Photographing people can be exciting, tense and fun, all at the same time. How can you take snapshots of people who are not aware of being photographed or at least not posing for the camera? Unlike photojournalism, where photographers must cover the events objectively, candid photography focuses on spontaneity and requires the author to establish some rapport with the subjects.
However, one of the main concerns in candid photography is about invading people’s privacy or the fear of annoying someone, while at the same time wanting to capture them in a natural pose or expression. A good snapshot is measured by the emotional impact on the viewer: a facial expression, the subject’s blending with the background, their interaction with the environment or other people.
To become a really good candid photographer you should connect with your subject and show genuine interest, so they can relax and allow you to see beyond the obvious. This is when you achieve more than just taking a picture; you create a story.
Here is a breakdown of the most important techniques you could use to improve your candids:
Get to know your subjects
A good candid reflects your connection with the subject. If the relationship is friendly and trusting, it will show in the photo. If it’s been taken on the run, that’ll also be reflected in your shot. And if you take someone by surprise, that shot will have a somewhat voyeuristic feel. The best candids combine the apparently opposing qualities of someone knowing you’re there, but at the same time disregarding you.
Image by Daspunkt via Flickr
When it comes to candid photography, one major concern people have is being too intrusive. This is because they are stuck in a “tourist” mind frame. As long as you allow others to see you as an outsider, people will treat you as such, and that will show up in your photos.
To fix this, you need to build a rapport with your subjects. Show interest. Smile. Communicate with them. You want to grab a photo that reflects who they are, how they feel and what their life is like in that moment. If you join them in their space, you won’t feel like you’re invading their privacy. You will soon realize that in order to get really good candids, you’ll have to get closer to your subjects and once you do this, you will try to repeatedly get that kind of shots every time you get out of the house.
Gaining confidence in public places
In order to get more comfortable approaching and photographing people in public places, it’s best to keep your distance at first. As you go out, search for a place where you can sit and just let people pass by you.
Once you become more relaxed, you will want to get closer to people. That will increase your confidence and help you enjoy approaching your subjects. This time, you will no longer shoot at 200mm. Now you can shoot between 80 and 105mm. You can practice while people are not looking, then narrow the distance between the subjects and you.
Image by Ktylerconk via Flickr
The waiting game
In candid photography, waiting becomes the name of the game. A great way to be noticed yet ignored is to take a few moments to blend into the scene. Imagine going to a farmers’ market somewhere in China: as a tourist, everyone sees you, especially if you go there with a group. If you want to grab some shots, find a spot out of everyone’s way and sit there for a few moments.
Shortly you’ll become part of the landscape and people will start to ignore you. This is when you’ll begin to photograph. They are now comfortable with you because you have spent some time with them and proven that you’re not a threat.
Image by Mark Dolby via Flickr
To ask or not to ask (for permission)
Most people are OK with having their picture taken – if you ask them. In some cases, asking for permission spoils the moment, especially if they’re totally immersed in it. Taking the photo first and asking for forgiveness later is always the best thing to do.
Just remember, if they’re not comfortable with your camera, be nice and move on. Most of the time, if you stay calm and smile at them while saying something like “I took your photo because that seemed such a great moment between your child and you. I would have requested permission, but I didn’t want to spoil the moment,” will get you off the hook.
Put yourself in their shoes for a second and see if you wouldn’t like to have a great photo of you and your child playing and laughing against great scenery. All they need is some reassurance that you’re not a threat in any way.
Children are often the best subjects, since they’re cute, fun and innocent. A very common hurdle is their dread of photographers (and strangers in general). For the shyest, sometimes the easiest thing to do is let them look through the camera. They’ll laugh and compete with each other for who gets to see through the viewfinder. Before you know it, they’ll all want to be in the picture.
This lovely picture of a girl playing with soap bubbles is a good illustration of a spontaneous moment in the street. What child doesn’t feel like playing with soap bubbles on a bright day outside? They are free to run around as they please while you wait for the right instant to capture their joy.
Image by Shinagawa via Flickr
Another great way to befriend your subjects is to allow them to preview the shots. This makes them feel part of the process and they might even ask you for some more. Almost instantly, their objections to being photographed are replaced by enthusiasm and joy.
