Ready to take perfect candid photos? Our expert advice will help you master unposed photography in any setting.
Candid photography is a great way to capture spontaneous, honest images, the type of shots that tell real stories about their subjects. But taking candid photos can be difficult – even stressful – especially if you’ve never done it before.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tips and techniques that pro-level candid photographers use to get consistently great results, and in this article, I aim to share them all, including:
- How to photograph without drawing attention to yourself
- A simple technique to keep your subjects acting natural (even once they’ve noticed you)
- The right candid photography settings and gear for sharp, well-exposed images
I also cover the basics, including what candid photography is and whether it’s legal. So if you’re ready to add that authentic feel to photos you take of loved ones, portrait subjects, street scenes, wedding shots, and more, let’s dive right in!
What is candid photography?
Candid photography is any photo that captures an authentic, unposed moment. It’s about preserving genuine expressions, emotions, and interactions without any forced poses or awareness of the camera. Instead of arranging the scene or instructing subjects to pose, candid photography aims to document life as it unfolds organically.
In this style of photography, images are often taken while subjects are often engrossed in their activities or simply being themselves. The photographer’s role is to observe and seize those fleeting, authentic moments that reveal the true essence of the subject.
That said, some candid photos are taken with the subject’s awareness. During a wedding, for instance, guests often know that the camera is pointed in their direction, but they still act naturally, resulting in beautiful candid shots. The key here is the authenticity of the photo; whether or not the subject knows they’re being photographed, if the image is authentic, then it’s a candid shot.
When is candid photography useful?
Candid photography is incredibly useful in various situations and genres, allowing you to capture spontaneous and natural moments. Here are some instances where candid photography shines:
- Portrait photography: Candid portraits offer a wonderful authenticity compared to posed shots. They effectively capture the true essence of your subject. During a portrait session, you can encourage your subjects to act naturally or engage in activities, discreetly photographing them as they do. You can also seize candid opportunities between poses or while transitioning from one location to another.
- Wedding and event photography: Candid wedding and event photography is very popular – and for good reason! These occasions present a multitude of possibilities, from capturing the bride getting ready to the groom adjusting his tie, and guests enjoying themselves at the reception. Candid shots in these scenarios are often effortless and stress-free, as the subjects are typically accepting of the camera’s presence while being engrossed in the main event.
- Street photography: Almost all street photography relies on candid shots taken without the subject’s consent. The goal of a street photographer is to remain unnoticed, capturing individuals in their natural states. Street candids can encompass wide street landscapes, interactions between a few subjects, or a solitary person lost in thought, walking through the rain, or simply observing their surroundings.
- Travel photography: When exploring different destinations, candid shots can help depict the unique essence of a place. Travel candid photography often resembles street photography, highlighting the people, clothing, lighting, and architecture that make a location distinctive.
Is it legal to take candid photos?
While candid photography without consent is generally legal in many places, such as the United States, the rules can vary depending on your location. It’s crucial to check the laws of the specific place where you plan to do candid photography to avoid any legal trouble.
That said, candid photography with consent is widely accepted and legal almost everywhere. This means that if you’re in an area where shooting without consent is prohibited, you can still capture some fantastic candid shots by simply asking for permission first. Once your subject agrees, you can take photos as they naturally go about their activities.
How to take stunning candid photos: 16 tips and tricks
Struggling to take the kind of candid shots you can be proud of? Here are 16 tips to instantly improve your photos:
1. Take your camera everywhere
The best way to take spontaneous photos? Always have a camera! That way, when the moment presents itself, you can quickly flick the On button, snag a few shots, and (if all goes well!) get a great result.
When I’m on a shoot, I’ll use my DSLR – but when I’m between shoots, I carry a point-and-shoot camera. If I see a good opportunity, I’ll whip it out and capture the scene. Of course, you don’t need to head out and buy an expensive second body – these days, smartphone cameras are very high quality and more than adequate for most candid photography.
Also, taking a camera everywhere helps people become more comfortable with you taking their photo. I find that my friends and family just expect me to have my camera out, so when I do fire it up, it’s not a signal to pose, it’s just a normal part of our interaction. And when I do take an image or two, the subjects are relaxed and the photos look natural.
2. Use a long focal length
To capture candid photography without being noticed, try shooting with a long lens – a 135mm prime, an 18-200mm zoom, or a 70-200mm zoom, for instance. As you’ve probably already guessed, the farther you are from your subject, the less likely they are to know that you’re taking pictures, and the more natural and relaxed they’ll act.
Depending on the environment, though, a long lens can be pretty noticeable, and it may actually make people feel uncomfortable (like they’re being spied on). So choose your lens wisely, and if you are concerned about people’s reactions, consider picking your most compact zoom.
That way, you can get your candid shots from outside people’s personal space, you can go unnoticed, and you can maintain a feeling of intimacy in your compositions.
