Here’s a simple but effective way of making a small subject stand out from the background. Early in the morning, or actually any time that the sun is low in the sky, we get great shafts of light that streak between buildings to carve streets in two. Usually, if we allow the camera to do its own thing, these powerful beams of light will appear white and burnt out in the frame, but if you measure and expose for the beam instead of the scene in general, you can use them to great effect.
In this instance I was looking for a way to pick out a single person in this very busy part of London. Often I will do this by using a very shallow depth of field, or by getting close with a wideangle lens. On this morning though the sun was acting as a spotlight on a stage, so all I had to do was use it.
The camera was set to evaluative metering, which obviously was reading for the whole scene. With no interference from me the exposure chosen worked well for the scene but left the area where the sun was falling as a burnt-out white line. Obviously this wasn’t making an interesting picture, or illustrating what I could see with my eyes. The excitement of the scene was that the sun could pick anyone out who walked through its rays – and that is what I wanted to catch.
I was using a manual focus lens at the time, so set the focus point for the paving right where the sun was shining. I guessed that I would need exposure compensation of about three stops (-2EV) so I set this and took a trial shot. It looked about right. I could have set spot metering and measured that way, but I would have had to have walked over to the spot to fill the spot zone, and a guess, with the chance to make corrections, seemed a better and quicker option.
Once I was happy that the exposure and focus were good, I framed the shot and waited for the right person to come along. This is a popular route for runners, school children and to workers travelling to the office. I didn’t really know what sort of person was going to make the best shot, but I knew that when that person came along it would hit me. I didn’t have to wait long for this chap to pass by and make the scene complete. The face, the pose of the arms and legs and the outfit all work to tell us the story of the moment.