Backroads Street Photography: Beginners’ Tips for Natural, Candid Shots in Out-of-the Way Places

When you’re traveling to exotic locations and are determined to get off the tourist track and find the backroads, the villages, and the “real” people, there are a number of specific challenges, especially if the culture and ethnic background of the locals is dramatically different from your own.

Backroads Street Photography

I recently worked in a remote part of Indonesia on a photo-essay assignment covering Women’s Work. The task is to photograph women, in their normal day-to-day activities, in the fields and in the mountain villages. In many of these places, the sight of a westerner (I’m Canadian) is very much a novelty, and the task of taking candid shots without having them turn into portraits is quite difficult. Everyone wants to be in the photo, and the images you create that way are fun and interesting, but they are not the candid, natural, “life-as-it-really-is” shots I want.

Here are my tips for capturing great shots in out-of-the way places.

1. Eye contact – yes or no?

It’s inevitable that people will know you have a camera and are aiming it at them. If they make eye contact and smile an acknowledgement that it’s okay to shoot (and they generally do), try to get in a couple of shots before and after the smile, especially if they look away for a moment.

The Corn Husker

It’s not that eye contact and smiling are bad, but you often want to catch that unguarded, candid moment in order to best represent the subject in his or her natural setting. In this case, I had good close-ups of my corn husker as well, but preferred to back off and capture enough of her surroundings to establish some context.

Indicate your thanks with a bow and a smile, and the universally recognized thumbs-up sign.

2. Shoot first…

I always try to catch my subject unaware while she is performing a task or engaged in a transaction. Even if she looks my way and there is an exchange of smiles and acknowledgements, it’s the earlier shots that are more revealing and candid and which I inevitably prefer. So my motto is generally shoot first, and ask permission later.

The Soup Cook

3. Zoom from a distance.

It’s fairly easy to take candid shots in the open fields or forest, since you can often shoot from the roadway or path without the subject realizing you’re there. Take lots of shots in this situation with a variety of focal lengths and angles. Since you probably won’t have the benefit of a tripod (impractical to carry in these circumstances), be extra careful with light and exposure.

The Rice Planter

4. Peek through an opening.

My favorite images are often those shot through an open window, onto a verandah, or into a yard. If you’re in the street, the subject inside may not notice you at all, as was the case in this example. The woman was washing the boy on the front porch; the child caught my eye but she didn’t until later.

The Grandmother

5. Before and after.

If someone does acknowledge your presence and tacitly agrees to allow you to take a photo, acknowledge with gratitude and then put your camera down, but pick it up again to capture a follow-up moment. Shots from the side or back are often just as effective in capturing a setting or mood as face-on images.

6. The power of things.

Inanimate objects may evoke the subject you are trying to photograph, even without a human element present. And that nicely avoids the personal element of people staring straight at your camera and spoiling the moment.

7. Zoom in for detail.

Think ahead in terms of what your viewers will be wondering about…like how do these women carry those loads on their heads? Capture the detailed head wear including the cushion that is used between the headscarf and the bundle being carried. And if you catch someone unaware, like this woman collecting nuts from trees in the forest, use your zoom for the first, and hopefully best shot before she becomes self-conscious with your presence.

The Forager

8. Check the hidden paths.

Some of my favorite images came from openings in the forest or on barely noticeable paths through the rice or tobacco fields. I’ve developed the habit of peering down every path and trail and am often rewarded with a distant figure or a surprised face.

Market Day

…and the side and back alleys.

When wandering through a village, I find the best images come with a quick glance and a series of shots down the alleys and side roads. This is village life in the raw; you often catch people in candid situations before they realize that you are there. Again, a variety of focal lengths in quick succession give you great material to work with later.

9. Plan ahead and over shoot.

If you really want to capture something unusual, make sure you over shoot, taking lots of different examples. These women in a mountain village milk the family cow twice a day and then carry the container of milk to the village collection depot to be sold. The fact that they carry these metal containers on their heads for long distances on terrible roads is pretty amazing. I waited until the right time of day when they made their drops, and took pictures of a dozen different women to ensure I had the shots I wanted.

The Milk Bearers

10. Go where the action is.

Even small towns and villages have certain times of day when people congregate in busy places. The most common one is often the morning market. The busier it is, the least noticeable you’ll be with your camera and the easier it will be to take candid shots.

At the Market

See more of Barbara Russell’s work on Flickr.