Getting Used to Photographing People – Ruckenfigur

The next theme to explore is Ruckenfigur, a German word which translates to “back figure”. The “back figure” is a recurring theme in romantic landscape paintings, typified by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century German Romantic landscape painter.

Ruckenfigur style compositions are generally seen from behind the main subject, who guides the viewer with their own gaze at the scene unfolding before them.

Ruckenfigur is another path to help ease you into street photography. Taking images from behind the subject is generally less invasive and less likely to be noticed by the subject. But don’t get all funny about it – you are going to have to take front on shots at some point… this is just to help your overcome any reluctance, step by step.

The composition style is very compelling though – without an identifiable face to focus on, the view can almost transpose themselves into the position of the subject.

The viewer is encouraged to take the place of the subject in their imagination.

Ruckenfigur compositions tend to the dramatic.

I was first introduced to the theme by Christian Were (Memetic on Flickr)  – check out his flickr stream for inspiration.

Getting the Shot and Moving On 

One of the tips to start picking up on is to keep moving or remaining inconspicuous. Remaining invisible whilst out and about will be explored in another post. Continuously moving with your camera enables you to maximise your chances of seeing a great composition, and doesn’t really give anyone a chance to react to being photographed.

When taking closer in shots of people, decisiveness and speed are your friend. Get the shot and move on without the subject even having a chance to consider if they were just photographed and to respond. If you keep moving 99.9% of people won’t respond at all. If they make eye contact with you, three choices are available ;

1. Smile and mouth or say “thank you”

2. Point your camera again, in a slightly different direction to suggest they were not the subject, and ignore them.

3. Completely ignore them, turn away, and keep moving.

I have never had one person chase me up or call after me. Use your judgement on which technique is best for each situation. I can’t give guidance past this, except to say, that it is unlikely to happen very often, if at all.

Speed of execution is the absolute key to not attracting attention.

Here are some tips to help.

1. Pre-compose. Once you have landed on a focal length for you lens for the session, spend some time alternating looking through your viewfinder and then just with your eyes. Start to “see” potential compositions and predict the framelines without looking through the viewfinder. People only notice your camera once it is up to your eye and pointing at stuff. So keep it down at your side and only bring it up when you can see the composition.

2. Don’t Loiter. The window to take capture an image will only be open for a few seconds. You will either get the shot or miss it. If you miss it, don’t persist unless conditions allow. Don’t keep pointing your camera unless you are in the process of taking a shot already pre-composed in your head.

3. Compose With Your Eyes, not the Viewfinder. Look for the next shot with your eyes, unglued from the viewfinder. Potential shots are going to happen throughout your entire field of vision. If you are constantly searching through your viewfinder, at least half the action is going to be invisible to you, blacked out by the edges of your frame. Using your eyes is quicker and more likely to get a result you are happy with.

4. Master Focus. 

Manual Focus : Prefocus your camera at a similar distance to what you think you will be using for the next shot as best you can. At least then all you need to do is fine tune it. Think carefully in the split second before you bring the camera up to your eye. Where is the split prism in your viewfinder and what can you use in the image to confirm the focus? A straight line at your point of focus is perfect for quickly getting it right – once the line becomes a continuous object rather than two splits, you are ready to shoot! The edge of an object is also suitable.

Automatic Focus : If you camera has multiple focus points, make sure you know how to change them. Before you shoot, set the focus point to the spot you think most likely. Learn what kind of conditions your autofocus struggles with. Write them down in your journal to keep on top of it, and avoid these situations.

Rangefinder Focus : A little like manual focus – look rapidly for a line or edge that you can use to focus on. Know which line prior to composing.

Hyperfocal Distance : A method for pre-setting your manual focus lens to focus on anything past a particular distance. There are plenty of great tutorials on the web if you search for it that will do a much better job than I can!

Snap Focus : Some digital and film cameras (well the Ricoh GR1-V and GR Digital that I know of!) have a “snap focus” function – the camera automatically snaps to focus at the pre-determined distance. Check your manual and see if your camera has it!

5. Handle Your Camera. It sounds pretty obvious, but practice knowing which button or dial changes which setting by touch when you are looking through the viewfinder. A quick adjustment can make all the difference in achieving an in-focus or correct exposure on the fly, and not missing the shot.

6. Check Your Exposure. As you move through different conditions, occasionally checking your exposure settings will save you doing it whilst taking the shot. Make sure your ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed are all combining to give a good, quick exposure at 1/125 or faster. If you don’t get a reading of 1/125th, reset your ISO or Aperture accordingly. An opportunity may only present itself for a few seconds, so fiddling around to get your exposure right might mean you miss the shot.

7. ISO is Your Friend. Hopefully you already have an idea of what the maximum ISO your camera can handle and still develop a decent shot. Always use the lowest possible, but if you are in shadows, or lower light, then don’t be afraid to move a digital camera up to ISO 400, 800, or 1000. For film, you are pretty much locked in once the film winds on. I tend to shoot predominantly on ISO400 films as they are the most likely to handle different “normal” conditions. Shadows and light. If you are confident in the light, then go for a ISO100 film for sure! ISO400 keeps thing fast and properly exposed.

