Candid Photography: A Guide to Capturing Authentic Images

Arguably the most remarkable aspect of photography is its capacity for capturing moments in time. Candid photography takes that aspect a step further—capturing the emotions, sentiments, and genuine reactions of the subjects being photographed.

This guide will explain what candid photography is and what gear you’ll need to capture the popular style. Plus, we’ll cover some of the top tips for capturing truly authentic images for your clients and portfolio.

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What is candid photography?

Candid photography is a type of portraiture that seeks to capture authentic emotions and reactions from the subjects being photographed. Candid photography is similar to documentary photography in that the photographer takes a hands-off, fly-on-the-wall approach to shooting. Images are not posed and no direction is given to the subject. Unlike documentary photography that tells a story, however, candid photography captures the emotion in the story being told.

Candid vs. lifestyle photography

Candid photography is also similar to lifestyle photography in that it captures people (or pets) in real-life situations and in a visually appealing way. But, unlike lifestyle photography, subjects aren’t staged at a pre-selected location and the photographer minimally interacts with their subject.

Candid photography has become increasingly popular in recent years as a way to commemorate not just moments in time. But the emotion felt during those moments. Professional candid photographers commonly work at weddings, birthdays, and other milestone events. Or, they may be hired to capture “a day in the life” of a family at home. Whatever the moment being captured, an effective candid photographer will capture the genuine, unexpected in-between moments that posed portraits simply can’t.

Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

Although candid photography has a photojournalistic vibe to the images, they aren’t generally taken in secrecy or without some planning and skill. But, before we dive further into the details, let’s take a look at how candid photography came to exist at all. 

History of candid photography

Although camera photography was invented in the early 1820’s, early cameras required at least 8 hours, sometimes several days, of exposure time to capture a single crude image. More than a decade later, technology had advanced to the point that detailed images could be captured in only several minutes of exposure time, meaning a person would have to remain perfectly still for up to 30-minutes to be captured in any meaningful detail. Although lenses and exposure times were improved, cameras remained slow and unwieldy for decades. But in 1888, with George Eastman’s invention of the Kodak, widespread candid photography was born.

The Kodak was small, fast, and affordable. For the first time, cameras were easily portable. The camera could be taken to the subject rather than the subject posing in front of the camera. Although they had a fixed-focus lens and a single shutter speed, the Kodak made it possible to capture un-posed, authentic portraiture with relative detail and clarity. Naturally, people used them to photograph friends, family, and life around them as it happened.

Photo via National Science and Media Museum on Flickr

Today, candid photography is among the most popular types around. From cell phone camera snapshots to professional shoots at special events, candid photography has infiltrated our lives and every corner of the world. Still, as a professional photographer, you want your candid shots to stand out, to capture meaningful moments and memories for your clients. For that, you’ll need the right camera, lenses, tools, and techniques.

What’s the best camera for candid photography?

As a candid photographer, you won’t need the most feature-rich camera or the latest gadgets and gear. What you’ll need is an unobtrusive setup with few essential features and a thorough understanding of how to best use your camera for the scenario in which you’re shooting.

Your camera should be fast and accurate in both focusing and recording images. Because you’ll shoot in a variety of locations and lighting conditions, it should be able to shoot at high ISOs. And, depending on the events you’re shooting, may need a high frame rate (fps) to avoid missing any action.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

Mirrorless cameras are an excellent choice for candid photography because of their fast and silent shutters and simplicity of use. If you have one with an articulating LCD screen, it’ll be more convenient when “shooting from the hip.” DSLRs may be more comfortable to grip for long periods and provide accurate, real-time information in their optical viewfinders—an important aspect when hoping to capture genuine emotion or reactions of your subject.

What is the best lens for candid photography?

Because of the nature of candid photography, you’ll want a lens that best captures the events unfolding in front of you, without requiring you to be on top of your subjects. The presence of a camera alone can sometimes affect the way people behave or react to events. Often, people feel self-conscious or uncomfortable when they know they’re being photographed.

A 70-200mm zoom will allow you to keep a comfortable distance from your subjects while still allowing you to zoom in for crystal clear close-ups without physically moving in and out of the shot. If you’re shooting an event and able to mingle and blend in with the crowd. A 50mm lens will require getting a little closer to the action but will allow you to take shots that offer a beautiful depth of field without distortion.

Or, you may choose to shoot scenes with a wide-angle lens. Just be sure to keep your subject as close to the center as possible, as shooting below a 28mm focal length will distort their appearance.

Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels

Other candid photography gear

Because candid photography captures real, authentic moments in time, you won’t need artificial lighting, flashes, or reflectors. And, because you’ll capture movement, reactions, and life as it happens, a tripod would only get in the way. But, that doesn’t mean you should show up to the job empty handed. Extra memory cards and batteries should be a staple in any photography bag, especially candid photographers who will generally snap many more shots than posed and studio shots.

Camera settings for candid photography

As a candid photographer, there are a lot of things completely out of your control—your subjects, the lighting, what’s happening in the background. To capture the best photos, understanding your camera’s settings and being adept at changing them quickly is essential.

  • Set your camera to aperture-priority mode in low light situations or to shutter-priority when shooting action. Since you’ll need to be ready to shoot at all times, using these modes will minimize the number of settings you’ll need to adjust for each shot.
  • Use a large aperture (a small f/number) to produce a shallow depth of field. This will isolate your subject from the background. Use a small aperture (a large f/number) to focus over a longer distance and keep more of your background in focus.
  • Use a fast shutter speed if you’re photographing moving subjects and want to freeze the action. Or slow the shutter speed to capture the movement blur.
  • Increase your ISO when shooting in low-light situations or decrease your ISO when shooting in bright light. But, always keep your ISO as low as possible to reduce noise and avoid grain.
  • Set your camera to burst mode to take multiple successive shots. This will make it much easier to capture the unexpected, in-between moments and expressions that make candid photography so special.
Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

5 Tips for candid photographers

There are no hard and fast rules for candid photographers. Every photographer will naturally develop their own style and technique over time. However, there are a number of tips and tricks that you’ll want to consider.

Try to blend in or go unnoticed

Just being in front of a camera can make some people uncomfortable. The presence of a camera alone can cause people to behave differently than normal, altering the natural course of events. Because candid photography seeks to capture authenticity and real, honest emotion, you’ll need to try your best to blend in or become invisible to your subjects. You can do this by using a zoom lens and keeping your distance or by mingling with your subjects to become one of them. Another great way to go unnoticed is by shooting from the hip.

Always be ready to shoot

With experience, you may learn to anticipate when something photo-worthy is going to happen. Even then, it’s important to always be ready to shoot. Because candid photographers are tasked with capturing the genuine moments between the posed shots, it’s essential to always have your camera in hand and your finger on the shutter.

Photo by Jana Sabeth on Unsplash

Frame subjects with the foreground

Because a candid photographer can’t alter the scene or set up a shot with the perfect background and foreground, A clever technique in candid photography is to use elements in the foreground to frame your subjects. Shooting past a shoulder, through a window or doorway, or below a tree branch can help to frame your subject. It also adds to the candid, genuine quality of the image.

Keep snapping

Candid photography, in general, will require the photographer to snap many more shots than other styles of portraiture. We aren’t recommending you simply “spray and pray” at an event and hope for a few good shots, of course. Frame your subjects, look for good composition, pay attention to lighting, and know how to operate your camera efficiently—then, keep snapping.

Photo by Nathan Bingle on Unsplash

Be flexible

As a candid photographer, you’ll be entirely uninvolved in setting up your shot. As a result, those moments you hope to capture won’t always present themselves under the perfect lighting or with beautiful background scenery. In addition to being skilled in shooting under a variety of conditions, you’ll need to be flexible. You may be shooting a backlit subject one moment and a frontlit subject the next. In one moment you could shoot an entire room of people, then zoom in for a close-up of someone in the crowd. Be ready to change your camera settings in the blink of an eye and be flexible in what, when, and how you photograph your subjects.

Editing candid photos

Very rarely will a professional photographer consider an image complete without at least some post-processing. In candid photography, however, editing images should be kept to a minimum. You may crop an image to improve composition or correct color, white balance, or contrast. But, remember that candid photography is meant to capture genuine emotion and expression. Retouching, manipulation, and excessive editing will diminish the integrity of your images.

Photo by Leighann Blackwood on Unsplash

Final thoughts

While most photographers strive to have their work described as technically perfect, beautifully focused, well-lit, or shot with an impeccable composition, candid photographers strive for something a little different. Spontaneous and genuine, raw and emotional, expressive and honest—these are all terms used to describe the best candid photos. Remember, your job as a candid photographer is not just to capture a moment, but to capture the real, authentic sentiment of the moment, too.

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Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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