You wouldn't think that a kitty sitting in a pool of light on a sunny porch could result in such a dramatic bit of lighting, but it's all in how you compose and expose the shot. I took this photo while sitting with my cats on a screened porch and though she was surrounded by shadows, they weren't really as dark as they look here. But by taking my exposure reading exclusively from her (and excluding most of the shadow areas during metering), the camera underexposed the shadows. (I also used -.3 stops of exposure compensation, just to tone things down a tad further). The real drama came from two other things: for one I was using my Olympus SP80 that has a 36x optical zoom and so I zoomed to the 35mm equivalent of a 210mm lens--and that was from just a few feet away. By zooming in so tightly on her, I cropped away anything (including several white chairs nearby) that might have broken that nice dark area surrounding the cat--so the composition consists of just two things: the cat and the shadows.
I also adjusted the exposure a bit in Photoshop, using the curves tool. I pulled the heel of the curve down a bit so that the shadows went from dark gray to black and then I raised up the toe (top) of the curve a bit to lighten the what areas of fur. I also did a tiny bit of dodging with the dodge tool to bring up some highlights in the golden areas of her fur and to lighten up that front paw (not the one she's washing, the other one). The image was sharpened a tiny bit using the unsharp masking tool. I shot this image with jpeg (normally I shoot in RAW) because the Olympus doesn't have a RAW mode.
I really was just playing with the cats and hoping to get a few snapshots--but that's usually when the most dramatic photos happen. I've learned from a lot of experience that if you're sitting around with pets, it pays to have the camera nearby.
My new book: My newest book Digital Photography FAQs (Wiley Publishing) is due out in July and I hope you'll buy it. In the book I answer more than 365 questions about digital photography--a lot of them that came to me from questions post as comments on this blog. And by the way, the cover has been changed, so the one you're seeing on Amazon is not the cover that will be on the book--thankfully the publisher is adding photos!
If you're into dSLR photography but don't want to carry around a bag full of lenses, Nikon has introduced a new lens just for you: an 18-300mm f/3.5-5/6 G ED VR DX lens. This is the longest focal length range in the Nikon lens system and gets you the 35mm-equivalent focal-length range of 27 to 450mm. That means from moderately wide angle to super telephoto in one lens. And if you need something wider than 27mm (which would be nice), just add a super-wide zoom to your kit and you'd pretty much have all you needed in two lenses. I've yet to try any of Nikon's all-in-one zooms, but this one is pretty tempting. The lens has a variable aperture of f/3.5 to f/5.6. The lens will be available at the end of June and the price (I think this is suggested retail) is $995.
By the way, as of this year, Nikon says that is has now manufactured 70,000,000 lenses. I think if you stretched them out end-to-end they'd probably circle the Earth quite a few times! Shall we try?
All about lens apertures: If you'd like to learn more about lens apertures, lens speed and why some lenses are faster than one another, have a look at the multi-page Lens Aperture Primer on my main site. It's probably the most extensive aperture tutorial online and it's free, of course.
Silhouettes are a lot of fun to create because they simplify scenes by stripping away most textures, colors and surface details and leaving mainly shapes behind. Creating silhouettes is very simple: just position an opaque subject (one that light doesn't pass through) in front of a bright background and then expose for the background. The simplest way to set the exposure is to aim it at the brightest part of the background (in the shot here I used the sky, but the water would have worked as well) and then use your exposure-lock feature to hold that exposure setting. Then simply recompose the scene and shoot.
On most cameras (all cameras--whether compacts or DSLRs) holding the shutter release halfway down will lock the exposure reading. So, if you point the camera at the sky or water and hold the shutter button halfway down to trigger the exposure system, as long as you don't let up on the button the exposure remains locked (and I know that most of you know this already!). The only problem is that when you lock the exposure you also lock focus. If the bright background and your primary subject are at different distances from the camera, you'll have to work around it. One way (with a MILC or dSLR camera) is to switch to manual focus and then you can still lock the meter reading, but you can focus manually--and this is what I do 90% of the time. Another solution (again with a more advanced camera) is to shoot in both manual exposure but keep the autofocus working--so you set the exposure for the sky manually, but the camera does the focusing. Many dSLR cameras also have a separate override that enables you to lock focus and/or exposure separately (see your camera manual for more info).
What about compact cameras? Since most point-and-shoot type cameras have very extensive depth of field (near-to-far focus), focus isn't that huge an issue as long as you're not right on top of your subject. So just leave the camera in the full auto mode (the green mode) and lock your meter reading on the bright background and let the focus do it's thing. If you need more depth of field (DOF) try switching to the Landscape exposure mode. In this mode the camera will automatically select the smallest possible aperture for the given lighting and ISO combination and this will increase the DOF.
One problem you often run into with silhouette photos are "merges" where a part of the foreground is lost in a dark shape in the background. In the shot here you can see that part of the sailboat's mast is lost in the shape of the island. There's not much you can do to solve this problem other than to change your position a bit and try to avoid the convergence.
Read more about exposure and silhouettes on my main site.
Check out my exposure book! If you'd like to learn more (a lot more!) about exposure, be sure to look for my latest book: Exposure Photo Workshop, 2nd edition. It's a comprehensive look at the entire world of exposure and Shutterbug magazine called it "...possibly the best book ever written on the subject."