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How to Capture Candid Photos You’ll Treasure

Most people agree that the moment is the most important part of a photo.

Even when you achieve perfect exposure or exquisite composition, you don’t feel it makes up for missing the moment.

Oddly, if it’s a good moment people will enjoy your photo in spite of the technical mistakes like motion blur or underexposure.

Candid photography

I learned about capturing candid moments by watching my mom take photos. She saw moments before they happened and captured them with her point and shoot film camera. She took this photograph of my grandmothers helping each other take a picture.

You’ve likely noticed how much interaction your friend’s photos get on social media. It can be the worst photo from a technical perspective (dark, blurry, mis-focused) and people will act like it’s the best photo they’ve ever seen. It’s stunning! As a photographer you groan because you see all the mistakes. But chances are they captured a good moment. And that good moment overshadowed everything else.

As photographers (amateurs or professionals) we’re called to a higher standard. We’re not concerned solely with the moment, but with the technical aspects as well.

Given how important the moment is, let’s focus on that. And let’s focus specifically on spontaneous or candid moments.

Often, photojournalism and lifestyle photography rely heavily on candid moments. As do street, travel and wildlife photography.

In order to capture good candid moments you’ll need to learn two important skills:

  1. The ability to see future events before they happen
  2. Know the right “camera settings” to capture those events

It takes some practice, but learning to see the future is not as impossible as you think.

wildlife candid moment

I happened to notice this mama bird feeding her little ones. She kept up her rounds for long periods of time, so I found my camera and waited for her to return. While I was waiting I found good settings for my exposure. Then it was just a matter of watching and waiting for her to return. I got cramps in my legs and missed her more than once. But eventually I captured a number of images that I liked.

How to see the future

Initially, it may feel as if you have no control over moments. Everything is chaotic and you have no idea when a moment is going to happen. But with practice, you’ll feel like you actually have a lot of control over spontaneous moments.

In order to capture good candid moments, you need to be able to see the future. Seeing the future means developing the ability to anticipate what is about to happen before it does.

Some things are easy to anticipate because they are so predictable. The sun rises and sets every day. If you want a nice photo of the sunrise you know exactly when it’s going to happen.

candid moments in the water

Waves are predictable, they just keep rolling in.

But how about anticipating less predictable moments? You don’t know exactly when a storm is going to arise or exactly what form it will take. If you want to photograph storms you’ll need to watch how they behave across the seasons. Where I live it’s very rare to have a thunderstorm, but you can feel it in the air when one is coming.

Still other things, such as people, seem completely unpredictable. Take toddlers for example. Who knows what they’re going to do at any moment?

But even something as seemingly random and chaotic as the behavior of toddlers is predictable. It just takes a bit longer to notice the pattern.

Patterns are the key to seeing moments before they happen.

Patterns are woven into our culture, our relationships and our personality.

Pay attention to the things you love to photograph, watch for patterns, and take note. Your ability to anticipate moments will increase over time if you observe and practice regularly.

anticipate moments

I’ve noticed that every time the house goes quiet my toddler has found something interesting to do. Before I go looking for him, I pick up my camera and try not to interrupt what he is doing.

Learn to anticipate moments by looking for patterns. Once you can do this, you’ll be able to see the future (which has benefits beyond photography). When you sense a moment approaching, the worst thing you can do is interrupt.

What kind of candid moment is it?

Being aware of the type of moment will help you spot them more easily.

Some moments are packed with action, emotion, or a sense of mystery.

Action moment



Emotion moment



Mysterious moment


Nature has candid moments too

Even nature (flowers, landscapes, water) has candid moments. After all, we don’t normally pose our nature photos. We come upon nature doing something interesting and we make a photograph.

Nature’s moments are constantly changing. Think about a simple landscape. That landscape will look quite different depending on the time of day, from season to season, and in different weather.

Candid moments in nature

I was just killing time waiting for night to set in when I noticed how rapidly the sky was changing.

Combining human moments with nature’s moments

When photographing people, you can combine their moment with a good nature moment to create a more powerful candid moment.

Candid moments at golden hour

This photo combines kids playing out in the snow while little brother looks on with golden hour. A combination of people and nature moments.

Combine these people moments:

  • Action
  • Emotion
  • Mystery

With nature’s moments:

  • Season
  • Weather
  • Time of day

“Fail-proof” camera settings

What are the best camera settings for capturing good candid moments?

If you don’t understand your camera very well then begin with Auto Mode. Being in Auto Mode means that you don’t need to think about camera settings at all. You can just focus on seeing the future and being ready for moments. The problem is that Auto Mode is going to let you down quite often by giving you photos that are over or underexposed or blurry.

So you should begin to learn about ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Once you understand these three things, you’ll understand many of the technical problems in your photos.

When you’re ready to move away from Auto Mode, I highly recommend using aperture priority along with exposure compensation. Choose the aperture for it’s creative effect (f/1.8 for a shallow depth of field – f/16 for a greater depth of field). Let the camera figure out the rest. Then just focus on capturing the moment. Use exposure compensation when photos keep coming out too dark or too bright.

depth of field

This candid photo at the dinner table was shot in Aperture Mode. The aperture was set to f/2.8, allowing the background to fall out of focus. An aperture of f/16 would have brought much of the background into focus.


Depth of field

At f/11 more of the foreground and background are in focus.

Move on to manual mode when you’re ready for that challenge. But even when you’re comfortable in manual mode you may find yourself scrambling with settings too much while trying to capture candid moments.

When you get good at anticipating moments, you can take a couple test shots and look at the exposure. You can adjust your settings and still be ready to capture the moment that you know is coming.

Once you’re fully comfortable with how your camera works you can forget about it in the moment.

Work with the light you’ve got

You won’t likely have the option of manipulating the light too much when it comes to candid photography. You can use your pop-up or external flash, but you may find that this will interrupt the moment. I prefer to use whatever ambient light happens to be there and get creative with it.

candid silhouette

My first few frames were exposed so that you could see all the detail in this scene. But then I noticed the potential for an interesting silhouette.


candid sidelight

It was the light itself that drew me to this moment.

Candid moments are about presence and exploration

Candid moments are about presence. You need to be there and be part of the moment. Yes, you’re standing back just far enough to capture a photo, but you’re just as much a part of the moments you capture as the people and places in your photos.

You’re not expecting to walk into a scene, snap one amazing candid shot and move on. You’ve got to be around long enough to understand what’s going on and begin to see the future.

It’s never the moment you think. You anticipate what’s going to happen and even when you capture a great moment, there are more to come. Some will surprise you completely as you begin to see new patterns you hadn’t noticed before. Patterns run pretty deep and you need to be able to see some simple ones before the deeper ones reveal themselves.

Toddler candid moment

Have you noticed how toddlers imitate everyone? After mama had finished her stretches, this little guy came along and did his.


Candid photography, whether it’s photojournalism, lifestyle, street, wildlife, or travel photography, is about exploring. So don’t just take one photo and walk away. Begin taking photos before the moment actually happens and continue taking photos after it has passed. Be vigilant and ready for all the other moments that are about to unfold.

Ideally, you should walk away from an encounter having learned something. Perhaps you’ve seen a deeper pattern, better predicted a moment, or were rewarded with a great photograph for being there sooner and staying longer.


How to Capture Candid Photos You'll Treasure

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Mat Coker
Mat Coker

is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

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