When Mermaids Rise (AKA: The Power of Silhouettes)


It’s no secret that I’m a light junkie. My “fix” is to stop whatever I’m doing when I see light that makes me excited and jam it into my soul. I feel the high, the adrenaline, the rush. I let it drip down my veins and bring me clarity—a moment of truth before it disappears and I feel a funk, a weight which brings me down until the next high, which is usually just around the corner.

It’s not quite as melodramatic as that, but I do take my light seriously. When you surround yourself with enablers, it can be a serious combination.

I photograph weddings in addition to the 25 other things I’m passionate about shooting (I missed the memo that said you’re only supposed to be passionate about shooting one thing). And while I understand the advice that’s often given to photographers of “only shoot and display what you love,” I think it’s too often summarized as “only shoot one thing and shoot it well.” You’re in charge of your destiny, dammit. If you love something, do it. If you happen to love 25 things, you may be accused of being scattered, but the main question to ask is, “Are you happy making the photographs that you create?” We all shoot for different reasons and if you’re primmary goal is your own happiness with each click of the shutter, then walk your own path. Ignore other people (including me).
Rant aside, back to my addiction.

This light junkie is happiest when I have enablers, those people around me who appreciate that photography is a pursuit that involves an opportunistic element and when the light’s nice, there’s no point just sitting there looking at it when you can be creating in it.

I photographed Sam and Christine’s wedding in Antigua and this image was made a day or two before the ceremony.

All I had to say in the months before the wedding was, “Just give me a willingness to get wet and slightly uncomfortable, and the opportunity to create” and they were in.

Christine bought a pre-wedding dress that cost just a fraction of her “real deal,” giving us the opportunity to create something special without the worries associated with damaging her real wedding dress before the big day.

This image was photographed towards the end of the day, creating one of my favourite photographic elements: silhouettes. I find that silhouettes can be extremely easy to create after you’ve had a little practice and know the right light conditions that can make for a nice silhouette (more on that to follow).

What, to me, is the power of a silhouette?

To me, the power of silhouettes is that they make for great stories. Because they’re almost always anonymous, they draw the viewer into an image to imagine possibly being in the scene themselves. An image featuring a silhouette is no longer a textbook portrait as it’s not about that specific per son; it’s about the mix of pose, or moment, and light to create a mood. It’s storytelling. If you could see into the shadows of the person, you would lose the anonymous nature of the silhouette. And sometimes you don’t want that; sometimes anonymity is a great thing in photography.

You can shoot a silhouette at mid-day by putting the
sun (or some other bright light source, such as a window if you’re inside) behind your subject, but I find the strongest silhouettes are usually when the sun is really low, or perhaps gone altogether. The 20-30 minutes post-sunset is one of my favourite times for creating silhouettes. The sky is usually still dramatic and colourful, but there’s not enough light present to spill into the foreground where it can bounce around and light the nearside of your subject.

When Mermaids Rise was photographed moments before the sun disappeared completely behind the horizon. I love how the rich, warm light spilled across the ocean surface and shimmered into perfect separating highlights. She’s only standing in ankle-deep water and the waves are gently lapping in and around her, but it gives the impression that she’s walking on water. She started in a more static pose but then we got more creative. She would move one way and if the light didn’t look right and I yelled loud enough, she would move back the other way until it was beautiful and I would yell, “There, that’s it...don’t move a muscle!”

As often happens in these shoots I stumbled upon my favourite element entirely by accident. In this case, it’s Christine holding the sheer part of the dress backwards, which allows it to pick up the rich light and create a moment of magic. I didn’t direct her to do that—initially she was just trying to avoid it from becoming completely bogged down in the waves. But as soon as I noticed the effect it was having, I was in full-on junkie mode.

A few silent whoops of happiness on my end and for the next five minutes I was in heaven.