A Quick Guide to Candid Photography

Come to think of it, don't go sneaking up behind people and popping paper bags, either.

Want to kill the mood and momentum at a party? Well, for starters, you could put Stockhausen on the stereo. Or you could walk around with your camera, and every time you see people in conversation, laughing, popping coconut shrimp into their mouths, or just standing pensively by the punch bowl, say, “Say cheese!” And of course, if the party’s noisy enough, you may find yourself saying it loudly and often enough (to the same person, no less) that people are shooting you uncomfortable glances. Capturing a smile on camera is one thing… capturing a rictus of surprise and displeasure that’s better suited to a Victorian death mask? Well, let’s just say those won’t be keepers.

The candid photograph is the antithesis of the forced or posed photo. What you’re doing instead is observing, waiting for the right time to get the right shot. Henri Cartier-Bresson (yes, him again) called it the “decisive moment,” that split second when a series of seemingly random things (people, their activities, their surroundings) converge at one photogenic point in time. As he put it to an interviewer, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

While we can pose our subjects, in effect creating those moments, the end result isn’t going to have the same panache or spontaneity as it would if we caught it on the fly. And really, Cartier-Bresson was far from being the only practitioner of spontaneous photography. Robert Frank, Robert Doisneu, Arthur Fellig (better known as Weegee) and a host of others have proven that some of the best photography comes from being on the periphery of the action, rather than inserting one’s self in the middle of it all.

As befits a style that’s rooted in spontaneity and simplicity, the techniques for good candids are uncomplicated.

  • Be unobtrusive: one more reason to always have your camera: the more often people, whether they’re in your family or in your neighborhood, see you with your gear, the more they get used to it and the less they think of it. You don’t have to hide in a duck blind to get good candids, you just have to blend in enough that your subjects aren’t self-conscious about the camera.
  • Travel light. A small camera helps, since you’ll look more like a tourist than a photographer. If you’re going to use an SLR, prime lenses help keep your kit light; barring that, use a smallish zoom. Likewise, carry your gear in something that doesn’t scream, “LOOK AT ALL MY EQUIPMENT!”
  • Shoot from the hip. If you’re using a lens that covers various focal lengths, there are two different ways to go; either to the “wide” end (18-24mm) to catch as much of the scene as possible, or “normal”* (40-50mm), which captures less breadth, but more detail. If you’re not going to be keeping an eye on your viewfinder or LCD, shoot multiples, since you’ll improve your chances of getting something worth keeping.
  • Check settings, making sure not only that your ISO/shutter/aperture are appropriate to where and what you’re shooting, but also that your camera’s onboard flash is turned off, and the camera’s sounds are either muted or quieted (you don’t need the autofocus beep, or the “shutter” sound that some manufacturers add to let you know that you have, in fact, taken a picture). If your camera has a quiet mode, use it.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings, not only for the scenery, but also for safety. If you’re getting nasty looks or a bad vibe, get the heck outta Dodge.
  • Get shots of people doing things. Whether they’re gutting fish, busking, talking and laughing, or even just reading, people look the most natural when they’re just in their element, being themselves and doing their own thing.
  • You’re trying to capture the essence of the moment, not prettify it. Resist the urge to start rearranging things. If something in the scene doesn’t work – the lighting’s “off,” the background’s distracting, the level of excitement isn’t what you’d like – move along.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also pause for a second to address the ethics of candid photography. For starters, be honest (they’re not called “Candids” for nothing). It’s one thing to blend in and be stealthy, but it’s something else altogether to be flat-out dishonest if someone asks what you’re doing. On a related note, don’t stalk people. Be extra careful shooting kids, or even shooting around them. If you’re not sure about your subject, regardless of age or circumstances, ask permission, and honor whatever answer you get. Be aware of local customs and attitudes; if you’re somewhere very unfamiliar, travel with someone who knows the lay of the land and can not only advise you, but also make introductions if that’d be helpful. Most of all, don’t be “That creep with the camera.”

To make photos that get attention, sometimes the last thing you want or need to do is to draw attention to yourself. Let your vision shine through in your photos, but be mindful of the fact that sometimes, the harder you work to get the scene to conform to what you’d like it to be, your photos end up being more about you than they are about what you’re photographing. Let the events and people be what they will; be present, observe, and let the pics fall where they may.

*A “Normal Lens” is called that because its field of vision closely approximates what the human eye sees. This is about 40mm on a 35mm (or Full Frame) camera. 50mm lenses also tend to be lumped into this category. On an APS-C camera (a.k.a. a “cropped sensor,” because its sensor size is smaller than a frame of 35mm film), your lens behaves as though it’s got a magnification factor of about 1.5 times (Nikon, Pentax, Sony) or 1.6 times (Canon), so 28mm acts like 40mm, and 35mm acts closer to 5omm. This is great at the “long” end of a telephoto (at 300mm, you’re getting what amounts to 450mm), but it’s a pain in the ass if you’re trying to shoot wide-angle, since 18mm (where most kit lenses, and even some of the more expensive ones, start) is effectively 24mm, which is wide, but not that wide. On the off chance that this all sounds like gobbledeygook and your head’s starting to hurt, the easiest things to do would be either a: go to your local camera shop, try out the lenses, and see what works for you, or b: try your kit lens at different focal lengths, and get used to what each does to your photos. I’ll be covering lenses in a later post.