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Design & Style

6 Tips for the Best Candid Portraits

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

Taking improvised or “candid” photographs of people is one of the most common styles of photography—and capturing candid moments naturally on camera is a skill every professional photographer should practice and learn well.

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What Is Candid Photography?

Candid photography is a style of photography in which the models and the scene are not staged or posed. Candid photographs are usually photos of people, and they can be taken anywhere: at home, at the grocery store, at a child’s birthday party, and so on, and are commonly used in street photography, portrait photography, wedding photography, and photojournalism.

What Equipment Do You Need for Candid Photography?

Candid photography has different needs than other kinds of photography since in a perfect world, your candid photography subjects will forget that there is a camera present. Here are some recommendations for equipment that will help you take great candid photos:

  • A small camera. The “classic” camera for candid photography is a Leica due to its slim body and small lens, but any compact digital camera will do. Brands like Nikon, Canon, and Sony all make quality DSLR cameras for candid photography. Whichever camera you choose, make sure it has a high ISO and fast shutter speed. These camera settings will enable you to take good photos of moving subjects in fleeting moments, even with low light, and will help you take photos with a shallow depth of field so that viewers can focus on your subject rather than the background. For quick candid shots, sometimes the best camera is a smartphone—it’s the least obtrusive camera there is.
  • Several lens options. Candid photography can be varied and unique, so it’s useful for photographers to have several lens options they can choose between. Most photographers like to have a 50 mm lens, which provides a natural effect with no distortion and is excellent at capturing candid portraits on the fly; a 24–70 mm lens, a wide-aperture zoom lens that works well in natural light and low-light scenarios and captures both close-up details and the whole scene; and a 70–200 mm lens allows for unobtrusive photography without invading someone’s personal space, since it has a powerful zoom.
  • Bounce flash. A bright flash is not ideal for candid pictures because it can distract your subject, drawing attention to you and potentially ruining your candid opportunity. Instead, invest in a bounce flash to add light to candid shots. A bounce flash aims your flash in a different direction (usually angled about 45 degrees up), reflecting the flash off the surrounding walls and ceilings. This creates a more “natural” lighting effect with little effort.
  • Diffuser. A diffuser is a plastic, translucent device that covers your flash, softening and dispersing its light. This will further enable you to add light to your candid images in an unobtrusive way.
  • Memory cards. Be sure to keep multiple memory cards on hand, as you might end up taking hundreds of photos before you get your perfect candid shot.
  • Tripod. If you think you might be shooting the same scene for some time—say, from a particular street corner—a tripod is a helpful tool. Tripods help stabilize your images, which can be particularly helpful in low-light scenarios and while using a telephoto lens.
  • Backup batteries. Finally, make sure to pack an extra battery and charger. As a candid photographer, you want to be prepared at a moment’s notice to capture that perfect shot.
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5 Tips to Take the Best Candid Photographs

The purpose of candid photography is to capture real life rather than something rehearsed, which can come off looking stiff. Candid photographers want their work to look natural, raw, and often slightly unpolished.

  1. Always keep your camera on you. When taking candid images, you must blend in with your surroundings by remaining comfortable with your camera—and the best way to do that is by carrying your camera everywhere. Don’t leave in the morning without your camera ready to take pictures, and keep it by your side throughout the day, all day, every day, even into the evening at home. Many candid photographers recommend that you take your DSLR camera everywhere you can, or if too bulky or distracting, take a small point-and-shoot camera so that you’re always ready for a great shot.
  2. Move around. For candid photos, you often can’t walk up to your subjects and ask them to move a few feet to the left or stand in a different way, since doing that would draw their attention to you and you’d lose the unstaged look of your candid shot. In order to get a great composition, you’ll have to be the one moving. Get comfortable trying different angles, walking around your subjects, and experimenting with your framing on the fly—it will help you photograph people candidly without sacrificing good composition.
  3. Practice on friends and family. If you are uncomfortable taking photos, people will most likely sense that and be uncomfortable having their photo taken—so the key is to get comfortable with the camera. Try interacting with your family, friends, coworkers, etc. with your camera first, and practice taking candid shots. After a photoshoot, ask them for feedback on your photography approach—they may have some great advice to help you improve.
  4. Shoot frequently. Candid photography is about capturing moments that you usually can’t anticipate, so you should be taking as many photos of them as possible to increase your chances of getting that perfect shot. Take hundreds of photos. Take hundreds more. It’s always better to start with volume and quantity—you can always edit down your selections later. A great way to take lots of photos all at once is with the “burst mode” on your camera, which takes a series of photos in more rapid succession than you could take normally.
  5. Shoot from the hip. To describe someone as a person “who shoots from the hip” can mean many different things, but when used to describe a photographer it means quite literally that they shoot images from their hip. This is a great technique for capturing better candid photographs, as it allows you to compose your image from an entirely different angle. It also frees you from having to look through the viewfinder and finicking with the composition of the image—you can just shoot almost at random and hope for the best. Shooting from the hip is an especially great photographic technique when you’re working as a wedding photographer at a venue with small children, as it allows you to capture images from their eye level and their perspective.

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