How many times have you said these words or something similar? “Smile for the camera.” “Say cheese.” “On the count of three…” The reason behind them is to get what you might consider a flattering, well-composed picture of someone. That’s a fine goal as far as it goes, but imagine if all your photos were shot that way. Would this be how you’d want to remember your life and the people you live with; as if all of the world is a studio and everyone lives from one pose to the next? If you want more variety and spontaneity in your people photos, you’ll need to develop your candid photography skills.
Candid photography is basically the opposite of posed photography: it’s informal, spontaneous, and serendipitous. Your subjects are either unaware you’re photographing them, or if they are aware, they’re so focused on whatever else they’re doing that they pay you no mind. The examples you’ll see throughout this article illustrate the benefits of the candid approach. You’ll also find tips and techniques for how you can reap these benefits in your own photos. They are all presented from the perspective of someone with 40 years experience as a street and travel photographer, who has shot candid photos around the world. These techniques work with perfect strangers, and are just as effective with the pictures you take to document friends and family.
When subjects are aware you’re taking pictures of them, they’ll have a natural tendency to become self-conscious and to want to pose for the camera. This doesn’t apply to infants or young toddlers, who have no awareness of what a camera is, but older kids will often make goofy faces (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Adults may tense up or offer a canned expression.
On the other hand, when your subjects aren’t aware of you or aren’t paying attention, they’re much more likely to let their guard down and be their more authentic selves. This greatly improves your ability to capture the characteristic expressions, gestures, postures, and behaviors that would be impossible to catch if you were directing people or allowing them to put on a pose. That’s not to say that the candid approach is the only way to capture informal images of people, simply that it’s one of the most effective, provided you’re alert and have developed the right skills.
You never know when a great photo opportunity will present itself—but you can be prepared for when it happens. This begins with having your camera close by and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. The battery needs to be in the camera and charged. You’ll also need a memory card in the camera with enough free space for at least a few dozen shots.
Tip: If your card is running low on space and you don’t have a spare, try reducing resolution of your RAW or JPEG image (choose a Medium or Small setting, under Image Quality, in the first red Shooting Menu screen of Canon EOS D-SLRs). If you shoot JEPGs, another option is to stay at Large (full) resolution, but change to Normal compression instead of Fine — this is in the same Shooting Menu screen.
If you’re indoors, make sure your camera is set up for indoor lighting. Whether you prefer to use auto or manual ISO, the range should be 800–3200; enough to allow a minimum shutter speed of at least 1/60 second or faster (1/125, etc.). If you have one, attach a moderate focal length lens that has a wide, fast maximum aperture (f/2.8, f/2.0, f/1.8, etc.). A fast aperture allows more light to reach the sensor. This in turn reduces the need for high ISOs that increase image noise, slow shutter speeds that lead to blurry photos because of subject or camera motion, or direct flash lighting, which can be harsh and distracting. Also keep in mind that if your lens has image stabilization (IS) it will reduce blur caused by camera movement; however, IS can’t eliminate subject motion — only a faster shutter speed can do that.
Auto white balance should provide natural looking colors, but if your indoor images look too orangish, set the white balance to tungsten (standard incandescent bulbs). If they look greenish or cyan, set the white balance to fluorescent.
Camera setup is considerably easier if you’re shooting outdoors in daylight. You should have plenty of light, and your camera’s auto white balance feature should have no trouble producing normal looking colors. Just try to avoid overly bright backgrounds that can cause “clipping” (areas that show up as pure white, without detail) or trick the exposure meter into underexposing your main subject.
Once you have your camera in hand and ready to shoot, move into position quietly and calmly. Sudden movements and noises attract attention. Hide your camera from view if possible. Assuming your subject hasn’t noticed you, be careful not to rush the shot. The click of the shutter is likely to alert them to your presence, so you may not get a second chance. (Just keep in mind that it’s seldom a good idea to photograph someone doing something they would find embarrassing or humiliating. Don’t photograph other people doing something you wouldn’t want to be photographed doing.) If your subject does notice you, don’t make a big deal of having a camera in your hands and don’t look guilty or ashamed. Instead, just smile back and place the camera in plain sight. The more calm, confident and relaxed you are about what you’re doing, the more relaxed your subject will be.
You’ll often find that the candid shot you were trying to get will vanish the instant your subject becomes aware of your presence. There’s no need to despair or to slink away. More often than not, if you simply smile and say something like “Just ignore me,” or “Go back to what you were doing,” your subject will be happy to do exactly that. Take a few shots even if they aren’t exactly what you were looking for. If you’re patient enough, your subject will soon lose interest in you and you’ll be able shoot at will without attracting the slightest attention. This is particularly true if you’re shooting two or more people who are interacting with each other or busy with some activity. Human beings can only pay attention to one thing at a time, so if they aren’t paying close attention to you, you basically become invisible, even when you’re nearby, clicking away with your camera.
