Candid images are one of the most under-appreciated forms of photography. Capturing unexpected and authentic moments tell so much more about a person or place than a posed portrait does. Too often, these images get written off as fine art street photography, or washed out in the noisy world of the casual snapshot.
Candid color photography has its place in any commercial photography business and every photographer's portfolio. Wedding and event photographers take candids at every gig, whether they're requested to or not. Why? Because they know that these special moments are what people want, even if they are not necessarily what customers know to ask for.
Once you start learning more about candid images, you’ll start to realize that this style can be applied to nearly any sort of photography. If photography is considered a form of documentation, then candids are the backbone of the artform. Photojournalism is candid images taken to the extreme by telling a story with unaltered and un-staged photos. Here is a general guide with everything you need to know about photojournalism. But even things like wildlife photography are candid in nature. Portraits can be composed in such a way that they have a candid feel. That feel makes the photo feel more true and more visceral.
What is Candid Photography?
Candids are pictures that lack a posed style or aesthetic. Sometimes called photojournalistic-style photos, they are not necessarily impromptu snapshots. Many candids may be setup up and composed with great care and planning, but instead of positioning the subject or model right where the photographer wants them, they capture them as they are. The image lacks the "look in the camera and smile" portrait vibe.
Photojournalism is the use of candid photos to tell a complete story. It usually involves multiple images over a long period of time. The purest genre of the art form is probably candid street photography. Street photographers catch honest moments of real life, from strangers and people with whom they have had little or no interaction.
The key to capturing great candids is to be as unobtrusive as possible. Like a scientist affects their environment no matter how hard they try not to, a photographer affects their subjects. For the shutterbug, this means that people tend to clench up or put on their "camera faces" and fake smiles when a lens is pointed their way.
But not all candids are paparazzi in nature. Event photographers often use candids to capture the scenes and attendees at corporate and formal events. It's an integral part of telling the whole story, and many times these photos will tell a story far better than posed formals and headshots could do alone. Wondering what exactly is a headshot? Read more about Headshot Photography here.
Also, candid images are not only in the realm of the fine arts. It has become increasingly popular for people to hire both formal wedding portrait photographers and a separate photographer to get candids. Doing so helps them tell the complete story of their magic day. Photographers often similarly cover corporate events.
Best Camera Equipment and Settings for Candid Images
If the goal of candid photos is to go unnoticed, then the best camera for it is the one that gets the quality of photographs you need with the smallest footprint. For some, that might be the smartphone already in your pocket. For others, it might mean investing in a small form-factor mirrorless system.
For years the staple of the street photographer has been the Leica system. These bodies offered two advantages over standard SLR cameras. For one, they were small enough to go unnoticed. Secondly, they provided a prism viewfinder that could be held at hip level for very sly snapshots.
Other equipment you might want to consider depends on the sort of environment you'll be shooting in. Candid beach photography might require something waterproof or at least splash-proof. Candid wedding photography will require strobe lights, probably with a diffuser or bounce setting.
Like other types of photography, the lens you choose has more effect on the end photos than the camera body does. Depending on your location, the right telephoto lens might make your life easier or harder. Big cameras with big lenses are more visible, which is great for candid wedding photography but not so good for street photos. Here, prime lenses are more popular for their small size and wide apertures.
Whatever camera and lens setup you choose, it should perform well in a wide variety of lighting situations. High ISO settings and low f-stops are often preferred. You might also want to weigh what you want the final product to look like. Grainy black and white images often come to mind with this style of photography, but candid color photography is popular also.
Ten Tips for Great Candid Photography
Don’t Leave Home Without It
If candid photography is all about capturing unexpected moments, then it's only logical that the best candids would happen when you least expect them. And that means that you must always have your camera on you.
Part of this gets back to the type of camera you carry. If you carry something smaller, with the form factor of the classic Leica, you're far more likely to carry it around with you. If your go-to camera setup is a monster Canon 1D or Nikon D6, you're not likely to carry that around just for fun.
Mirrorless cameras are almost the perfect cameras for candids. For one, they're usually quieter when in operation than DSLRs. For another, they come in smaller packages. They offer the same flexibility of fully manual settings and a wide variety of lenses as DSLRs, but are much smaller.
Smartphone Street Photography
For everyday shooting, nothing beats a smartphone with a good camera built-in. Everyone has one, and no one bats an eye when another person holds one up to take a photo. Today's phones take pretty good pictures too, with some models now as good as a point-and-shoot camera. With a smartphone, you transform from a photographer into just another person on the street.
Don’t Ignore the Basics of Composition
All of this talk of shooting from the hip and quick, unexpected snaps might make you think that the quicker you work, the better. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The best candids, even candid street photography, require that photographers plan their shots. Scouting trips without a camera are a great place to start. Look and feel out interesting spots and that tells a whole story. What elements make it unique? Do you need to come back at a particular time of day for just the right light?
