A guide to taking better candid photos

Manna Marquez
Manna Marquez

Like any other art form, photography is about telling stories. And what better way to convey the most intimate parts of a story than through candid photos?

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Photo by Mohammad Gh

Candid photos are perhaps the most natural form of storytelling. They focus on spontaneity rather than technique, atmosphere instead of production, and context rather than explicit messages.

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Photo by Sharon Christina Rørvik

But taking candid photos isn’t all that easy. You can snap photos of just about anyone, but that’s not to say they will always tell a story. The next time you take candid photos, try these tips to start shooting like a pro.

01. Use burst mode

Every photographer knows that it takes tons of tries to capture that one perfect shot, and this is especially true for candid photos.

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Photo by Chris Brignola
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Photo by Ben White

Put your camera on burst mode to capture the moments in-between: romantic glances, unbridled laughter, or simmering tension. If you keep your camera and controls correct at all times, you can jump straight into taking continuous photos instead of fiddling with settings.

02. Practice in environments that lend themselves well to candids

Take your camera to areas with lots of action—markets, city streets, train stations, festivals, parties and places of work are all good places to start. Here, you’ll learn to work with natural or ambient lighting, interact with a wide range of subjects, and have lots of options for moments as people are already busy doing things.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo
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Photo by Klaus Tan

If you’re shooting in public, however, ask permission beforehand in case you’re unsure about how your subject will react. If you want to practice with people you know, try shooting them in a place they are familiar with. This way, you can focus on capturing candid shots rather than spending extra time ensuring your subjects are comfortable.

03. Blend in

The relaxed nature of candid photos demands that photographers blend in with their environment. Move around constantly without being intrusive and don’t make eye contact with your subjects—try looking at something directly behind them instead, so they don’t become self-conscious about being photographed.

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Photo by Huy Phan
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Photo by Wang Xi

Make full use of your camera’s zoom or opt for a telephoto lens to maintain more personal space between you and your subject. Avoid using the flash or any extra lighting equipment to retain a casual feel. If possible, don’t jump to shooting your subjects right away, especially in a public place; take photos of surrounding elements first to keep things informal.

04. Pay attention to details

Candid photos may be spur-of-the-moment, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect the details.

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Photo by Fabio Neo Amato
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Photo by Xavier Pearson

Beginners can practice by focusing on shooting faces, hands and posture as these are often the most expressive and reveal people’s emotions. You can zoom in on or highlight objects that help convey the subject’s personality and feelings, like an engagement ring, a child’s favorite toy, or someone’s outfit.

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Photo by Bui Bao

You can also try cropping or focusing on unexpected parts of the scene to convey a powerful but otherwise overlooked part of the story.

05. Look for contrast

Understanding the context and dynamics of a scene will enable you to create a mental shot list of potential moments to capture. Keep your eye out for interesting and unguarded situations.

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Photo by Manuel Pena
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Photo by Joshua Watson

Contrast is a good place to start: watch out for the solitary moments in social situations, the presence of a colorful character, or the unspoken relationship between secondary subjects who are not the main focus of the shoot.  

06. Pre-compose the shot

If you’re in a good spot, try to imagine a potential composition and be prepared to shoot when subjects enter the frame or interact with the surroundings. Subjects walking, standing, or sitting against rich colors, contrasts, or patterns in the background can be enough to create the visual interest you need.

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Photo by Dakota Corbin
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Photo by Ryan Stefan

Alternatively, you can opt to put yourself in the middle of the action, so people will enter your personal space rather than vice-versa. When your subjects naturally come to you, you can take closer and less intimidating candid photos.

07. Make your subjects comfortable

It can be tough for people to warm up to having a photographer around, so build rapport before attempting actual photos.

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Photo by Nathan Anderson

Try asking your subjects about the occasion, each other, or even the location in order to build rapport. Their stories may even help you pick up on relevant elements in your surroundings that will help you compose some of your shots.

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Photo by Shalom Mwenesi

Another trick is to give your subjects easy actions, such as having couples hold hands, friends tell jokes, or children play with pets. This will guide your subjects into natural interactions and help them ignore the camera altogether.

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Photo by Nathan Hanna

Don’t forget to mind your energy throughout—if you’re hesitant and awkward, your subjects will pick up on this and be the same way!  

08. Use different perspectives

Apart from being more noticeable, taking eye-level shots all the time dampens the dynamic nature of candid photos. Use different perspectives to enhance the mood and be less invasive.

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Photo by Johanna Dahlberg
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Photo by Palon Youth

Shoot from the hip, crouch and get low, or go up high and shoot from overhead. You can include foreground elements or keep the subject out of focus to show you’re snapping from a certain perspective.

09. Recreate moments

Sometimes your eye will catch something good, but your camera will miss it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t capture a still-candid-looking photo. Don’t hesitate to ask your subjects to recreate the shot. 

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Photo by Maria Ballesteros

Chances are you’ll come away with great photos even during the process of your subjects trying to orchestrate the photo.

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Photo by Sebastián León Prado

A great candid photo has the ability to transport viewers to the very moment it was captured, creating a feeling of intense personal connection to the subject. Taking photos that are compelling yet simple, unplanned, and non-technical can be challenging. But with practice, patience, and a bit of luck, anyone can learn how to tell the most authentic of stories through the energy and rawness of a candid photograph.