In this article, I explain everything you need to know for stunning candid portraits, including:
- My favorite ways to find candid portrait subjects
- How to capture candid portraiture without intimidating your subject
- How to develop your skills in a fun, easy way
So let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:
What is candid portrait photography?
Candid portraits are images taken when the subject is unaware of the photographer.
Note that you don’t have to remain totally invisible to capture candid portraits. As long as the subject doesn’t realize you’re taking their photo, you can create great candid images.
You’ll often find street photographers capturing close-up candid portraits of passersby, but the style applies to plenty of other genres as well, including documentary-style wedding photography and lifestyle photography. In fact, even professional studio portrait photographers can capture candids when their subject is relaxing between poses.
By the way, it’s worth emphasizing that candid portraits can – and often should – be done with permission. You can talk with your subject, let them know that you’d like to take their photo, then wait for them to relax. That’s when you’ll get a great candid shot!
Candid portrait photography tips
In this section, I share my best tips and techniques for candid portraits.
1. Look for expressions that capture character
If you want to capture beautiful candid images, don’t simply set your camera to burst mode and fire away. Instead, watch your potential subject. And wait for a meaningful expression – one that really sums up their personality.
For instance, if you’re hoping to capture a nice candid shot of a fashion model, you might engage in some regular photography. Ask them to pose normally, to make their standard expressions, while you shoot.
But then, when you take short breaks from shooting, pay attention. Wait for those moments when your model is relaxed. And ask yourself: How do they behave when the camera isn’t pointing at them? How do they respond when you speak with them? What expressions do you notice? What unconscious gestures do they make?
When you see an expression that truly encapsulates their personality, capture it!
2. Make the most of random encounters
I remember my first evening taking photos in Bolivia. It was late afternoon, quickly fading to dusk, and the streets were lit by a soft red glow.
I raised my camera to take a photo of a mud-brick building. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small boy running down the street. He passed in front of the camera, stopped, turned toward me, and started waving his hands in the air. He obviously wanted to be in a photo, and a few seconds later, he was joined by an older boy, presumably his brother, who also posed. Then they continued on down the street and beckoned me along.
Curious, I followed, and they led me to a car parked around the corner, where their father was waiting for them. They explained what had happened, and then the father asked me to take a photo of all of them together. He was a little drunk, and he even invited me to their house for dinner. I politely declined, but I did take this image:
Is the portrait candid? I think so. The subjects knew I had a camera, but they were acting naturally, and I didn’t pose them. Regardless, the lesson is still a good one:
When you’re traveling and people are friendly, take advantage of the photo opportunities! Be open to random encounters. Recognize the possibilities that can arise.
At the very least, you will have some new stories to tell.
3. Use a small camera and lens
Technically, you can do candid portraiture with any gear, from a huge, hulking medium-format camera to a tiny smartphone device.
But my advice, based on a lot of experience, is to keep your setup as small as possible.
You see, the larger your camera and lens, the more you’ll stand out as a photographer. If you’re trying to document a wedding, your subjects will notice you before you get a chance to shoot. If you’re trying to do candid portraiture on the street, people will see you coming from a mile off and turn away.
Plus, large equipment is intimidating. A friend of mine is an experienced model, and she told me – after a shoot in which I used a small mirrorless camera and a small lens – that the smaller setup helped her feel more relaxed. She didn’t feel as much pressure to be a good model.
Even if you’re doing a mixture of posed and candid photography, a smaller camera will keep the subject more relaxed overall, which will mean more opportunities for wonderful candid frames!
That’s why I recommend using a setup like this one:
And if you find that slimming down your setup makes a big difference, go smaller! Purchase a small point-and-shoot camera, or even switch to your smartphone. (These days, smartphone cameras are capable of pretty impressive images, so don’t let technical concerns hold you back!)
4. Ask for permission – and explain why
If you’re just starting out with candid portrait photography, you may feel uncomfortable shooting people that you don’t know – such as street performers, diners, and even passersby.
My recommendation? Ask for permission, and when you do, clearly state a good reason.
First of all, giving people a reason makes them more likely to accept. You don’t seem like a random stalker if you explain why you want to photograph them, even if the reason is trivial.
Plus, if you have a reason in mind, asking for permission becomes far easier. You’ll feel justified in your approach, and so you’ll feel less awkward and shy.
For example, a few weeks ago I visited a blacksmith’s forge. The smiths there do demonstrations of older techniques for the visiting public, and I simply asked if I could take some photos while the smith was doing his demonstration. The smiths had zero issues with my request, and the result is a natural candid portrait of someone at work:
Another example: At Carnival in Cádiz, there were lots of people dressed in costume but only a few with face paint. When I saw somebody with interesting face paint, I explained that I really liked their makeup, and I asked if I could take a photo or two. In each case, the person agreed, I waited for a natural expression, then grabbed an image. Here’s one of my favorites:
5. Start a candid portraiture project
If you’re looking to really expand your candid portrait horizons, then instead of capturing random shots, I encourage you to start a project.
That way, you can tackle candid portraiture on a regular basis, and you can really dig in and elevate your skills.
The project doesn’t have to be especially complex, but it should have a clear theme or angle. For instance, you could photograph people at the park, you could photograph supermarket workers, or you could photograph cyclists.
Once you’ve identified your project topic, research your subject, figure out how to best take candid shots, and make a significant effort to shoot regularly. (Note that your project doesn’t need to only feature candid images. But if you’re looking to improve your candid portraiture, I do recommend you shoot candids whenever possible.)
Early last year, I thought it would be interesting to take some photos of people practicing parkour; this became my project idea, and I got in touch with some local traceurs through a Facebook group. Some of them were interested in a shoot, so we went out into the streets of Wellington, and they showed me parkour. I took photos and portraits as we went along. It was easy to create candid portraits because they were enjoying what they were doing and having fun!
6. Take photos of friends doing interesting things
If you’re struggling to find subjects for your candid portraits, try looking close to home.
You see, friends – and even family – are great candid photography subjects. For one, they know you, and so they’re more likely to be relaxed in your presence. Plus, you can have a fun portrait session that combines candid photography and socializing!
As I emphasized above, you’ll need to be observant, and you’ll need to snap photos when your subject isn’t paying attention to the camera, when they’ve let their guard down. It can be tough to talk with someone and take candid images, but if you’re focused, you can do it!
A piece of advice: When you tell your subject about your interest in candid portraits, set a clear theme. If your subject likes cycling, ask them to bring their bike, and prepare to take some candid portraits of a cyclist in action. And if your subject likes to play music, ask them to bring a guitar, and photograph them as they strum a few chords.
For example, a friend of mine made her own gypsy caravan. I thought it was a fantastic tiny space project, so once it was finished, I asked her if I could take some photos. She sat outside and played guitar, we talked about the project, and I made a few candid portraits:
Candid portrait photography tips: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture some beautiful candid portrait images.
So remember the tips that I’ve shared. Take some photos. And, above all, have fun!
Now over to you:
What type of candid portraits do you hope to take? Do you have any subjects in mind? Share your thoughts in the comments below!