Developing your techniques
Once you become more comfortable with approaching your subjects, the next step is to cultivate your taste for what types of shots you like. This process includes both a creative and a technical side.
Here is the basic equipment you’ll need for candid photography:
Compact camera – For candids, compact cameras work better than the big shooters because they’re friendly and non-intrusive. There’s a difference between having someone point a big SLR camera with a big lens at you and grabbing a shot with a point and shoot camera.
DSLR camera body – Is a must for achieving professional results. DSLR camera sensors allow you to create a narrow depth of field and isolate the subject from the background resulting in a nice creamy effect. Mirrorless cameras are now a condender, and provide the best of both worlds-control and image quality on the one hand, and small, quiet, and lightweight on the other.
Telephoto lens – Remember: the longer the lens, the better the blur (if you want shallow depth of field). Select a large aperture of f/1.8 – f/2.8 to achieve the best results. Typically, midrange zoom kit lenses in the f/3.5 – f/5.6 range are not the best candidates for portrait photography. A good telephoto lens in the range of 80mm – 200mm allows you to narrow your depth of field and separate your subject from any background distractions.
Wide angle lens – Another must-have lens for some amazing shifts in perspective.
Image by Sometimes_Sam via Flickr
Here are several tips for adding some fun to your work:
- Get down to street level and shoot from the lowest point – you’ll be amazed how the world reveals itself from down there.
- Use a telephoto in a large group to get some nice close-ups.
- Use wide angle lens to brainstorm new composition ideas.
- A fish-eye lens helps you to capture the funny side in everything.
When you’re in a crowd and you can’t move back, the wide angle lens is more flexible to work with, especially if it’s a zoom. Use the wide angles to take shots from the hip without raising the camera to your eye for some really interesting results.
Flash with manual control– You’ll need a flash with manual control to bounce light off of the walls or provide fill flash on a bright day outside.
Here are a few pointers when using your manual flash:
- Don’t use the flash as your primary light source – subjects will be too bright.
- Use the flash around noon time to lighten dark shadow areas.
- When taking night shots, turn off the flash and boost the ISO.
- Use the flash with a lower shutter speed during movement activities to freeze the motion and capture people’s faces, while creating a motion blur effect to highlight the movement.
Select your background
A good candid shot is an environmental portrait, showing the subject’s surroundings. Observe the elements that surround your subject that might provide additional information about what’s around you.
You can also photograph people immersed in various activities – it also gives a good sense of the subject’s environment. Plus, your compositions become more intriguing. Pictures of strangers have little meaning unless they say something about who they are or what they do.
Image by Neekohfi via Flickr
Give your subject space to look into
If your subject is looking in one direction, place them on the other side of the frame – this gives them space to look into and allow the viewer to flow into your photo, as well. Ask yourself, what is your subject looking at and how does it impact your shot?
For example, two people looking at each other create a sense of connection. Or, a child holding a chocolate and looking straight at the camera might seem like an invitation. Someone looking outside the frame can leave the viewer wondering what they’re looking at.
Another technique to make a subject stand out graciously, even when they’re just a small part of your photo, is to capture their silhouette. When a dim shape stands out against a bright landscape, it not only makes the viewer focus on the scenery, but also highlights the subject’s connection to it.
Image by Petideuxmont via Flickr
Shooting from the hip
The obvious sign that you’re about to photograph someone is bringing the camera up to your eye. So if you want to keep a low profile, leave the camera down. With their LCD screens and live-view feature, today’s cameras are perfect for this clandestine work.
Frame subjects with foreground elements
Another tip for spicing up your candids is to find objects that can be used to frame your subjects. You can get some interesting shots by photographing over someone’s shoulder, including some vegetation, etc. This technique is useful to achieve nice depth and create some wonderful portraits.
Set the exposure manually
Setting the exposure in advance is part of preparation. In street photography, you have very little time to experiment with f-stops and shutter speeds. Many people assume they don’t need to worry about manual settings with today’s cameras because of all the auto features and focusing.
My advice is to set the exposure beforehand to allow the camera to focus on one thing only: getting the shot right.
Ultimately, your responsibility as a photographer is to show respect, whether it’s a picture of a person, a place or anything else. If someone doesn’t want their picture taken, then don’t do it. Expect some people to be apprehensive, but don’t let that discourage you from building a relationship so you can take your winning shot.