Making a silhouette in Adobe Lightroom 4 in four easy steps

How to create a silhouette in Adobe Lightroom 4

I made a silhouette today that will end up as a cake topper. (This is for my daughter’s wedding.) Seems there aren’t 400 tutorials on the Internet about this already so I thought I’d write up the steps and share it. It’s pretty easy and fun.

Taking the photo

The idea here is that you want to start with a photo where the contrast between the heads and the background is as dramatic as possible. You could do it when the sun is low on the horizon. But you can also do it in your living room (as I did here). And since you’re going to eliminate everything in the background, you don’t even have to straighten the living room before shooting.

This shot was made in a big hurry—Mary and John were getting ready to leave and they were already late. So I picked a spot that was handy but, in retrospect, maybe not the best possible position for the background, because there was a hallway behind them with a door at the end with panes that became high-contrast problems later on. But that might make this a better example of the things you do in Lightroom.

I used two Sony flash units, on their stands, pointed at the walls behind Mary and John. The flashes were set to be triggered wirelessly. You could however do this with a couple of normal bright lamps. Remember, the goal is to make the background really bright.

I shot with the camera in M mode, using a shutter speed fast enough so I didn’t have to worry about them moving a little, but with the aperture wide open and ISO set high. Remember, we are trying to blow out the background here. My precise settings don’t matter because yours will be different. Note that, even if you never shoot in full manual mode, this is a place where you will want to, because you don’t want a “good” exposure here. You want to grossly overexpose the background and underexpose the person or persons in the foreground.

The most important thing that I did right in this shot was place Mary so that there was nothing in the space between her pony tail and the back of her head. Getting that space empty white to start with saved me some tedious detail work with the adjustment brush later on.

Original photo, after cropping. If I’d had 2 more minutes, I could have handled the lighting better, so the couple in the foreground were much more underexposed, or I could have picked a better place for the shot (so I didn’t end up with that problematic door in the background).

After shooting, import into Lightroom and crop the image appropriately, if it needs cropping.

Lightroom Step 1: Treatment

 Convert to grayscale (keyboard shortcut: V). Then set Blacks slider to -100 and Whites slider to +100. If your photo is a good candidate for this project, you should be able to see the silhouette emerging already.

Step 1. Set to grayscale, and set blacks to -100 and whites to +100.

Lightroom Step 2: Contrast

Set Contrast to +100, Highlights to +100, and Shadows to -100. Notice that at this point, you’re over halfway there!

Step 2. Set Contrast and Highlights to +100, and Shadows to -100.

Lightroom Step 3: Background to white

Now we get to the (slightly) hard part.

Select the Adjustment Brush tool (keyboard shortcut: K). Set the “Effect” sliders as follows: Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows and Sharpness go all the way to the right, while Clarity and Saturation go all the way to the left. Everything else is left in the middle of the slider range. Set the “Brush” sliders thus: Feather, Flow and Density should be all the way to the right. Size and the Auto Mask option are not important just yet. You might want to save this as a slider preset. I named mine “Everything White.”

Now, put a check in the “Auto Mask” check box for the adjustment brush, size the brush appropriately, and carefully brush around the head(s). Make sure that the + marker that shows the hot spot of the brush doesn’t slide into a face. If it does, make a small brush and erase. Type “O” (the letter) to show the brushed area, if you aren’t showing it already. Hold down the Option key on your Mac (Windows: Alt) to turn the brush into an eraser.

It might help during this process to zoom in and make the brush small, for parts of the silhouette that have detail (like mouth, nose, etc.).

Areas of high contrast in the background (like the door at the end of the hallway in my photo) might not go white easily, because the Auto Mask option is turned on and Auto Mask is sensitive to contrast. To whiten these parts of the background, uncheck Auto Mask—but be careful with the brush!

Step 3: Use Adjustment Brush with Auto Mask checked to clear areas close to the silhouettes and with Auto Mask unchecked to clear background areas of high contrast.

Lightroom Step 4: Figures to black

Finally, you may need to darken some areas of the face or body, so get a new adjustment brush, and change the Effect settings as follows: Exposure, Highlights and Shadows go all the way to the left. Everything else stays the same as it was: Contrast and Sharpness stay all the way to the right, and Clarity and Saturation stay all the way to the left. You might want to save this as a slider preset. I named mine “Everything Black.”

Now, using Auto Mask as necessary, paint inside the silhouette area to make everything black.

Finally use a different Adjustment Brush to darken parts of the body that aren’t already all or mostly black. If you’re sending the image to a service to be made into a cake topper (as I am) you don’t need to make the darkening absolutely perfect.


And you’re done! You can print your silhouette, if you like. The plan at the moment for this photo is turn the silhouette into a cutout that can be used as a cake topper. As soon as the bride makes her decision about the cake and we know the diameter of the top layer, I think I’m going to use this gentleman to make the cutout:

But there are lots of places that can do this. Have fun!


3 comments on “Making a silhouette in Adobe Lightroom 4 in four easy steps

  1. A great tutorial! Congrats to your daughter also, btw!

    I’m wondering if you have any ideas on making a photo like yours into a white silhouette on a black background. I have a silhouette processed like this but would like to print a white version on a black tshirt. If you had any ideas I’d be very happy to hear them!

    • Kelly: Thanks for the comment (and the congrats) and please accept my apologies for not responding sooner. White silhouette on black background, eh? I take it you mean something like this:

      White silhouette on black background

      This is actually EASIER than normal silhouette that I spoke of in the blog article. The idea is to do a classic flash-controlled black background shot. I find this easiest to do outside. Here’s my favorite (well, my most cooperative) model, my daughter’s American Girl doll. I’ve placed her outside. Set the camera in manual (without flash yet) so that the image is going to be completely black. Make sure that there’s nothing in the near background: Some light’s going to hit the model, and we want the rest to go off into infinity and not come back. Now for a classic flash-induced black background, you’d add in the flash at this point, like this:

      Using flash outdoors to create black background in full daylight.

      That shot was made at 1/1000th sec, f/4, ISO 100, with HSS enabled. I deliberately allowed a little of the background to appear here so you can see that what’s behind the doll is my back yard, at 6PM in June in Dallas (still pretty sunny).

      Now, to get that first image, I cranked up the flash output in order, as much as possible, to blow out the model. Then I took the resulting image (in which the background was mostly black and the model was pretty overexposed) and used the local adjustment brush in Lightroom to turn the model to white. (Exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows go to 100, clarity, saturation and sharpness go to -100.) I deliberately didn’t finish the job here so you could see what’s happening better.

      Of course, the best and probably easiest way to do this is in Photoshop, with layers. But when I wrote this blog post, I no longer wanted to bother with Photoshop and hadn’t upgraded in a good while. Recently I purchased Acorn, which is a FANTASTIC replacement for Photoshop that costs a small fraction of the price of Photoshop, and if I really wanted to do this today, I’d probably use Acorn.

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