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.
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.
In order to capture good candid moments you’ll need to learn two important skills:
- The ability to see future events before they happen
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
Nature has candid moments too
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.
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.
Combine these people moments:
With nature’s moments:
- 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.
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.
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 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.
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.