I was photographing a model with a large white paper flower affixed to her head. It was almost noon, and normally I would’ve put the model in the shade to even out the exposure, perhaps using a reflector to create catchlights. Direct sunlight is so contrasty that it’s often impossible to catch the entire exposure in a single frame. Yet as the model walked through the scene, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful image as she stepped into the sunlight.
The white flower became glowing white and cast a dark shadow onto her face and chest—I could see a graphic image in the making. I spot-metered on the floral headpiece to be sure I didn’t overexpose it, so when I took a frame, her face was solid black and in shadow. In fact, her profile wasn’t even visible because it blended in with the shadow of the building behind her. It was an image that showcased the floral piece, but it did nothing to show the subject. The face and background became indistinguishable from one another.
I wanted to draw attention to the subject’s elegant profile and long neck, so I needed to add a background that would contrast with the face. I had the model pose so that the flower stayed illuminated and her face stayed in shadow, and I asked my assistant to hold a white reflector behind the model’s head. This was not meant to light the face, but instead to become a background. We held the reflector far enough behind the subject that there was no shadow on the reflector, and instead the bright midday light hit the reflector and turned it white. The subject’s neck and profile were perfectly defined against the strong contrast of the background.
Because I paid careful attention to negative space and how it defined the positive space, I was able to create this image with only natural light. If I had not used manual exposure, I likely would have ended up with a mid-toned face and an extremely overexposed flower. Instead, the result is a graphic image that almost looks more like an illustration than a photograph!