3. Kill the flash
Perhaps the most obvious way you can signal to another person that you’re photographing them? Using a flash (especially the flash on the top of your camera!). After all, there’s nothing like a blinding flash of light to get people’s attention and kill a moment.
You’ll get a brighter exposure, and you’ll avoid making your subject uncomfortable.
4. Wait for your subject to look away or drop their pose
Capturing the perfect candid shot often requires a bit of patience and keen observation. When photographing subjects who are highly aware of your presence, such as during portrait sessions or events, it can be challenging to capture their genuine, natural expressions.
Here’s what you can do: Instead of hurriedly turning away when your subject notices you, simply give them a warm smile or act as though you’re adjusting your camera settings. You may keep their attention for a moment, but after a few beats, something magical will happen:
As they become absorbed in the flow of the activity around them, they’ll forget about your presence and start acting naturally once again. That’s when you seize the opportunity, swiftly raise your camera to your eye, and capture that spontaneous, unposed shot.
5. Take a lot of images
Back in the film days, it was important to conserve your photos. But if you use a digital camera (and I’m guessing you do!), there’s no real need to hold back; instead, be aggressive with your shooting. Don’t be afraid to take many images of the same subject.
In fact, I’ve found that, when shooting a burst of images of a person, I can sometimes get some surprising and spontaneous shots that I’d never have captured otherwise.
So switch your camera to its continuous shooting mode (i.e., burst mode), and fire off several shots at once. You’ll significantly increase your chances of capturing an unexpectedly perfect candid image.
6. Position yourself strategically
While candid photography is all about capturing the spontaneity of a moment and getting a perfect shot during that split second of time, if you think ahead and anticipate what is about to unfold, you can increase your chances of success.
So at a wedding, get to the church early (or even go to the rehearsal) and think about what will happen during the ceremony. Where should you stand to capture each moment? Which way will people be facing? What will they be doing? What will the light be like?
If you ask these questions in advance, you won’t waste time running around and repositioning yourself when the action happens. And you’ll be in the perfect spot to capture candid moments when they do occur.
7. Shoot through store and restaurant windows
If you’re eager to capture candid street photos but concerned about drawing attention, here’s a cool little technique: Shoot through windows of stores and restaurants. It’s a fantastic way to photograph without disturbing the natural flow of the scene.
Take a stroll through a bustling area in a nearby city, keeping an eye out for interesting subjects. As you walk, glance through the windows of establishments you pass by. Often, people inside are absorbed in their activities and don’t notice what’s happening outside, which gives you the perfect opportunity to discreetly capture candid moments.
Make sure your camera settings are adjusted to handle the lower lighting conditions indoors. When you spot a captivating subject worth photographing, swiftly raise your camera, seize the candid shot, and continue on your way!
8. Photograph people doing things
Personally, I find that images of people doing things are much more interesting than images of people sitting around doing nothing. And they tend to feature more natural compositions, too.
For one, your subject will be focused on something that adds energy to a photo. It also adds context and an element of storytelling (plus, it’ll take the focus off of you!).
Timing is everything in candid photography, so wait until your subject is fully focused on their activity. This will inject a feeling of authenticity into your shots, where your subject is unaware and the viewer can look on unseen.
Note that your subject doesn’t need to be doing something especially involved or complex – they might be dancing, talking, playing a game, etc.
9. Get your subject to interact with the environment
If you’re doing a portrait photoshoot and you want to capture some candid images, it can be a challenge to make your subject feel relaxed and act natural, especially if you’ve spent the first half of the session taking posed shots. Fortunately, you can often speed the process along by encouraging your subject to look away from the camera and engage with their surroundings.
Imagine you’re in a picturesque park. Instead of simply instructing your subject to stand and smile, invite them to have some fun with the environment around them. Encourage them to scramble up a gentle slope, lean down to catch the scent of a blooming flower, or take a joyful run down a winding forest path.
If you’re shooting in an urban setting, suggest climbing a flight of steps, gazing up at stunning architectural wonders, or even waving to people passing by. The key is to inspire your subject to interact with their surroundings naturally.
By redirecting their focus from the camera to the environment, you’ll create a relaxed atmosphere where your subject can genuinely express themselves. As they engage with the surroundings, their gestures, expressions, and body language will become more authentic, resulting in captivating candid shots that truly reflect their personality.
Remember, the more your subject immerses themselves in the environment, the less self-conscious they’ll feel about being photographed!
10. Photograph people with people
When you photograph more than one person at a time, something very interesting happens:
You introduce a relationship into the photo. Even if the two (or more) people aren’t really interacting, you’ll still get increased depth and a sense of story.
Of course, the ideal candid compositions will have some interaction between your subjects, as that will add emotion to the shot – but even without interaction, you can still capture some stunning images.
11. Shoot from the hip
Here’s a quick tip for shooting unnoticed, courtesy of street photographers:
Choose a relatively wide lens, such as a 35mm. Set your camera’s shutter to its quietest setting. Position the camera down low, either at chest height or at your hip.
