7 Ways to Take Outstanding Candid Pictures

Candid Portrait

When the photography world first came across the idea of candid portaiture – making informal shots of people who were not aware of being photographed or at least not posing for the camera – it was a Big Thing. This was because up to then, portraiture called for large studio cameras wound up with cranks, fancy studios with painted backgrounds and – you can guess – big bucks for the privilege.

With small cameras like the Kodak Box Brownie loaded with (for then) fast film plus a generous helping of sunlight, anyone could point their camera at a person and, ker-click!, another candid portrait was snapped.

We’ve come a long way since then, but the same concerns as those which arose at the time are still with us. We worry about invading privacy or fear of upsetting someone while at the same time wishing to catch them in a natural pose or natural expression. What are some of the tactics and techniques we could use?

A portrait is a record of a relationship

Grabbed on the run

I always try to remember my own adage, and never tire of repeating it in every workshop I run, that a portrait is a record of my relationship with the person in the subject.

If the relationship is warm and trusting, it shows in the picture. If it’s been grabbed on the run, like this shot of a pillion passenger on the chaotic bridge in central Agra, India, it looks grabbed on the run. And if you sneak up on someone, the picture will carry a slight voyeuristic quality. The best candids are those which combine the seeming contradictory qualities of the person being aware of you but at the same time ignoring you.

1. Wait and blend

Man in Kashgar Market

One way to be seen yet ignored is to take the time to blend into the background. Imagine walking into a market in Kashgar in far western China: as a tourist, everyone notices you, especially if you arrive with a group. You represent new custom, a chance to sell their goods. But if you only want to grab some shots then run to the next sight, the anticipation turns to disappointment. Little wonder if some stall-holders are not too friendly.

What I do is find somewhere out of everyone’s way and stand or sit for a few minutes. It doesn’t take long before I become part of the scene. People say ‘Hello’, I say ‘Hello’ back. In ten minutes they start to ignore you, and you can start to photograph. People are less bothered by you because you have taken the trouble to spend some time with them, proven that you’re harmless. That’s how I obtained this portrait of an old patriach who at first wary but after 5 minutes was all smiles. And yes, he was in Kashgar Market.

2. Smaller the Camera, Smaller the Presence

Capped boy candid

For candids, compact and cell-phone cameras score over the big shooters by being unaggressive, non-threatening and almost friendly. If you haven’t experienced it, have a friend point a big SLR camera with a big lens (complete with cavernous lenshood) at you: it’s not a hugely cuddly experience. No doubt about it, small cameras are best for candid photography: that’s why the Leica still does so well at photojournalism over all the bigger, better, faster cameras available. This, one of my favourite shots, was made with a Leica M6 in Western China.

3. Shoot from The Hip

Shot from below looking away

The tell-tale sign that you’re lining someone up to photograph them is putting the camera up to your eye. So if you don’t want them to think that, leave the camera low. With their LCD screens, compact cameras are great for this. And some of the new SLRs now have live-view, which means you can view the image on the LCD screen on the back of the camera and not have to look through the viewfinder. It means you can carry on a conversation and even maintain eye-contact with your subject only minimally aware you’re photographing them.

Hold the camera level (front/back and side-to-side). Use a wide-angle setting so you do not need to aim very precisely. Careful, though: this tends to produce a low point of view, so try pointing the camera upwards or else you will be looking up people’s noses.

4. Looking away Distracts Attention

Shot from below

If you have ever felt that someone is watching you – and it’s an uncomfortable feeling – you will understand that someone may pick up the sense that you’re watching them intently, waiting for a photographic moment. If you’re interested in this phenomenon, read this fascinating book by Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake’s theory is that when we watch something we send out an attention wave of energy.

Anyway, where were we? Staring at someone with camera in hand is a dead give-away of what you’re up to (attention waves or not). So you can practice a little deception: face away from your subject, but watch them from the corner of your eye. Mostly, however, I prefer to be open and honest when photographing. (Remember, the other meaning of ‘candid’ is about honesty and truthfulness.)

5. Wait Until They are Busy

Looking away for a candid

Less of a deception but relying on a shift of attention away from you is simply to wait till your subject’s attention is distracted by something else. Here it’s handy to have a friend engage your subject in conversation. Keep sensitive, however, to your subject’s feelings: if your presence with camera is making them nervous, then move away or wait until you can establish a trusting rapport. I have seen photographers exploit the fact that a stall-holder is busy having to serve customers and take snaps before they can be shooed away: but that really is to exploit the situation unfairly.

6. Share The Photos

Learn buttons and dials

Surely one of the biggest beauties of digital cameras is that you can share the picture with someone immediately you’ve shot it. So why not share it with your candid subject: if you’ve grabbed a shot and been noticed, immediately offer to show the person the shot. When they see you’re not trying to hide anything, they are more than likely to cooperate for more shots. Of course, you lose that candid element. But that’s only for a few minutes: if you encourage them to ignore you, they usually do so pretty quickly.

There’s always a risk they will ask you to erase the image if they don’t like it. If that happens, I never question or argue about it but erase it immediately. For me, it’s important that my subjects are happy with how they feel: I owe it to them as a photographer.

7. The Picture is in their Hands

Learn buttons and dials

Sometimes people who are shy of having their face photographed may not mind if you photograph their hands. I love photographing hands myself, and often they tell you more about the person and what they do than the face does. You may have to work fast, though as people move their hands quickly, especially if they are at all nervous. Use the long end or middle of your zoom and shoot from 3ft (1 metre) or so to avoid projecting misshapen hands from a wide-angle view.

Enjoy! And let’s hear your about your tactics and suggestions.

