28 — Things You "Can't" Shoot From Behind

Yes, "can't" is in quotes. Because without that word we'd have a rule (things you can't shoot from behind), and rules aren't rules in my photographic world, they're just advisories.

Most of the time we’re photographing the front of things. We react to things facing us. Being face-to-face with a lion in the wild is a lot more threatening that seeing one from behind, obviously, so there’s probably an evolutionary construct going on here. Not only do we identify things better from the front, but we can also better assess threats, tone, mood, etc. 

No threat to me, but...

Many years ago I had an instructor who said “you never photograph water flowing away from you.” I was naive enough to believe that at the time, but in later years as I heard variations on this—never photograph the rear of a subject, for example—I began to challenge that thought. 

Photographs should be of the thing you want to show, period. Consider this one, for example:

How best to show the tail of a swallowtail? From the front? Don’t think so. From the side? Maybe, but you don’t fully see its relationship to the other control mechanisms. 

Most of you are photographing people most of the time, so is there ever a time you photograph them from the back? Sure there is, when you want to show them going somewhere:

The above image would be a stronger photograph if we had a better hint of where this hiker was off to, but the point is that they’re going somewhere, and we get a hint of where that might be from what’s in front of them.

And speaking of “in front of”, there’s a semi-cliche of showing the thing and a person looking at a thing:

Which, of course, leads us almost directly to the landscape selfie:

The lesson this month is a simple one: don’t automatically discount taking photographs from the back of the subject. You just need a reason to do so: they’re looking at something, they’re going somewhere, the back reveals something you normally don’t see or notice, and so on. There should be a reason why you’re pointed the opposite direction of your subject, but reasons do exist for that. 

To some degree, many of the reasons all start to get to a different aspect of photography that isn’t talked about as much: perspective. Photographing “from the rear” is typically placing a near object/thing/person in perspective to other further away points of interest. This begins to form a story, and stories generally make images more powerful.

So here’s a mini-test for you: head out with your camera and deliberately try to photograph from behind. Flip the position from the one you’re normally using (in front of subjects) and see what happens. 

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