And then, when your subject moves into position, fire off a burst of shots without raising the camera to your eye.
This technique can be very hit or miss, and you may want to think about zone focusing (where you prefocus your lens and use a narrow aperture for a deep depth of field). But when it works, it really works – your subject remains completely unaware of your presence, they don’t tense up or act unnatural, and you get your candid images.
12. Pretend to be photographing behind your subject
If you’re out on the street and spot a fantastic subject you want to capture candidly, play the role of a tourist. Act as if you’re photographing the broader scene: the bustling street, the picturesque park, or the city skyline. Aim your camera in different directions as though you’re contemplating various expansive compositions.
By adopting this approach, your intended candid subject will often ignore you completely. And even if they do notice, they’ll likely assume you’re photographing something else and continue going about their business. It’s a clever way to blend in and capture those authentic moments without drawing unnecessary attention.
13. Change your perspective
Photos taken from standing height can look fine, and sure, there are plenty of great shots taken with the camera held in that eye-level area. But if you want to mix things up and capture some truly striking photos, why not change your perspective?
For instance, get down low and shoot upward, or find a nice vantage point and shoot downward. You can climb stairs, walk over bridges, crouch on the ground – whatever you need to do to get the photo (while staying unnoticed).
Also, if you do like the low-angle shot but feel uncomfortable crouching while doing candid photography (it is somewhat attention-grabbing, after all!), try shooting from the hip (as discussed above). While your shots may turn out crooked, it’s an interesting effect that some photographers like and can lend a sense of randomness and realness to a scene.
14. Watch your backgrounds
When capturing candid photos, it’s easy to become hyper-focused on the people in the scene. However, it’s important to remember that while candid shots are all about the subject, the background plays a crucial role, too. A distracting or cluttered background can draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject and diminish the impact of the photo.
So before pressing the shutter, take a moment to assess the background. Ensure the backdrop features non-distracting elements, such as a stand of trees or a clean brick wall. And if your subject happens to be positioned in front of a problematic backdrop, don’t fret. Simply adjust your angle and position to find a better perspective!
Alternatively, you can also use a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field, which will naturally blur out any distracting elements in the background. However, keep in mind that this technique works best when you are relatively close to your subject.
15. Frame images with foreground elements
If you want to create more three-dimensional, layered compositions, I highly recommend composing with your subject as the focal point – but then including an element in the foreground, such as a tree, a person’s shoulder, the frame of a doorway, a window, etc.
Feel free to get creative. The point is to add a foreground element that can contribute context and depth to the shot, but you can have fun widening your aperture for out-of-focus foreground bokeh.
The ultimate goal is to create that sense of standing outside looking in. It’s a great complement to a candid moment, and when done well, can add a sense of mystery to the composition.
16. Take posed shots into candid territory
It may sound strange, but one of my favorite times to shoot candid images is when other photographers are taking formal ones.
Why? Well, during posed images, everyone is focused on the directing photographer, not you. So if, for instance, a wedding photographer is shooting a series of posed images, you can capture some wonderful candid moments simply by standing off to the side and taking a few images of your own.
I’d also recommend zooming in with a telephoto lens to capture more intimate scenes, and you might also try zooming right out to get shots of the subject plus the photographer.
By the way, if you’re the only photographer at an event or photoshoot, and you’re the one taking the posed shots, I’d recommend continuing to shoot after everyone thinks you’ve finished. It’s often these shots – captured moments after the posed images end – that look the best, because people relax, smile naturally, laugh, and look at each other.
A guide to candid photography: final words
Hopefully, you now feel much more confident as a candid photographer, and you’re ready to start taking some beautiful shots of your own! Whether you’re hoping to snap portraits that reveal the true essence of your subject, capture the magic of a wedding, or explore new destinations with your camera, candid photography opens up a world of possibilities.
Remember that candid photography is a powerful tool in your creative arsenal, allowing you to capture the raw, unfiltered moments that make life truly remarkable – so whenever you get the chance, go candid!
Now over to you:
What type of candid photography do you plan to try? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Candid photography FAQ
Candid photos capture genuine and unposed moments of people in various settings, including everyday life, events, portraits, street scenes, and travel experiences.
While the legality and cultural norms vary, it is generally considered respectful to seek permission before photographing someone, especially in situations where privacy or personal boundaries may be involved. However, candid photography can be done with consent.
Candid photos have a charm of authenticity, revealing genuine emotions, expressions, and interactions. They offer a glimpse into real-life moments, creating a sense of connection and storytelling that can be more captivating than posed images.
To capture candid shots in public, blend into the surroundings and be discreet with your camera. Use a longer focal length lens to maintain distance and respect people’s privacy. Focus on capturing candid moments that don’t invade personal space.
Candid photography focuses on capturing spontaneous and natural moments. Most portrait photography involves posed shots, though it is possible to create candid portraits.