In this guide to Candid Photography, I’ll provide some tried and tested photography tips on how to nail a great candid photo.
Humans are wired to observe the actions and behaviours of others – it’s in our nature to use these observations to manage our behaviour.
Since the earliest use of photography, the ability to capture candid shots has been a compelling format for our medium.
As a street and event photographer, I employ the use of candid photography far more than any other style. For me, it’s a lot like snorkelling on a gorgeous coral reef. Through the camera, I can see the wold (the reef) and the people (tropical fish) interacting with their world.
If I stay still and discreet, I don’t impact upon that behaviour, and I get to see how people really are.
There’s a lot more to it, of course, so let’s dive in (pardon the pun) and take a closer look at candid photography.
What is Candid Photography?
In the simplest of terms, candid photography is the art of photographing people without them knowing you are doing so.
While that sounded like stalking, I will explain further…!
When we pose for pictures, the age-old direction of “say cheese” comes into play and we put on a face and pose. But what if you were to take photos of people going about their business without drawing attention to it or you by refraining of the use: “say cheese”?
When people are aware of the presence of a camera, their behaviour changes. Some people become self-conscious and moderate everything from their posture to their facial expressions.
The alternative is to not draw attention to your camera and capture others in their natural state. It’s a form of documentation of that subject, in that situation, at that exact moment in time.
Why do people love Candid Photography?
As for why people love candid photos – everyone has a different take on the subject. For the most part, it’s because it provides a clear and untainted view of reality. You see unposed people interacting with a real-world set of circumstances.
The facial expressions, body movements, hand gestures and that ever-telling look in the eyes combines to define the image.
12 Candid Photography Tips
Before you even get started with candid photography, there are a few handy tips and tricks that are well worth considering.
As with any genre of photography, knowing the best way to go about it can save you a lot of time and frustration while on the shoot.
1. Get the Right Camera Gear For Candid Photography
As with any photography genre, the first thing to take care of with candid photography is to have the right gear. If you have read my other articles on Shotkit, you’ll know that I believe in people shooting with what they have.
Regardless of the genre, there’s a lot to learn from shooting with the camera you already have. The alternative is to buy a big bag full of glass and bodies and hope the gear will make your shots better!
However, there are some practical gear tips I can share with you to guide you on your way. Let’s take a look at what camera is best for candid photo work.
As shooting candids is about capturing others interacting with their world, you need to be a little stealthy. Shooting with a whopping DSLR with a battery grip and giant flash is definitely not stealthy!
You should be the ninja – opt for a camera that’s not advertising itself or its purpose – generally speaking, mirrorless kits are smaller and more discreet. The other benefit is that candid photography requires you to have your gear ready at all times. Having a lightweight kit in hand is more manageable than a big DSLR.
I recommend a couple of critical features, including the ability to manually adjust settings such as shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
Plus, you need a camera that has a fast and responsive autofocus system. Finally, if you have a camera with a screen that can flip upward you can shoot easily from the hip – check out my guide to the best street photography cameras, where the recommendations overlap.
Candid photography is a fast-paced game where people aren’t always standing around posing and waiting for you to take the shot – they’re on the go and not conscious of your pursuits.
A fast shutter speed allows you to see the shot, lift and shoot without losing subject clarity in the candid shot.
Many online photography courses will say that for candid photography, you MUST have a telephoto lens. A telephoto lens allows you to stand back from your subjects and capture them, unaware that you’re taking a candid shot.
A long lens also grants tighter compression of the composition and achieves excellent subject separation.
This kind of lens works best in a contained environment such as a wedding or party. You can’t always get up close to speeches or the first dance, but with a telephoto zoom, you frame your composition and nail the shot.
I am all for the use of telephoto lenses in candid photography – but not in all situations.
As a street photographer hunting for candid street scenes, I use a wide-angle lens to capture my candid shots. The reason for this is to ensure that I build a composition with context. In wedding photography, the viewer knows it’s a wedding, and so an up-close frame with no context is acceptable.