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Comments

1  

Cindy

June 9, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

Really useful tips!

I’m still a bit worried about the fact that people may get angry with you. And how do you ask someone if you can take their picture.

2  

Leslie

June 8, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

these were interesting tips and seem very helpful, they also seem to work.

3  

Martie Mollenhauer

September 22, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

I have another way that I use as The Photo Schmoozer even before I ask if I can take a person’s picture…and you are right – just about no one says no. I affirm, value and compliment the person – something ‘small’ about themselves…their smile, their hair, their shoes (yes people love their shoes) or something else they notice. I then schmooze with them for a bit and then say, "You are really cool…fascinating…or whatever…and can I take your photo? They are flattered!
See I truly believe it is important to ‘catch people doing something right’ and everyone wants to be noticed!!
Hope to hear from others and do hope that you will visit my blog, link up mine with yours, and help us all grow to make the world a soooooooo much more kind and respectful place. http://photoschmoozer.blogspot.com

4  

Tom Ang

June 11, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

Cindy

Hi! I get asked that alot, and when I started, I wasn’t sure how to go about it either. After 25 years in this game, I’ve found that no one has ever been angry if only I ask. Just ask. It’s that simple. Use sign language but better of course to ask in their language. I remember once I was taught how to say ‘can I take your photo’ in the Uighur language. It was real complicated tongue-twister. I tried it out on someone and he turned out to be the local school-teacher for English! We all had a good laugh at my terrible Uighur (and I got my picture).So my advice: learn how to say hello, thankyou, please, can I take your photo’ wherever you travel. And learn to take a refusal gracefully: that has sometimes changed people’s attitude, if not immediately, it raises you in the eyes of others watching you.

5  

Sal Messina

June 6, 2008 @ 9:02 am

Imagini eccellenti!
Tutto ok!!!
Ciao

6  

Eduardo Fonseca

October 22, 2008 @ 11:18 am

Great lessons! Great blog!

7  

Chris

October 7, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

There’s some really good tips here – thanks for the article. I would add that some posed shots can take on the quality of candids if you’ve built enough of a rapport with your subject. When I was in China last month I was able to take tons of photographs of people, especially in a few very small and more remote villages we visited. It helps to ask, as has been commented, and sharing the photographs you have taken usually leads to a few more. Although, I should say I was extremely lucky that my girlfriend, who speaks Mandarin, was there to give me pointers on how to communicate. Feel free to check out mine:

Portraits of Fenghuang
Fenghuang Photography

8  

Link Roundup 11-29-2008

November 30, 2008 @ 1:58 am

[...] 7 Tips for Candid Photos and Portrait Photography i Digital Photo Good candid portraits can be harder than you might think — here are a few tips to get you rolling. [...]

9  

Mattias Wirf

November 30, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

Nice tips, I really need them. Having a hard time in my small town, people are camera shy…

10  

Millard

December 2, 2008 @ 7:51 am

A lot of great ideas. Thanks for sharing. I used to like to “hide” in phone booths and shoot street people with a tele. Now you can’t find a phone booth anymore, LOL!

11  

Captain Fairly-Obvious

December 29, 2008 @ 11:02 am

one tip I’m surprised you didn’t include, is:

If a person communicates, through their vibe or body-language, that it isn’t OK, don’t take their shot, but respect their private space.

variant:
if a moment seems too private to photo ( sudden grief, e.g. ), respect your heart & theirs.

One’s heart is worth more than “getting” shots/photos/money/whatever.

I know that Convention holds that privacy isn’t a human right, but the only way to grow the world one wants is to BE the world/change one wants.

Cheers,

A few more thoughts on a good discussion:

1) Get closer. Move closer to the person physically, and get closer to the person socially. That means introducing yourself and building rapport if you are shooting a stranger.

2) Shoot people while their engaged in whatever activity they were doing – perhaps working, perhaps playing. This is a variation on waiting until their busy. But you can go beyond that. If you are shooting strangers while traveling, once you’ve built a rapport, encourage them to go back to doing what they were doing while you shoot.

E

[...] 7 Ways to Take Outstanding Candid Pictures [...]

14  

candid photos

July 28, 2009 @ 4:29 am

The candid photos are full of life and can bring a smile on your face when you see them, even after years.these are really great tips and seem very helpful.thanks for sharing….

15  

James K

December 9, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

thanks for some great tips here.

i love candid portraits. for me they make much more powerful photographs than posed portraits.

16  

chris

December 30, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

Thanks for the tips. These would’ve come in really handy during our trip to South America. Will definitely keep them in mind next time we travel.

17  

Eleanor Maw

January 29, 2010 @ 4:15 am

Thanks for all the excellent advice, I myself have found the Lumix LX3 to be a great little Candid camera.

18  

mayank

February 14, 2011 @ 3:43 am

Really like this post. The tips are all valid. I have never been threatened or asked not to shoot but for once when a person angrily asked me what was i doing. Usually people are nice if you look warm and smile a lot. Sometime people think you are from media or press and that most often than not puts them off. Its important to clarify.
I have been struggling to get a street photography camera for sometime. I agree the DSLRs do not work on streets, i would be keen to hear suggestion. I cant afford a leica obviously.

19  

Jacqueline Boss

May 7, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

I like these! And the shot of the old man is so cute. I always feel awkward though taking pictures of strangers without permission. I don’t like when people do it to me and I imagine it would make other people just as uncomfortable. But you seem to have some really nice experiences taking candid shots. (Which by the way are so much more fun to look at afterwards. In a contest between a candid shot of a bunch of friends laughing and playing together and posing for a shot, the candid one wins every time.)

Check out this amusing post I wrote about how to be a Photo Ninja

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