Candid photography is as much an art as it is a science. Capturing authentic moments from everyday life is a feat of its own. It involves as much luck as raw skill.
However, doing so in a manner that minimizes the influence of you, the photographer, on your candid subjects is a real challenge.
Today, let’s try to shine a light on that challenge and surmount it together. In this candid photography guide, I will show you a collection of tips, tricks, and techniques that you can use to master your camera, perfect your observational skills, and catch that unplanned moment with ease.
What is the Philosophy Behind Candid Photography?
To gain a full understanding of what it means to photograph people in candid photographs, let’s take a minute to immerse ourselves in the philosophy behind candid photography as a medium.
Candid photography overlaps with street photography in many ways. Some even see the one as a sub-genre of the other.
In any case, both involve the capture of fleeting moments, scenes from day-to-day life.
However, where candid photography sets itself apart is in its focus on real emotions, taking photos in a spontaneous manner, and displaying daily life in a natural way.
That contrasts the candid photo with many so-called “intrusive” streams of street photography, where the photographer interacts with their subjects in very explicit ways.
Sometimes, intrusive photographers deliberately frighten or startle people to elicit a self-conscious response and capture that on camera.
Candid photographers are rather the opposite. They wish to be as unseen and have as little interaction with their environment as possible. This preserves the genuine, raw character of such candid images.
The Ethics of Capturing Candid Moments
Before we move on to pure technique, there is something else about candid photography that I feel is important to mention.
Perhaps more so than any other genre of photography, candid photos live in a moral grey zone. Simply put, the “raw” nature of these kinds of shots puts the right to privacy in an awkward position.
Many photographers feel that explicitly asking for a subject’s permission to have their picture taken too often results in missing that decisive moment.
Candid shots can’t be really candid if they’re arranged beforehand, can they?
On the other hand, shooting without consent can be considered a violation of people’s personal space.
For the legal side of this, I implore you to consult your locality’s regulations – there are probably precise laws on what you can and cannot do with your camera.
However, from a purely ethical standpoint, it’s worth asking yourself how you want to treat the subjects of your work, especially in cases like candid portraits.
There’s no right or wrong answer here – but you do need to draw a line of what you’re comfortable with.
Composing Candid Photos: A Quick How-To
At the heart of any of history’s great candid photos lies expert composition.
But as opposed to, say, landscape or wedding photography, you don’t have the luxury of a tripod, near-limitless time, or curated lighting to guarantee perfectly posed images.
Rather, you need to be able to compose effectively within a moment’s notice.
That’s why you should put plenty of thought into your candid photography composition before you head out onto the streets, not while you’re already scanning for the perfect shot.
Treat your composition more like that of someone engaged in wildlife photography: the time window for the perfect candid photo might only last a short moment, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t put due effort into framing and aesthetics.
Below are some basic candid photography tips on composition and theory that should help guide you along the right path. Experiment with and practice these guidelines to get a good grip on them. Soon, you will be able to execute these tricks without even thinking about them!
Frame Images With Foreground Elements
Almost any candid photograph is going to feature moving subjects and lots of irregular geometric features. This could well make a subject’s face the only real centerpiece in your composition.
In some cases, this can work quite well. But in others, it can make your shot appear muddled or uneven.
To make things more interesting for the viewer’s eye without having to sit down and intricately compose, potentially losing the decisive moment, consider working with depth more.
As you scan for suitable scenes and candid subjects, try to put distance between yourself, your main subject, and a third so-called “layer” – preferably something in the foreground.
This can add a sense of three-dimensional space to the composition, make the frame more interesting, and tell the viewer more about the relationship between what they’re seeing.
These foreground layers can be anything! It can be a literal frame, like the doorway in the photo above. Or it can be details on the ground that catch your eye, vegetation, interesting features of the landscape – the list goes on!
Home in On Decisive Moments of Emotion and Narrative
A big part of what it takes to be an exceptional candid photographer is to have excellent situational awareness. You need to be able to detect scenes of natural narrative and home in on them like a heat-seeking missile.
On an average day, we pass by such scenes all the time – we mostly just learn to ignore them.
Street vendors haggle excitedly for their wares. A young professional rushing through traffic – to a life-changing appointment, perhaps? Or a wedding, maybe?
A child receiving the gift they always wanted – or an elderly couple reliving cherished moments on their favorite morning walk.
The list of such genuine candid moments is endless, and I bet you can pick up many more as long as you decide to listen, stay awake, and home in!
Going Into “Street Mode”: How to Take Candid Shots Incognito
Let’s talk a bit more about fitting in with the crowd. What are some concrete things you can do to take candid photos without attracting attention?
Below, we’ll take a look at a few of them.
Kill the Flash
This point might be obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how long of a way it can go to minimize undue attention.
If you come from a background in professional wedding photography, you might think of candid photography as portraiture. And in that sense, you might think that portrait photography requires the use of artificial light to look good.
While it’s true that a bright flash can help your exposure in low light, it can also ruin a candid moment by making your subject immediately aware of your presence.
Therefore, I highly recommend killing the flash next time you go out to take candid shots. Any detrimental effects on exposure could have been well accounted for by the kinds of techniques we will look at further down below.
Use Continuous Autofocus
On many systems, the camera settings for autofocus default to AF-S or single-shot autofocus.
This mode works well for taking photos of still subjects, but in the case of candid photography, it pays off to switch over to continuous AF (AF-C), which keeps tracking your subjects as they move around the frame.
This can deliver much better results, especially in high-action scenes!
Minimize the Appearance of Your Gear
We will talk in more detail about selecting the right gear for taking candid photographs, but no matter what you’re currently toting, take a few minutes to make sure you don’t have “I am a photographer” written all over you.