On the street, you need more background, foreground and compositional elements to help tell the story. Granted, with a wide-angle lens, you have to get much closer to your subjects than with a zoom, but that in itself can be both a part of the chase as well as deliver some exciting frames.
There is no such thing as the best lens for candids, in my opinion. First of all, shoot with what you have. Secondly, experiment with a range of lenses from wide primes to long zooms and see what fits your style.
2. The Best Camera Settings For Candid Photography
It’s tricky to provide one ‘tip’ on camera settings. I am going to provide you with some essential basics to get you started. The rest is going to be up to you to experiment with – this is where manual controls serve you best.
- Shutter Speed
Shooting candid scenes requires a fast shutter speed and even quicker reflexes from you. With a fast shutter speed, you freeze the scene and moment in time – this builds your composition and narrative.
You want your subjects to be natural and unaffected by the camera, but people move at varying paces as they go about their business. A faster shutter speed helps eliminate camera shake and the blur caused by moving subjects.
When shooting candids, I tend to start with a shutter speed of 1/500, but it all depends on the amount of light available too.
Aperture is either dialled in via the camera or the lens depending on your camera system. The good thing about candid photography is that you let the scene dictate the aperture you dial in.
For example, if you’re shooting a street scene and you’re close to your subjects, a narrower aperture such as f/8 will ensure everything is in focus. Your subjects will be crisp, and your background will have the right level of detail to set the scene.
However, if shooting candid shots at a party, there’s a lot to gain from using a wide aperture such as f/2 so that your key subject is in sharp focus. People in front of and behind the subject are out of focus. It draws the viewer to see the main subject instantly.
Remember that a narrow aperture chokes the amount of light hitting the camera sensor and a wide aperture lets in far more light. You will need to use shutter speed and ISO to manage the amount of light entering the lens.
The ISO setting controls the sensitivity of light as it hits the image sensor. A high ISO pulls in and uses as much light as possible and I would use this when indoors or anywhere with low light – remember high ISO results in image noise and distortion, although you can use various software to fix this in post-production.
A low ISO setting is ideal if you’re shooting outdoors in full sunlight as you don’t want to overexpose the image with too much light.
3. Observation Is The Key To Success
Successful candid photos all come down to a keen eye and observation skills. Remember it’s all about seeing people interact with one another and the world around them. Being able to observe these moments as they unfold takes a little practice, but in time you’ll get the hang of it.
Before you even lift a camera to your eye (or hip), take time to observe the scene. Get a feel for how people are mingling, moving, what is going on around them. Also, look for how the scene builds a composition.
Then, once you have the vibe of the scene, start capturing shots.
4. A Handy Camera Is A Ready Camera
Candid photography is all about capturing those moments that are never to be repeated – unlike in a posed picture. So the trick is to keep your kit with you at all times and have it ready to fire at a moments notice.
There’s no point seeing a candid moment and then taking a few seconds to get your camera out of your bag and dial in your settings. The moment has already passed.
Instead, keep your camera on a wrist or neck strap and have it in your hand at all times. When shooting candids, I assess the environment and lighting and dial in my camera settings ahead of time.
That way, when the moment I have been waiting for happens, I can confidently take the shot and know I hit the mark.
5. Never Use A Flash
One of the biggest mistakes people make with candid shots is using a flash. Candid photography requires a little stealth and discretion – a flash is the opposite and makes everyone aware that there is a photographer.
Using a flash instantly changes the behaviour of those around you. People become aware of the camera and tend to pose as opposed to going about their business.
Turn or take the flash off and use your manual settings to make the most of the lighting conditions.
6. Location, Location, Location
Your placement in candid settings is just as important as the positions of the subjects. Street photographers always walk around rather than stand in one place to take their shots. They continuously assess the setting and locate the best places for shots to occur.
Assessing the scene allows you to search for unique framing and compositions that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen. Also, consider different vantage points, including elevations and getting down low.
7. The More The Merrier
Digital photography is limited only by the storage limit of your memory cards and the duration of your battery. Having a spare of each accessory in your back pocket at all times manages this issue.
Capturing candid photos is a lot different from a posed image where your subjects remain still for as long as you tell them to.
