Improving your ability to get great candid photographs is one of the most important ways to improve your photography. However, there is a big misconception that candid photography is just about hiding in the bushes so that people don’t know you are present. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
You can get close, engage your subjects, and still take advantage of candid photography techniques for all types of photography to make your photos feel like part of the moment.
What Does Candid Mean?
Candid photography is any type of photography that is real and in the moment. There is no posing, no fake smiles—just true, genuine feelings. The subjects may know you are there photographing them, but they are not taken out of the moment by a camera being present.
It is so easy to spot a fake smile or fake look, and that is the quickest way to a mediocre photograph. A candid photo, on the other hand, allows genuine emotion to shine through.
Whether you are doing portraiture, event or wedding photography, travel or street photography, or family photography, learning how to get candid photographs will take you to a new level as a photographer. Here are some tips to help you do so.
Candid Photography Tips
Ask Questions and Engage in Conversation with your Subjects
The camera will often act as a barrier between a photographer and their subject. It has the ability to make your subject feel very self-conscious and exposed. Use your conversational skills to break this ice.
Candid portrait photography may seem like a strange term, because how can you really take a candid portrait of someone during a session when they know you are photographing them? But there is a way to photograph your subjects so the moments are real—and candid feeling.
If you have ever noticed great candid photographers working, one of their best qualities is usually how they interact with their subjects to keep them comfortable and to bring their personality out.
Think of questions ahead of time or search for some common ground to talk about. If you don’t know what to say, ask them a simple question.
Keep the focus off the fact that they are being photographed. When you get a person talking, they will begin to forget about the camera, and they will start feeling emotions and showing them in their facial expressions when they talk.
This is a way to get natural-feeling candid shots within a setting that is not normally conducive to that type of image.
Wait for the moment in between the moments. Often your subjects will wait until they don’t think you are photographing to allow their true personality to shine, and I call this the moment in between moments.
Pay attention at the points when you are not pointing your camera directly at your subject, keep your eye out, and be ready to shoot.
You can even trick them, taking a posed photo and then telling them that you are changing your settings or putting your camera down slightly as you make a joke. Then the second they get that real look on their face, go for it and take the shot.
Get close and watch your subjects without looking directly at them
During events or weddings, there are many photographers that will lurk from afar with a long zoom lens. This works for sure, but often you will still be noticed when you point that huge zoom lens at a person. Instead, I prefer the opposite approach.
Get into the middle of the action. Be part of the fun. By doing this, people will become more comfortable around you and will be more willing to let their guard down.
From here you can survey the room and wait to see who looks like they are having a great time. Don’t look directly at them before you are about to take their photo. Humans have an evolutionary tendency to notice eye contact, so this will take them out of the moment.
Instead, act as if you aren’t paying them attention to throw them off your scent, and wait for the right moment to happen before finally pointing the camera at them. When they have actually started laughing or are in some type of emotional moment they will no longer notice or be affected by the camera pointed at them.
For conferences or quiet events where you are waiting for people to open up, consider putting your camera down for a while and just watching. Keep the camera ready, of course, but know that people will start to relax more if it’s out of sight.
Sit and wait for someone to make a joke or comment that allows the room to erupt in laughter or show their natural emotions, and then start shooting like crazy. Sometimes it takes time for these moments to occur, so sit tight and wait for them.
Use a prime lens
As I mentioned in the last point, zoom lenses will work fine, but I prefer to also use light primes.
Light prime lenses will make your camera so much more compact, much less noticeable, and easier to use. It will allow you to walk around an event, blend into the background, and quickly raise your camera to snap a photo without anyone noticing.
A 50mm, 35mm, or 28mm prime with wider apertures (in the f/1.4 to f/2 range) will serve you well in these shooting scenarios.
This doesn’t mean you have to ditch the zoom lens. Use both or interchange between the two. This is why you will notice many wedding photographers using two cameras—one with a zoom and one with a prime.
Tell people to get comfortable and to pose themselves
When taking someone’s portrait, posing someone is the easiest way to take someone out of the moment. Instead, ask them to pose themselves—ask them how they would naturally stand if you weren’t there or ask them to suggest some poses. It is amazing the comfortable and elegant poses that people will do when you ask them this. They just needed the prompt!
These are not candid shots per se, but they will have that candid or real feeling, and when you mix those poses with natural emotions that come from a conversation with your subject, the possibilities are endless.
And if your subject starts to become uncomfortable again after awhile, just move them off that pose. Have them stand somewhere else or ask them to try something different, and the cycle will start all over again.
Tell people to pretend you are not there
Often with event or wedding photography (or certain types of portraiture), people will be incredibly uncomfortable with a camera around. They will have a hard time getting into the moment and will wonder if they should be looking here or there. They will try to half pose or do things that just look awkward.
In these specific cases, just tell the group that you are going to take some candid photographs of everyone hanging out, and ask people to do their best to pretend you’re not there.
Similarly, for portrait sessions, have the subjects act out a particular scenario or conversation. Tell them that if you want them to do something specific or to look at the camera, you will ask them, but otherwise to forget about your presence.
Sometimes all it takes is that prompt and the room will immediately get more comfortable. It gives them the permission to forget about you.
Taking street candids? Be where the action is and blend in
Shooting in a candid manner is very important for candid street photography and travel photography. Sometimes you want to capture photographs of people in their surroundings without them knowing or without ruining the moment. There are a few major tips that will make your life much easier trying to get this type of shot.
The first is to put yourself in the middle of the action. Go where interesting things are happening and hang out there. Pick a spot and let your subjects come to you.
By doing this, people will be entering your personal space instead of you entering their space, and so they will notice you less. In addition, this will allow you to get closer to people because you will be right in the middle of things and they will be coming towards you.
Next is to do a little acting. To keep things candid, I like to act like I’m a tourist just photographing the buildings or scenery around a person.
Sometimes I even furrow my brow and act like I don’t know how to use my camera! Aim up at a building above them or at the scenery to the side of them, and at the last second aim the camera at them to take the shot.
When you want to photograph people coming towards you, be careful of what I call the camera snap. The camera snap is when you take the camera away from your eye right after you take a candid shot. It’s instinctual and everyone does it, and this is what lets the person know that you took their photo.
Instead, take the person’s photo as they come towards you, and hold the camera there as they walk through the scene as if you’re waiting for them to get out of the way. This will keep the moment as candid as possible.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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