That means no thick, branded neck straps. No bulky camera bag carrying an unnecessary amount of lenses or filters. And definitely, no GoPro velcro to your jacket or drone peeking out of your backpack!
There are many more advanced ways to tone down the appearance of your gear, too.
Henri Cartier-Bresson famously painted and taped his camera pitch black so that people would not be able to easily tell he was taking pictures of them.
Of course, that might go a bit far for some people. But ask yourself what you’re willing to change about your loadout and try to make it a bit more minimalist – you’ll see the results for yourself!
Compose By Eye
No matter what kind of equipment you’re using, getting your camera ready and setting up your shot through the viewfinder often takes far too long for a candid shot to come out well.
Plenty of potentially decisive moment has been lost throughout history because the photographer spent too much time fiddling. And you don’t want to be the cause of the next such loss!
One good technique you can try is composing with your eyes. That is to say, imagine the frame of the scene as the camera sees it before you bring the viewfinder up to your eye.
This may be difficult to do as a beginner at first, but over time, you will begin to develop a closer relationship with your gear, and this will lead to a certain intuitive sense of how your camera sees the world.
What are the Best Cameras and Gear for Candid Photography?
Let’s talk a bit more about gear. What kind of camera or lens works best for candid photography? As you can imagine, a lot of it has to do with dimensions, ease of use, and speed.
Next up are some top candid photography tips on the best cameras, lenses, and other equipment that can make working in this genre a whole lot easier.
Compact Cameras are King
Low-profile camera bodies are chiefly preferred among candid photography professionals.
The type of small rangefinder typified by the Leica and waist-level viewfinder cameras like TLRs and some SLRs remains the gold standard.
However, genuine Leicas are very expensive (not to mention a bit archaic for some). The same thing goes for Rolleiflexes, Hasselblads, and Mamiyas.
Not to mention that most of these cameras rely on film, which goes against the need of many candid photographers for a machine that can reliably create many images in burst mode.
The Nifty Fifty Rules, Too
These kinds of compact cameras may have interchangeable or fixed lenses.
But in any case, candid photographers as a rule tend to prefer a prime over a zoom lens and short focal lengths over a long lens. The “nifty fifty” fast 50mm prime lens is the epitome of what most candid photography specialists would consider ideal.
This is for a multitude of reasons, but the short and simple version is that a short or normal prime is almost always a small lens, light and easy to carry. These lenses, despite their small form factor, can also be made cheaply with large apertures, excellent for low light situations.
Furthermore, a low focal length gives a greater depth of field and a wider field of view – all boons for capturing spontaneous moments in the street.
Consider using a Wrist Strap
Instead of the easily visible neck strap that comes standard with many camera bodies, consider going back to the 1960s in fashion with a wrist strap.
These either attach to one strap lug on the side of your camera or screw into its tripod socket, allowing you to hold it just as securely as with a neck strap. At the same time, you’ll be showing off a lot less.
Obviously, wrist straps cannot sustain nearly as much weight. That makes them a perfect fit for compact cameras with slim bodies like the aforementioned Fujifilm and Ricoh machines.
Camera Settings for Nailing Your Next Candid Photo Op
Now, let’s explore a few specific camera settings that you can use to make sure that the candid moments coming out of your memory card to look just as impressive as they did to you in person on the street.
These are general tips that can be employed in almost any situation. Feel free to put a new spin on them as you see fit based on your own unique shooting situation!
Get in the Zone
One skill that in my opinion can absolutely revolutionize the way you approach any kind of street photography is zone focusing. I will not enter into a fully-fledged guide on this technique right here. Rather, let me introduce you to the concept of zone focusing on a purely theoretical level.
Instead of targeting your subjects precisely by narrowing down focus with the help of whatever aids your camera may offer, zone focusing rolls you back to the basics.
In full manual mode, select a small aperture – in most cases, f/8 and smaller will work wonders. Next, dial in a “focus zone”.
That is, select a distance on your lens’ focus scale and use a depth-of-field scale to determine between which distances subjects will be in proper focus at that setting.
Now, lie low, select an appropriate shutter speed to determine exposure, and just wait for subjects to enter your zone. That way, you can completely forget about precise focusing and take pictures much, much faster and quieter than with any autofocus system!
When in Doubt, Switch to Aperture Priority Mode
Nowadays, zone focusing doesn’t have to be fully manual. You may instead want to switch to aperture priority (mode A) to let your camera figure out the perfect shutter setting, given lighting and lens conditions.
This can even further simplify your flow, allowing for lightning-speed picture taking.
Maintain ISO to Suit the Needs of the Moment
Of course, especially when utilizing focus zones to your advantage, you’ll want to make generous use of ISO to determine the best windows of shutter and aperture settings in your environment.
Two contrasting notions exist about ISO in candid and street photography.
On the one side, some say that ISOs should be kept generally high, at or above 800 at least. This is to make sure that you can always freely select high shutter speed-small aperture combos to freeze the motion of moving subjects.
On the other hand, some may not like the grainy look this produces or may wish to deliberately exaggerate the natural effect of motion. In that case, lower ISOs work just fine!
Succeeding in Candid Photography is a Matter of Commitment
Now you have a whole, broad understanding of everything that goes into taking a great candid shot under your belt. Of course, the theory behind candid photography is not even half the art or the science!
The only way to really become proficient at candid photography is to do what street photographers have been doing for over a century: go out and shoot! Practice!
With that said, let the lessons you learned today in this guide sink in, note them down – and then get to work! Without a doubt, a healthy dose of confidence and commitment will see you making progress very quickly.