Stop Shooting Backs and Focus on Faces

This is the sort of advice I wish I had been given years ago. Spending time developing your street photography skills shooting strangers faces and not wussing out shooting backs definitely makes better frames. Your photographs are richer, more interesting and connect with your audience much better.

Let’ be honest, I’m a mediocre street photographer when I’m at my best and just a terrible snapshooter on my worst days. But, I’ve learned a few things through trial and error, practice and getting out into the streets with my camera daily – hopefully this advice is useful to you in some way.

Why backs?

Well, it’s easy, almost too easy which is the problem. It’s all too easy to fire off a shot or two without being noticed by your subject, so long as your lens is pointed at their back. Chances are they won’t hear your shutter fire off, so it’s likely they won’t care that you’ve taken a quick photograph and wandered off. But, was it worth it? When I started shooting street I shot backs, sides, groups and performers (another I-wish-I-got-that-advice-years-ago nugget of truth) hoping to scrape together a decent shot out of mostly luck and lack of technique. Most shots weren’t that good and still aren’t!

What I have learned is: backs are rarely interesting. Most of the time taking the old back shot really just highlights your fear and your need to overcome it. Look at it this way, there are literally hundreds of thousands of shots on the worldwide webbo vision of peoples’ backs. Most suck. All the back shots I’ve taken have been crap, but it was necessary to take them to grow as a photographer. As you’re learning and growing you need to take the rubbish shots to learn what they look like and when to avoid it.

Back shots are not interesting because they rarely tell a story and if they do manage to tell a story they’re seldom interesting. What they do show is a photographer who wants to tell a story, capture a moment or understand something but doesn’t yet have the experience or will to do it yet. The good thing is that it shows the potential for growth, so long as you’re willing to work at it.

See, most of the above shots are at least a bit flat to at worst boring. The fact is, if you can’t see your subject’s face then you need to recompose and think about what else you can do to make something.

Practice, daily if possible!

Just like a musical instrument or a sport the only way to improve is by practicing, Bo Jackson was a one in a million. The rest of us plebs need to practice and hone our skills. Unfortunately, with street photography the only way to practice is to go outside in the city and fire off as many shots as possible, think, compose and hope for some luck along the way.

Street photography is, for the most part, a giant pain the ass.

Most of the time you will go out and come home with nothing, or at best very few keepers. In the beginning it’s even worse as you need to learn your city and try to learn where the hot spots are. You’ve got to hit these spots on the daily or weekly to make sure you’ve got plenty of subjects to shoot and many opportunities to make something that matters. Doing this is the best way to give yourself opportunities for things to happen around you and for you to document them.

What I suggest is to make a list of about 5-10 spots in your city to hit frequently and use those as zones to learn and try interesting compositions at those locations. Hitting the same locations every other day helps train your eye and learn the light, how it changes and how you can use it to make something interesting. Going back to the same short list of locations will enable you to develop confidence and control of at least the environment: that street corner, interesting building, busy mall, vacant lot, construction site. Hitting these locations again and again you’ll feel like you know them and eventually you’ll begin to notice the things that happen, who walks past against a familiar backdrop. Controlling the environment is the first step to making interesting photographs. I’m not saying that all of mine or even some of mine are great or even good, just that my favourites seem to have a running theme where I can clearly see a subjects eyes and expression. Which suggests to me that a photograph is more intimate and personal if you can see your subject’s face, creating connection with the piece.

Conquering the ‘FEAR’

The fear is something all street photographers have and learn to live with. In most cases photographers just suck it up and deal. The fear is that annoying voice inside you that says “I don’t want to take that shot – the person might get angry/it will be super awkward/I don’t wanna look creepy” when thinking about a shot. The only thing to do is cop to it embrace the awkwardness and take the shot, if you never make a photograph you’ll never improve. Be awkward. Make eye contact. Bring your camera to your eye, push those “don’t do it” voices down and shoot when you feel awkward. Give yourself the opportunity to fail, because then at least you tried.

You’ll eventually get over the fear, but it gets easier once you’ve got several thousand shots under your belt.

It sounds daunting, but in my (extremely limited) experience the best way to develop the confidence to shoot strangers going about their daily lives is to do it and do it often. The more you put yourself into a situation where you can shoot you will develop the confidence through repetition. Starting slow, shooting from a distance and moving in closer to your subjects you’ll see the difference in the quality of your images over time. Nobody is awesome day one so you need to work at it like any other skill.

What’s next?

The only thing left is to go out and shoot. The first step is finding somewhere to shoot, even if it’s five or ten minutes on the way home – enough to give you time to practice daily and provide you with the opportunity to experiment, try things and fail regularly. Regular failure and taking the time to think about why your shots aren’t as good as they could be is important. Constantly critiquing your own work, reading and looking at what others are doing is super helpful. But, nothing beats getting out there with your camera and making photographs as often as possible.

What advise did you wish someone had given you years ago?

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