Contre-jour Photography

Go to the light!

By K David in Articles and Tips on Oct 5, 2015
Contre-jour Photography

As our Tell us About Your Photo (TUAYP) series evolves, we're listening to reader input and expanding the series to include a follow-up discussion of the technique or other element used in the TUAYP image. We'll focus one or more of the image elements that made it a wow-worthy image. In this installment, we'll be focusing on the Gavin Cato TUAYP image Sam and Erin Farewell Night Shot, part of Gavin's series Erin and Sam's Wedding at Oatlands House. We'll examine what a contre-jour image is, the technique that defines it, how to create one, and specific camera settings that can be used. As with most all photography, there are many ways to achieve any objective. If you know of other ways to achieve the contre-jour effect in-camera, we welcome your comments and insights. Also, if you have contre-jour images that you would like to share, we welcome your links and encourage you to also post your images in the Post your Photos or Photo Critique sub-forums.

How to Create a Contre-jour Image

Contre-jour translates from French as "against daylight." Thus, contre-jour images are in a similar class as silhouettes and use low-key lighting, but they differ in other ways.

Turf (Alonzo Jones) | K David

A silhouette is a dark shape devoid of detail in front of a light background, and the source for that light background could be anywhere and need not be in the frame. A low-key image retains some detail in the subject. From a technical perspective, a silhouette occurs when the ratio between the key light and fill light is 16:1 or greater. That equates to a four-stop difference in lighting. Low-key lighting is achieved when the key light to fill light ratio is 8:1. The low-key ratio is a three-stop difference between key and fill lights.

A contre-jour image differs from both silhouettes and low-key images in that contre-jour requires that the image be a dark shape in front of the source of light. The source light must be behind the subject and in the frame (or the light it creates must cause the subject to take form.) A well executed contre-jour image creates an outline, achieves the aim of using a point-source of light behind the subject to create a bright glow that creates the form and reveals the image. Subjects within a contre-jour image can retain detail within the shadow areas.

Cathedral Silhouette | K David

Taking a contre-jour image, from a technical perspective, can be done on the fly when an opportunity presents itself. To take a basic contre-jour image, find a light source and place it in your frame and behind your subject. If it's a constant light source, take a meter reading from it and set your aperture and shutter (or use auto-exposure lock) to achieve a proper exposure at that meter reading.

Place your subject in front of the light source and take the photo using the camera settings you selected. For additional options in editing, use auto bracketing to take a series of three or five images at half-stop (or two-third-stop) intervals. This helps ensure a properly illuminated image and also provides alternate images for added editing leeway.

As Gavin explained in his TUAYP interview, he used a steady source of light: a video LED lamp. This facilitated focusing and allowed him to gauge the framing and composition exactly as he wanted. Had he used a strobe, focusing and composition would have been much harder.

California Street | K David

From an aesthetic perspective, silhouettes (as an image style) are about capturing a shape and only a shape. The subject should be black and the light behind it constant. Contre-jour, however, is an image style that emphasizes the interplay between light and subject. A successful contre-jour uses light to create scene, form, texture, mood, and emotion.

Contre-jour is a style that can be applied to any subject. Certainly, portraits lend themselves well to the style, but abstract, architectural, landscape, and macro are some of the other image types well suited for creative use of contre-jour.

Abstract Contre-jour using Oil Paint in Vegetable Oil | K David

Contre-jour, as a technique, adds style and results which appear deceptively difficult to achieve. As a way to create images that carry strong emotional content, tell a subject's story, wow clients, or show off skills, contre-jour is a strong technique that can be done in almost any setting without great difficulty. Add contre-jour to your technique library and explore some of the many creative uses it affords.

Macro of Acrylic and Glass | K David

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