When striving to capture truly expressive portraits, focusing on facial expressions may seem like the most effective approach, and it certainly can be. But there are a number of other ways to shoot evocative, emotional images totally void of any facial expressions. As a matter of fact, you don’t need to reveal the face of your subject at all to capture a telling portrait of them.
Over the years, I’ve collected a photographic arsenal full of expressive images of both clients and of my own family that were taken from the back. I never tire of capturing images using this unobtrusive approach. Whether it’s a quintessential "walking away" shot, the shape of my subject’s silhouette or them gazing out into a sweeping landscape, framing from the back is an unexpected and poignant way to tell a captivating visual story.
There are a number of ways to approach shots like these to use them to your greatest photographic advantage. Start by considering your motivation in shooting from this perspective and work to meet that motivation in your final product.
LET THEM LEAD
I find that shooting from behind while my subject is walking away from me is one of the least hands-on photographic approaches there is. This can make for an easy job of capturing your subject in an authentic way of just being themselves.
You do need to keep certain camera settings in mind, however. Because they’re in motion, you have to move along with your subject—depending on how much space you want to leave around them—so you may need to shoot with a faster shutter speed to minimize potential blur. You have to watch your aperture, as well. Shooting too shallow may mean they walk right past the focal plane.
As far as when to snap your shutter, you’ll want to watch for a moment that may speak of your subject. Maybe it’s the little skip in a child’s step or their hair blowing in the wind that you want to frame just so. Remember, the story relies on body language, gate or other subtle gestures that express the mood of the moment.
Just because your subject isn’t connecting with you directly doesn’t mean they’re not connected. Shooting from the back can capture the connection between your subject and another subject quite effectively. Whether it’s a quiet, tender moment between a father and child, a playful interlude between siblings or even a glimpse into the compassion shared between your subject and their canine companion, the possibilities of capturing connections in this way are endless. Watch for simple movements that evoke caring: A lean, a caress, a tilt of the head or a literal connection like handholding are priceless gestures that are all the more valuable when caught in a photograph.
CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
Often, the part of the image that tells most of the story isn’t the person at all; it’s where the person is being photographed. Shooting subjects in a place that’s meaningful to them offers a connection in a different kind of way, and it can give a personal and significant meaning to the portrait. Look at the landscape to help you tell the story. A wooded path to wander, a vast vista to contemplate, a breathtaking beach on a summer’s day all offer totally unique backdrops to your portraits.
Shooting from the back means you have to rely on things like your background to give context to the shot. When you add your subject to the backdrop and capture them in motion, in thought, relaxing, skipping or even jumping, you’re bound to be translating the expression of that moment.
Props and accessories can also bring context to your portraits—my personal favorite being my kids in their Mickey Mouse ears. It doesn’t get better than that! Keeping in mind the backdrop and also getting creative with your composition can help you use apparel to your creative advantage. Whether it’s a baseball cap, a beach hat, pigtails, a sports uniform or a formal gown, attire, adornments and other accessories can create a portrait narrative that’s as evocative as any facial expression could ever be.
TRACEY CLARK is the founder of Shutter Sisters, a collaborative photo blog and thriving community of female photo enthusiasts, shuttersisters.com. Learn more about Tracey and her work at www.traceyclark.com.