What subjects make good stencils?

What subjects make good stencils, and which ones don’t? Let’s put a pin in a list of bad / good and then talk through some examples.

Bad subjects



artistically blurred photos

black dogs

rainbows and other gradients (unless the rainbows are cartoon rainbows, like this one)

thumbs down overexposed or underexposed shots

thumbs down loose group shots

Good subjects

thumbs up professional portraits

thumbs up logos

thumbs up very tight group shots of 2-3 people

thumbs up recognizable objects from recognizable angles

thumbs up fashion photographs

thumbs up pets sitting still

thumbs up graphic art (like a magazine cover or a poster fragment)

thumbs up product images

thumbs up any image with background removed

And, of course, you should have the rights to use any image that you stencilize. We find lots of images on unsplash that are awesome and free to use.

Okay, let’s take some photos, stencilize them, and rate them as stencils on a scale from 1 to 10.

Take this great photo by Aditya Siva. It shows water buffalo in morning fog, gathered around a tree. This photo has atmospheric water vapor and many subtle shades of gray. The stencil is interesting, but it doesn’t capture the sense of the original, with the tree disappearing up into the fog. Instead, it looks like the tree is dead, and the animals just form a confusing multi-dimensional tableau. Stencil Score: 4

This image by Pooja Chaudhary is good because it’s a recognizable figure posed artfully on a clean background. We could have gone for more detail in order to retain more facial features, but generally if you’re capturing the full figure, then you won’t be catching more than a few details on the face. At this size, we’re lucky to see traces of all the facial features in this one. Only small points off because the white sneaker blends to the background. (This could be fixed by just adding a shadow layer under the shoelaces and deepening the shadow under the shoe. Stencil Score: 8

Here’s the poster child for unstencilizable subjects: the black dog from professional photographer Ryan Phillips. Because it’s a professional photograph, you can see the detail of the eyes. The greyscale version looks better than the color version, but it might be even better if the background were removed and replaced by gray. Stencil Score: 5

In these stills from an animation by Leone Damiao we see that graphic art can be stencilized provided we reach the correct balance with the number of colors. The artist intuitively uses dark-light patterns for dramatic effect, and that helps us to come up with a colorized pattern that doesn’t lose too many details. Stencil Score: 9

Here is the more typical shot we see at Bay Stencil of a black dog, lovingly captured by an owner out for a walk. In a photorealistic situation, we can see that there is a black dog there. We recognize the environment, the leash, the tufts of hair and the pink tongue even tells us that the dog is facing us. But when you stencilize an image like this, it just looks like a tree stump with a tongue. The background is too detailed and adds confusion, the diffuse tufts of hair might as well be tree bark. Stencil Score: 0

This land rover image by Grant Ritchie on a light dusting of snow is almost like a blank background. As a stencil, we admire the bold, clean lines of the iconic vehicle. It makes a great one-and-done stencil (black layer shown here) which can be laid down on any light surface, immediately generating object recognition and even a sense of terrain from the shadow and the tracks. Stencil Score: 9

An overexposed wedding shot by an anonymous photographer. No matter how much you play with the exposure settings on the image (which is one of the things that differentiates the nine different variants you see on Bay Stencil), when the exposure is wrong you lose detail that you can’t get back. Stencil Score: 2

Here’s a photograph of cookies and coffee by Rumman Amin. Because the background is simple and the subject is easy to recognize, this image stencilizes reasonably well. Note that the objects and the angles are well-known and easy to parse so that the subject is recognizable. Food is not usually this easy. Stencil Score: 6

Here’s a portrait by and of Prince Akachi. It works well for several reasons: it has a neutral background; the subject has good range of values; and there is a small number of hues in the photo. It needed to be cropped in order to keep the beret and the overall outline correct, but it came out a winner. Stencil Score: 9

Another portrait, this one by Joel Mott: our human brains are really good at decoding faces, even when the details are a little abstract. If there were a plate of mashed potatoes in this scene instead of a human, you wouldn’t be able to interpret the detail at all. Because it’s a human face with a beautiful expression, it’s easy to parse it without any effort, and it even looks better when it loses some detail. Also, the detail in the shirt is just enough to give a feeling of costume, without overcomplicating the stencil. The palm trees in the background could be removed, or they could be left in. They add a lot of mood to the scene without making the stencil too busy. Stencil Score: 10

We took the two highest scoring stencils out for a test drive inside Kingspray Graffiti by Infectious Ape.

There you go!