How to Stack Silhouette Photos to Show Motion

Reducing subjects down to a simple, graphic form, silhouettes add an air of mystery and intrigue to even the most banal objects. In the 1800s, Eadweard Muybridge famously used silhouettes to capture the movement of a horse while studying animal locomotion with the help of his camera. Ever since, silhouettes have remained a popular stylistic choice for photographers seeking to capture forms in motion.

In a sort of homage to Muybridge, photographer Tony Northrup began creating silhouettes capturing the movement of birds in flight. But rather than using many individual frames to illustrate the path each bird took, he chose to develop a means of compositing the series into a single surreal photograph:

As Northrup explains, the first step to a successfully stacked image is a decent set of base images. If you’re trying to track movement in your silhouettes, it’s best to opt for the widest lens you can get your hands on. From there, it’s a matter of setting your camera to a continuous shooting mode and waiting for the action to happen. When the subject moves through the frame, just hold down the shutter.

The next step is to bring all of the files into cataloging software like Lightroom. Make any adjustments desired to the RAW files, syncing settings to ensure consistency through each shot. From there, convert them into individual layers in a Photoshop file.

If you handheld your camera while shooting, have no fear. Photoshop’s auto align capabilities can be used to get everything in sync. Even if you brought a tripod on location, you may want to consider employing auto align to compensate for any minimal shakes that may have slightly changed the composition. Once the auto align is complete, be sure to crop in; one of the drawbacks to the process is funky, unnatural looking edges caused by the alignment process. Any missing chunks that cannot be cropped out can be solved with tools like the clone stamp, the paint brush, and the content aware fill option.

Once the pictures are in line with one another, select all of the layers except for the bottom layer. Change the blending mode from Normal to Darken. Instantly, the silhouettes from each image will become visible within the composition, creating a sense of movement throughout the photograph. Keep an eye out for any digital banding, but don’t fret if there’s a few spots that look a bit off. Banding issues can often be solved with a few simple masking adjustments.

silhouette birds in motion

Beware. This technique doesn’t work for every type of picture. But, when it comes to silhouettes, it’s easy enough and takes only a few minutes to implement.

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