8. Be Ready. Make sure you have a firm grip on your camera at all times and sling it over your shoulder rather than around your neck. Over the shoulder keeps it close to your side – and out of the direct view of potential subjects and pointing downwards. Bring it up to your eye quickly, take the shot, and place it back down at your side.

Regular Repetition and Review Builds Skill

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” Stephen King

If you want to be a writer – switch off TV, disconnect from the interwebs, and sit down and start writing. There is no other way to do it. Sit down and write.

If you want to become a Street Photographer, then take photos on the street. Do it often. Do it regularly. The temptation is to research gear, look at gear on eBay etc, maybe even do a course – anything but actually picking up a camera and taking fifty shots.

Regular habit is what builds skill. Commit to a regular time each week to get out and take photos. And stick to it. If you miss a session, schedule a make up. I am not sure that you need to spend 10,000 hours practicing a skill as Malcolm Gladwell prescribes, but the theory is right. The more often you do something, the better you should get at it.

Spend time after each shoot reviewing your compositions in your journal.

People I Don’t Shoot.

Everyone must find their moral compass when it comes to subject selection. I don’t shoot homeless people as a general rule, for example. Homeless people are often mentally ill, and have a right to privacy, free from prying eyes. Their situation is bad enough already without becoming a fishbowl subject for our entertainment. I suppose if you have a greater purpose or theme in mind, you might think otherwise. But capturing evocative images by borrowing the inherent pathos of  homeless person is just a short cut. Too easy.

People that are probably not in complete control of their behaviour. People that are drunk or clearly drug affected are not ideal subjects. Firstly, they can be unpredictable. Most of the time they will not even notice you, but if they are noticeably affected, you just don’t know how they will react if they do see a camera pointing at them. I am not talking about people drinking normally at a bar – This is all about people who are stumbling, “out of it”, or otherwise at the wrong end of the spectrum.

Secondly, they might just be a good player out of luck. An error of judgement does not give you licence to exploit their mistake and capture it for all time in a digital file. If I made the same mistake, I would not like to be reminded of it on a stranger’s photo feed for the next ten years… There is always someone who knows someone – even if you don’t know the person, someone you know might… And again, it is just too easy. Challenge yourself.

Be considerate of people that find themselves in dodgy positions. You might be OK with shooting these kinds of people – and that is a choice you can make. I suspect you will find it becomes boring pretty quickly though. It turns out to be the same shot over and over.

Shooting in Places You Shouldn’t Necessarily Be Taking Photos.

Sometimes you will want to take a shot in a place that you might not supposed to be. There is a judgement call required that you have to make yourself. A couple of good low risk examples are a shopping centre or city loop train station (in Melbourne). Both are private property, and prohibit photography. Of course, I recommend you always follow any laws or regulations, so don’t do it.

Hypothetically, if you were to do it, I would imagine the smaller the camera kit, the lower the possibility of being challenged by an official. A compact camera would be the best option – look more like a tourist and less like a photographer. And keep moving – Standing still probably just draws attention.

Being quick, decisive, and moving on quickly are still the foundations of capturing the images you need.

Assignment – Ruckenfigur

Hah! Another easy one. Get your camera and head out to a busy area of the city. Don’t click away just yet. Practice just watching people from behind (without being creepy). What are they looking at, what are they doing, how can you channel the spirit of Caspar the Painter?

Ruckenfigur is about shooting a subject from behind in a way to guide the viewer of the image on how to look at the scene. Whew! Combining the two elements of Ruckenfigur composition can be challenging – both the “back figure” and the scene before them. Finding both an interesting “back figure” and scene is easy to start doing, but will take some time to master.

Ruckenfigur composition can help develop skills in identifying interesting subjects prior to shooting them from the front, where they will be aware of being photographed.

Look for shadows and light in the compositions as well. Having the subject in either vs the scene can offer an attractive contrast.

Start taking some photos. As per every shoot, stop at least once and review how you think things are going. Write down in your journal what is working, and not working. And maybe think through and note down a couple of ideas for locations or situations for your ruckenfigur shots.

Spend the time reviewing your day once you have your photos done and dusted at home.


  1. Cropping an Image to Explore New Formats | Melbourne Street Photography - June 29, 2014

    […] Try taking some more images of people where the actual face is not recognisable. At most shows I participate in, the best selling images tend subscribe to the “Rückenfigur” style. Literally meaning “back figure”, the term rückenfigur is usually associated with German romantic painters, such as Caspar David Friedrich, to describe a viewpoint that includes another person seen from behind, viewing a scene spread out before the viewer. You can read more about it here. […]


  2. Working on Selfie Respect… Street Photography Self Portraiture Thoughts | Inconspicuosity - February 1, 2015

    […] Shadows and silhouettes are an aesthetic, rather than a window to the photographer. The viewer can project themselves into the image, similar to Ruckenfigur style images. […]


  3. SITHOM Exhibition – An Interview with Lois Romer | Inconspicuosity - March 3, 2015

    […] The first thing I love is the silhouetted subjects. There is no facial detail, bringing an almost ruckenfigur quality to the image. The viewer will find it easier to imagine themselves in the […]


  4. Featured Street Photographer – Hudson Hilliard | Inconspicuosity - May 22, 2016

    […] start off with a classic ruckenfigur – you can read more about it here. I love the sense of motion given created by the combination of the slight blur, the rounded shape […]


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