Candid Photography: How to Surprise Your Subject

Candid photography has many advantages over standard, posed portrait photography. Candid photographs can look more natural, capturing the spirit of a personality much more accurately than a staged portrait. The challenge is how to surprise your photo subject without invading their privacy or otherwise making a nuisance of yourself. Although some camera lenses can help, there's no need to hide; the best technique involves a personal approach, without a camera between you and your subject.

Candids vs. Posing

Many photographers prefer candid photos to standard posed portraits. The difference is analogous to seeing someone at home or seeing them at the office. For posed portraits, people will dress their best, put on makeup and project a smile no matter what they’re really feeling. Candids, on the other hand, often catch people in their own element, dressed casually, acting naturally and sometimes unaware they are being photographed. Even if the subjects aren’t looking at the camera, candid photos can capture beautiful images of unique personalities.

Long Distance

A very long lens can aid candid photography; your subject’s not likely to notice you if you’re standing 90 feet away. However, at closer distances an unusually large lens can be a liability, drawing attention to you and making your subjects self-conscious, whether it’s pointed at them or not. Many digital cameras have zoom lenses that are more than adequate for most candids and won’t make you stand out, since digital cameras and camera phones are a common sight.

Up Close

When you see your photo subject in a good candid pose, point your camera at them and compose your shot. It’s often advisable to go ahead and take a picture or two while they’re in the moment. Then, if you know them, call out their name. As soon as they look over at you, click the shutter. This way, you’ve still got them in the pose you like, but they are looking at the camera. Often, as soon as they realize they’re being photographed, they will compose themselves or otherwise change position.

Make a Connection

Obviously, this works best with people you know. (Photographing strangers is riskier, as you never know how someone will react to being photographed; in some cases, for example news photography, it is of course necessary.) If your camera has a viewscreen, take a moment to show your photo subject a good picture you’ve taken of them. This will often put them at ease with the presence of your camera. Offer to give them prints or post copies to their social networking pages. People can have mixed reactions to being the subject of a surprise photo, but if they can relate to you as a person, they’re less likely to take offense.

Night Shots

In low-light situations, the flash can be the candid photographer’s worst enemy. Practice taking pictures with the flash cancelled, using available light. This will require a very steady hand, a higher ISO and a stationary subject; plan to take lots of shots before you get a good one. Available light also adds to a picture’s natural feel, but in some cases, this simply isn’t possible. If you absolutely must use a flash for a candid shot, compose it carefully. Chances are, you’ll only get one opportunity. As soon as that bright light goes off, your photo subject will be aware of you and your camera; surprising them with a candid shot will no longer be an option.