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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!