Why Silhouettes in Photography Can Be Useful


Why Silhouettes in Photography Can Be Useful


Currently I’m in Cambodia scouting out a future photo tour I’ll be leading here in December 2013 (details to come). Upon arrival in Siem Reap, the jumping off point to the extremely impressive UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat, constructed in the 12th century, we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the box office where we purchased a 3-day pass for US$40 (the U.S. dollar is widely accepted in Cambodia and changing money into the local currency, the Real, was not necessary at any point during my 3 week stay).

So, our 3-day pass started the next day, but by purchasing it in the afternoon of our arrival, we were allowed to enter the grounds for sunset, where we were treated to some wonderful light that made for some great “golden hour” photography, more of which I’ll be showing in another post.


Wider view of Angkor Wat at Sunset - Siem Reap, Cambodia by Ralph Velasco

Wider view of Angkor Wat at sunset, looking east, with sun at my back.


The image above is a sunset shot of Angkor Wat, but as you can see, there is some construction going at the temple and the bright green canvas and scaffolding is rather unsightly.  I tried to move around the scene a bit to cover as much of the construction as possible with a palm tree strategically placed in the foreground, but it didn’t help much.


Wider View of Angkor Wat at Sunrise - Siem Reap, Cambodia by Ralph Velasco

Same relative composition as above, but a bit wider and at sunrise, with sun coming up behind Angkor Wat.


The next morning I awoke at 4:45 am to meet our tuk-tuk driver who would take us back to Angkor Wat for the obligatory sunrise photo op (the site opens at 5:30 am).  It’s virtually the law that if you’re going to visit Angkor Wat, that you must get up early at least one morning to experience one of the great sunrises in the world.


Angkor Wat at Sunrise in Silhouette - Siem Reap, Cambodia - Copyright 2012 Ralph Velasco

Detail of Angkor Wat at sunrise where I can easily create a silhouette.


Because the sun of course rises in the east, which is behind the temple, I wanted to photograph the scene in silhouette, which can be very dramatic.  To do so I expose on the bright sunlit sky, which knocks down the exposure value of the temple below, creating a featureless silhouette, which is nice in its own right.


Angkor Wat at Sunrise - Portrait - Siem Reap, Cambodia - Copyright 2012 Ralph Velasco (1)

Always be sure to go for the portrait version of a scene.


But what else have I accomplished by doing this?  That’s right, I’ve eliminated any sign of the construction going on at the temple, and so you’d never know what was really happening there.  That’s why I say that silhouettes can be not only dramatic in photography, but they can be useful, too.

With the above portrait oriented image of the same scene, I’m creating another version that might be useful in a particular book I’m creating that requires a page layout with a portrait image, or perhaps I need this version in a slideshow I’m creating, or, and this is the ultimate goal of any photographer, wouldn’t this orientation look great on the cover of a magazine?  Can you envision the big, bold title of the magazine across the top, as well as the featured story and other headings placed throughout the empty or negative space I’ve left in the top of the frame?

You just never know…


Angkor Wat at sunrise with person taking picture - Siem Reap, Cambodia by Ralph Velasco

A slightly different perspective showing the LCD screen of someone else, as well as the scene they’re photographing.


In the image above I’ve simply looked to create a slightly different version of the same scene.  Here I chose to focus in on the LCD screen of another visitor’s camera, with Angkor Wat displayed clearly, but I also chose to blur out the actual scene in the distant background by using a large aperture, and zooming in on the person’s camera, which exaggerates that shallow depth of field.  I’m always looking for a different take on the same scene, trying to avoid just capturing the “postcard” shots that everyone else is surely getting.


Crowd at Angkor Wat at Sunrise - Siem Reap, Cambodia - Copyright 2012 Ralph Velasco

It takes a bit of creativity to avoid the massive crowd also enjoying sunrise at Angkor Wat.


And finally, I wanted to show you just what the scene looked like during sunrise.  Remember I said it’s every tourist’s obligation to see Angkor Wat at sunrise?  Well, here’s every tourist in the Siem Reap area lining up to get their postcard and, hopefully, other shots of this iconic scene.

Can you see the benefit of learning how to capture a silhouette to not only get a unique take on often overshot scenes, but also to do a little in-camera “editing” which can allow you to avoid unsightly parts of the scene, such as construction and other distractions?



Although I’m currently working out all of the details, I’ll be offering a photo tour to Cambodia scheduled for November 30th to December 15th, 2013.  Stay tuned for more details, and feel free to e-mail me at ralph@RalphVelasco.com if you’d like to be put on the interest list.


Ralph Velasco is an Orange County-based photography instructor, international photo tour guide and author who frequently speaks on the topic of travel photography.

He’s an award-winning blogger and creator of the My Shot Lists for Travel app for iPhone.

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