Turn Things Around (Photographically Speaking)

As a portrait photographer it should come as no surprise that I spend a lot of time preoccupied with faces. Apart from being a defining element of the genre, the face and more specifically the eyes, provide the most immediate point of connection between subject and viewer. But while the face’s monopoly shall forever remain constant, it’s nice to step out of the well defined rules once and awhile to practice a little creative disobedience.

Breaking from the mold can involve many different approaches but a regular favourite of mine is photographing subjects from behind. While this doesn’t work for formal or traditional portraits (the reasons should be obvious here) it can be a very rewarding technique to use when practicing candid photography.

This approach is of course not without its difficulties. When you restrict yourself to a subject’s back side you limit the ways in which to draw a viewer in. Without a face to look upon, you must rely on other devices at your disposal to make that all important connection.

Reflecting on some of my images, here are a few short guidelines that I hope will inspire and aid you in this approach.

Note: For the sake of the blog these have been written as separate guidelines but in practice, these could be combined and used in a single image.

Create mystery or suspense

Turning the subject away from the viewer can create an immediate sense of mystery or suspense. We have a natural tendency to want to know what is hidden from view and so you can exploit this fact to great effect.

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Use body language to convey meaning

A person’s posture and positioning can speak volumes. Waiting for just the right gesture or movement can make a huge difference in the images that you capture. Look for interesting poses that convey meaning or create dynamism. Subtle movements work just as well in this case (a slight turn of the head, a gently raised foot or hand etc.).

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Tell a story

Telling a story in your image is always a good idea but even more so when the subject is turned. Look for elements in a scene that give the image context and lend interest. These may be small visual metaphors or elaborate interactions with the other characters in your image.

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Light as mood

Lighting is an all-important element in any photograph. When shooting your subjects from behind, lighting can help (among other things) to create a mood to your photographs, lending interest and drama. When shooting, evaluate how the light may be used to improve your image. While you may not always be able to chose the quality or direction of light on a shot, sometimes a change of position or angle, shooting in to the light for example, can make a big difference in your final image.

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