Any lens you own that has a moderate focal length — anywhere from 18–135mm for Canon EOS Rebel, xxD, and 7D-series DSLRs — can be used for candid photography. (This corresponds to a lens in the 28 thru 200mm range, if you’re using a full-frame DSLR camera.) That said, the look and feel of your images will change with the focal length and corresponding angle of view you choose. A wide angle-of-view has the visual effect of pushing subjects further away while emphasizing the foreground, which makes it ideal for shooting in tight spaces or getting more into the frame. If you move closer in to compensate for this effect, a wide angle has the added effect of putting the viewer right into the middle of the action.
A telephoto lens has the opposite effect: As you increase the focal length (meaning the focal length number gets higher), the angle of view becomes narrower. This has the visual effect of making subjects seem closer without your actually having to move towards them. Your photos will look as if the viewer is watching from a discrete distance, which is best suited for capturing quiet moments or isolating one or two subjects from a group. (Also feel free to zoom in on key details, either by literally zooming or simply moving closer. Often a hand on a hip or scratching a head says as much or more about someone’s state of mind as their facial expression.)
Another effective way to isolate your subject is to use wide apertures. The wider your aperture and the longer your focal length, the more out of focus the background will be, which in turn helps separate the foreground from the background. (Wide apertures are the lowest numbers in the aperture range. For example, f/4.0 is wider than f/8 and f/2.8 is wider than f/4.0).
Just because your camera has an eye-level viewfinder with a horizontal orientation doesn’t mean you have to shoot everything that way. A quick 90-degree shift to either side gives you a vertical composition, which is ideal for any scene you want to be taller than it is wide. Framing portraits or body shots as verticals helps crop out unimportant details and focus attention on your primary subject. On the other hand, you may prefer horizontal framing when your subject’s immediate environment is actually interesting and important. You can also lower the camera to the level of a child sitting on the floor or raise it for a bird’s-eye view. (This is admittedly a lot easier if your camera has a swivel-LCD viewfinder and you’re shooting in Live View.)
Some photos are all about capturing that one moment of peak action, the telling gesture, the fleeting expression. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll be able to tell when someone is excited and about to move in an animated fashion. You have to wait for it, then release the shutter the instant it appears. There are other photos that tell their story best with a short sequence of images: your daughter blowing out the candles on her birthday cake; your son reacting to getting licked on the face by the family dog; a friend jumping off a diving board and into the water. You’ll find your camera’s continuous shooting mode is ideal for capturing such sequences. If your camera’s DRIVE modes offer a choice of low-speed versus high-speed, I recommend high-speed because it increases the odds of capturing the perfect moment. It also allows gives you the option to delete the shots you don’t need. Just make sure that when you’re shooting in continuous mode you have enough light or a high enough ISO for a shutter speed of 1/125-second or faster. Fast shutter speeds not only help freeze subject motion, they allow for faster frame rates.
One of the major benefits of shooting with an EOS DSLR is that it’s designed to handle all the subtle variations of light you’re likely to encounter — so keep your eyes open for something other than average, every day, sunlight-over-your-shoulder lighting. For example, the indirect light you find in open shade or on an overcast day is soft and flattering. Side lighting creates dramatic contrasts between highlight and shadow. Backlight offers two choices: You can either expose for the bright background to hide your foreground subject in shadow (think of a silhouette) or you can expose for the foreground to lighten or “blow out” the background.
In addition to direction, light also has color: Think of the warm glow of sunset or candlelight, the cool look of open shade, or the slightly greenish tinge of fluorescents. Your camera’s white balance feature can either neutralize or emphasize them, all based on your preference. Similarly, you can use your camera’s Picture Style to adjust how it renders colors: from bright and snappy (Standard or Landscape), to soft and subdued (Neutral or Faithful), to even no color at all (Monochrome). There’s no right or wrong to any of this; it’s all a matter of what looks good to you and how it suits the mood you’re trying to capture.
Remember those characteristic expressions, gestures, postures, and behaviors I mentioned at the beginning? These are what you should be looking for. You’ll find them in the look in someone’s eyes, the tilt of their head, the way they purse their lips or place their hands on their hips. Your wife may have a characteristic way of blowing on her coffee to cool it before she takes a sip. Your husband may have a particular grimace he makes when the opposing team scores a goal. Images like these reveal a completely different and often more endearing side of a person than you’ll see in the typical posed shot. That said, if your subject notices you shooting and doesn’t mind, or even welcomes the attention, then by all means continue. Any direction you give should be as clear and encouraging as possible. For example, instead of saying “That looks goofy. Can you try to relax your face a little more?”, try something more like “You look amazing in this light. How about you drop your chin a little bit and just go back to doing what you were doing?” Remember, we all have our insecurities and everyone appreciates compliments and reassurance.
You’ll find that candid photography and the techniques I’ve listed here are best used to celebrate and share the moments of your life you want to remember most. Your photography should bring pleasure and other positive emotions. No photo is worth causing anger, embarrassment, or hurt feelings, so if someone asks you to stop, you should do so, immediately and without complaint — whether they’re a total stranger, or a close family member. But once be people see how great they look in your candid photos, any complaints are likely to be far outweighed by compliments on your photographic skills.
The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.
All images are copyright Gordon Lewis
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