Answer these questions and come back with your camera. Wait patiently for the shot to happen. This doesn't mean not to take other images as well, but it sure beats walking around aimlessly all day long.
The real secret, if there is one, to grabbing great candids is to be as low profile and unobtrusive as possible. The second that people notice a camera aimed at them they change the way they act and the way they present themselves. Whether the change is for the better or worse depends on the person and the moment, but it defeats the purpose of a candid shot.
To prevent this, candid street photography is usually shot "from the hip." That's another way of saying that it's shot with a small camera that isn't held up to your face, so it is much less visible to people you meet that you're taking their pictures.
There are many tricks you can employ to make sure your subjects are unaware that you're there. For one, never use a flash. Nothing makes a shutter click more obvious than a speed light going off right in someone's face!
Another great trick that street photographers can employ is not to move the camera after the shot has been taken. On a busy street, passersby will assume that you're waiting for them to get out of the frame before taking the picture. Little do they know, you've already taken your picture!
Getting Candids at Events
Candids at weddings or events don't require the same level of deception. Guests know they are being photographed. What's more, events are often held indoors in poor lighting conditions, making flashes a necessity. Use diffusers and bounce flash to avoid aiming it right at people. Chances are, especially at large indoor events, there will be so many flashes going off that people will begin to ignore them.
These events also allow you to use zoom lenses that will enable you to fill the frame with your subjects from across the room. This is a good trick for a couple of reasons, especially if your telephoto has a nice bokeh. Event backgrounds often leave a lot to be desired.
When Working With People You Know
These tips are great for strangers, but what if you're working with your family or a close group of friends? In this situation, they know you and know what you're doing. They're on to you!
To keep them from whipping out their camera smile, take your images when the group is focused on something else. Games, conversations, funny movies, or outdoor activities make great opportunities to capture candid moments.
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Choose Your Lens Wisely
A lot of candids are taken quickly. Even if you've scouted the location and made a plan, sometimes just the right events line up to make the image you'd hoped and dreamed of. To be prepared, it helps to have your camera body and lens set up and ready to shoot.
Your lens choice has a lot to do with your style of photography and the location of the shoot. Are you in the middle of the street, right up next to your subject? Are you doing candid wedding photography and needing to catch the guests' faces and laughter across the room? The point is that your lens choice needs to be made well in advance, and you need to be ready.
Another consideration when deciding between a wide or telephoto lens is the background and the overall photo composition. Is there beautiful scenery or other elements of the environment that make up your composition? Or do you need to go in tight and focused entirely on the people?
Use the Burst Mode
Since candid picture taking is an unpredictable action by its very nature, burst mode becomes your best friend. You might have to take and delete a hundred bad photos to get the one you really like. But if you wait for the perfect moment to happen, you're likely to miss the one good one.
Give Your Portraits a More Candid Look
What is it that you love about the look of candids? For many, they often seem more genuine; they are often a more honest representation of the person and the moment than a posed portrait is. With this in mind, apply what you like to your posed portrait sessions.
It's common advice to keep snapping pictures between poses. But the idea of candid photos can be taken a bit further and integrated into your poses. For example, if you have a thematic session planned and are working with props, try to capture moments when the model is setting up or engaged in something other than the photo.
For children and family portrait photo sessions, this makes life a little easier. You might also want to read our Beginner's Guide to Family Photography for some inspiration. It's often easier to get your subjects at ease if you get them engaged in a shared activity they love. Location shoots at parks, out on the lake, or at the beach are perfect examples. Yes, you'll take the standard poses. But you'll also have great luck catching candids in the in-between moments.
Respect Your Subject’s Privacy
It's important to realize, especially when doing candid beach photography or street photos, that you are capturing a private moment in the lives of others. If you are in the United States, it is generally accepted that there is no right to privacy when in public spaces. However, if you attempt to reproduce the work commercially, your subjects can pursue legal courses for damages. Model and property releases are a must-have for all commercial images.
On the other hand, the photographer has to be very careful about where the pictures are taken if the candids were taken while on the subject's property, they have a reasonable right to privacy and can sue you.
Other countries around the world have stricter laws about photographing people without permission, even in public. Be sure to familiarize yourself with local laws before taking candid images of strangers.
Privacy can be a tricky thing when dealing with event photography. Event guests typically opt into group photos and other situations, but regardless, legal releases and consent to be photographed are very important.
Hopefully, we've been able to convince you that candids have a place in every photographer's portfolio. They don't have to be hardcore photojournalism or street images. Just having an impromptu and unexpected look to a portrait pose is enough to make it stand out. And when you are trying to tell a story, there is no better way than through candid images.
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