I recommend taking multiple photos of any candid moments. While you may think that your original shot was a winner, the subjects may just do something new that elevates the composition. Keep firing away and review the images later to select the best one.
Some will swear by the use of burst mode or continuous shooting modes during candid photography. I find burst mode a little lazy and recommend to rely on your judgement and reflexes to control the capture of candid moments.
8. The Face Tells All
Humans are wired to connect with their eyes. What is happening in a scene is enhanced by the facial expressions and body language of the subjects.
A person with suspicion and squinting eyes tells a whole different story to someone with wide eyes and a shocked expression.
Body language, like hand gestures, is just as important an element in a candid interaction. The way people use their hands to express emotion and intent is compelling, so be sure to include that in your shots.
9. Compose For Narrative
Understanding the compositional requirements and rules is just as crucial in candid photography. Your subjects need to have an environment around them to add narrative and context to a candid photo.
Whether it’s a person lost in the middle of a crowded market or a couple dancing as one on an empty dance-floor, there needs to be context. By assessing the scene, choosing your vantage points and going with the flow of the scene, you’re sure to see the compositions you want.
Always be aware of the lighting and if outdoors be conscious of where the light and shadows fall. Consider elements in your frame, such as leading lines caused by buildings and powerlines.
If shooting at an event, include foreground and background elements that help build the composition. A wedding day speech looks interesting if shot from a low angle with the (out of focus) wedding table blocking the lower portion of the frame while the bride and groom are in sharp focus.
10. More Is Less And Less Is More
Candid photography works well when you capture scenes of people interacting with each other. It works even better when there are lots of people in the location.
A crowded room or market can be a great setting to frame a single subject with the world rushing madly around them. It works in a street scene just as well as an engagement party.
The flip side is to photograph people in isolation from their peers. A vast deserted city square except for one lonely figure pulls the viewer in to question why are they alone.
11. Be The Ninja – Shoot From The Hip
A part of being a candid photography ninja is to be inconspicuous… and your kit needs to be inconspicuous too.
If shooting with a wider lens, a good trick is to shoot from the hip – this works even better if you have a flip-up screen on the back of the camera. You hold it at hip level, look down at the screen and then frame and shoot your image – the Fujifilm X-T4 (reviewed here) is perfect for this.
Using an articulating screen will enable you to be far less noticeable than if you were raising your camera to your eye.
12. Candid Photography For All Occasions
Candid photography is not just the realm of street photographers and journalists. As we have covered here, it can be applied to any genre to add a natural element to a series of photos. When shooting wedding photography (see tips), I tend to focus on the candid stuff just as much as the serious stuff.
Of course, I’ll shoot the ceremony and replicate the seriousness of the occasion. But I’ll also be sure to capture those funny little intimate interactions between the couple, the wedding party and the celebrant.
The same applies to a genre such as a portrait photography session. Capturing stunning yet heavily directed portrait photos is one thing. But capturing candid photos in between the serious sessions adds a whole new element to the portfolio.
Candid Photography FAQs
Which camera is best for candid photography?
The best cameras for candids are those that are small and discreet, with a fast and responsive autofocus system. If possible, opt for a mirrorless kit with a flip-out screen that lets you shoot from the hip.
How do I capture a candid picture?
The key to capturing candids is to be unobtrusive and discreet. Wait and watch, and when you see the right moment, quickly snap your shot. If you want to be doubly sure you don’t miss it, you can use burst mode to get multiple images.
Is candid photography legal?
This will depend on the situation and the local laws and regulations. Generally speaking, photographing in public spaces is fine while shooting on private property requires permission. Do check the laws of the state and country where you’re shooting to be sure.
Candid photographs are perfectly imperfect in that there’s no falsehood involved at all. They are just images of people interacting with their world just as if you were not there with a camera.
With a review of our photography tips, a little practice and a keen eye, you can master this genre and capture great candid photos in any setting or situation.
So what are your experiences with candid photography? Have you received candid photos of yourself and if so, what was your reaction?
Leave a comment below and become part of the conversation – your shared ideas may just inspire someone else.
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