains is absolutely breath-taking. And it is the combination of foreground rocks and snow-covered slope that are the inspiring interest. The inclusion of the silhouetted yak give a sense of scale and location, stabilising the image without dominating it.

Context for a scene

Similar to anchoring, where a background image is bordering on the abstract, a silhouetted foreground subject can help by providing a context: an explanation for the rest of what is seen without taking away from the primary point of interest.

fire dance by ole’ Betsy

fire dance
Clearly, the interest in this image is the swirling shapes of flame. But what would they be without the silhouetted performer giving context to that movement?

Depth (without distraction)

As a foreground silhouette can provide context in a scene without distracting from the main subject, so a series of silhouettes can be used to emphasise the visual depth of a scene. The trick here is that the eye sees light rather than dark. As such, the gaps are not seen, only inferred (you don’t see the lack of information).

She did it ūüėÄ by aftab.

She did it :D
This evening scene is naturally beautiful. The range of tones in both sky and water are so very peaceful. The addition – or, visually, subtraction – of the silhouetted pillars give context to the water’s surface, very clearly showing just how fast it recedes into the distance. While the colours are nice, without the silhouetted structure, the depth would at best be guessed at. And, the eye never stops on the silhouettes themselves‚Ķ they are the absence of information, so – while seen in the larger context – they are skipped over in the details.

Extreme backlighting

While the normal principle of a silhouette is to have an unlit object in front of a light background, this concept can be twisted a little. Instead of lighting the background, simply light the back side of the subject itself without lighting the actual background. This effectively provides rim lighting. With the right subject, it can be a very effective tool.

Hummingbird Essentials by sannesu

Hummingbird Essentials
There is very little actually showing in this image: the faintest outline of head and beak, a bit more around the tail and claws. But in the brightness of the backlight, which illuminated nothing but the outside edge of the hummingbird, there is the full detail of a wing taking pride of place. While so little is actually shown here, the bird’s body indistinguishable on one side from the setting, there is no part of the image that is lacking detail.

The cast silhouette

As mentioned above, a silhouette is simply the result of an unlit subject interposed between a light background and the viewer. It is, for all intents, the viewer the dark subject’s in-shadow side. As the shadow is there, why would it need to be cast on the viewer’s eye to be a silhouette? View another’s silhouette from another angle, and you are viewing a shadow.

don’t die of disappointment by kate mellersh

don't die of disappointment
If one looked through that block of glass, the silhouette effect of its refraction would be similar to the shadow it casts, though perhaps not as clearly defined. This particular image, manages to create the object-silhouette relationship with depth into the frame – along a single diagonal line, but very clearly protruding at one end and burrowing at the other where the shadow starts to lose focus.

Rachael’s Web. by missnoma

Rachael's Web.
This image is a combination of standard silhouette and “cast” silhouette, the one mirroring the other, and both an echo of the source subject normally lit. On the wall behind the lamp, we see the silhouette as each point there would observe it; a pattern of shadows.


As silhouettes are simply the shadow side of subjects, they can be used very effectively to create, or emphasise, texture.

Atripto by aftab.

The foreground here is a beautiful texture of mud and water – an intricate pattern receding into the distance. The silhouettes on the nearside edges of each of the land elements gives the texture a three-dimensional feel, enhancing it over the simple tonal texture that would be there without those borders.


The lack of light – of which silhouettes are but a special case – is a powerful tool when it comes to implying mood. The combination of clear light, silhouette and half-lit subjects can very easily be used to create a mysterious atmosphere.

He is no more by -Dhrubo-

He is no more
Light this scene from the front, and it is simply a chair in front of a window. But like this, with the silhouetted borders provided by the curtains and the half-silhouetted chair, it is a scene of loss or pain; there is a palpable sense of quiet that descends over the setting.


This use of mood lighting is very effective in portraiture: it can add mystique. While the full silhouette can work, the back/rim lighting approach usually has more impact.

Souveche by andy_57

While this image may not be a true silhouette (details of Souveche’s face can still be made out in the darker areas), it illustrates the impact rim-lighting can have on a portrait, drawing our attention to the finer edge detail. It is clear that such highlights on a person create a very different impression of them than a more conventional, fully-lit portrait would.


Just as the reduction of lighting can be used to create a sombre or mysterious mood, intense lighting – especially where it picks out colour – can easily convey a dramatic mood. When this is combined with a partial silhouette (a subject that is a mix of bright and dark), the effect can be very pronounced.

flight by Mauritius100

This image is helped by being centrally framed, and having a background that is almost plain white: it means that the bird can stand out on its own, within a much extended virtual canvas. The effect used here is not quite rim lighting, though it is similar. While the body, head and one wing are little more than dark forms, the openness of the background and the brightness of the few elements that are illuminated – wing and tail feathers – draw attention with their intensity.


While silhouettes are, in principle, simply dark forms against a lighter background, not all dark is equal. As such, the classic layered mountainscape is really an implementation of different intensities of silhouette.

Jajabor by aftab.

Without the islands, Ha Long Bay would not be the natural wonder it is. So they need to be present against the sunset colours. In this instance, though, it is the differing intensities of the silhouettes – though admittedly caused by the diffusion of light in the faint mist over distance – that gives meaning to those islands. This is classic layering.


To get the image count up to 18, I will now fill in with some of the most effective silhouette images as submitted for this article:

Wake me up. by ben.pearson.007

Wake me up.
An excellent example of silhouettes – direct and cast – to create a sense of mood within this riverscape. While the subject itself is fairly plain – a brown body of water, though enhanced with reflections of the sun – it is the shape created by what it not seen – banks and trees – that make this a moody setting. The added meshing of branches over the sky reinforces the closed-in feeling while still revealing the sky to us.

Dawn… by VikasAher

A simple but compelling example of layered silhouettes to emphasise distance in morning light. These layers act as anchors/framing, providing direction into the scene. They also provide context – in environment with the upper silhouetted, scale from the lower – for the sky’s colours.

glacé by jenny downing

An image of leaves, even backlit, is not always the most interesting. Adding snow can help, but doesn’t turn it into magic. However, the inclusion of the semi-translucent form of snow sliding down the backlit leaves, its structure silhouetted in overlay on the leaves’ veins makes for an amazing texture. Fancy artiness turned into magic through a simple limitation of light.

caroline suspected this was rather important by kate mellersh

caroline suspected this was rather important
In most cases, a silhouette, in being the absence of light – the absence of visual information – is the unseen element, directing attention to the lighter parts of the image. However, as seen here, even that basic rule can be turned on its head. Here, the dark shapes of the hands, and the mystery of just what they are involved in, becomes the subject; this because of the level of detail within the hands’ shapes vis-√†-vis the setting they are in.

A special twist

And to wrap up, the standard twist. When is a silhouette not a silhouette. And what makes it a silhouette anyway? Is the indistinct darkness enough? I would normally say it is not, but just as every rule has an exception, so does every exception…

Old Man, Liberty Village, Toronto by Pavel M

Old Man, Liberty Village, Toronto
The question can honestly be raised: is this a silhouette? It is not back-lit; we are not viewing the shadow side of the subject. However, the effect is similar, thanks to the distorting texture of the glass the subject is hidden behind. The dark coat and hat, once blurred, have the same practical, visual effect as silhouettes. We are left to concentrate on the rest of the image – the face, background and the texture surrounding them.

  1. Amazing insight into a new way of thinking silhouette…One now should look closer into those dark areas as a new form of painting with ‘light and dark’…
    Pure brilliance on your part Rick to see the different techniques.

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