The phrase candid portrait is often used to refer to the type of portrait taken when the subject is unaware of the photographer. This is usually seen in street photography, but also applies in other areas such as documentary style wedding photography.
If you think of a candid portrait as being one that captures someone acting authentically or with a natural expression, as opposed to one where the model has been directed to pose or act in a certain way, then it follows that you can also take candid portraits of people you know. Or even somebody that you don’t know, but have seen in the street and asked for permission to make a portrait.
Here are some tips for taking candid portraits of people with permission.
1. Look for expressions that capture character
If you are taking photos of somebody in a formal situation and you want to capture natural expressions rather than a more forced one (or the sullen expressions preferred by many fashion models) then you need to become a keen observer.
Watch for the moments in-between, the ones where your model is relaxed while you pause before taking another photo. How do they behave while the camera isn’t pointing at them? How do they respond when you talk to them? What expressions do you see when they talk about something that interests or excites them? What unconscious gestures do they make?
I was taking photos of a friend when I noticed that she had a particular gesture that she sometimes made, when the camera wasn’t pointing at her. I waited until it happened again, then asked her to hold the pose while I took the photo (right). The resulting portrait is one of her (and my) favorites from the shoot.
2. Make the most of random encounters
I remember my first evening taking photos in Bolivia. It was late afternoon, quickly fading to dusk, and the streets were lit by a soft red glow, cast by the setting sun.
I raised my camera to take a photo of a mud brick building. From the corner of my eye I saw a small boy running down the street. He passed in front of the camera, stopped, turned towards me, and started waving his hands in the air. He obviously wanted to be in the photo, and a few seconds later he was joined by an older boy, presumably his brother, who also posed for a photo. Then they continued on down the street, and beckoned me to follow them.
Curious, I followed, and they led me to a car parked around the corner, where their father was waiting for them. They explained what had happened, and then the father asked me to take a photo of all of them together. He was a little drunk, and invited me to their house for dinner. I politely declined, although I would have liked to see the look on his wife’s face when I arrived.
When you are traveling and people are being open and friendly like this, take advantage. Be open to random encounters, and the possibilities that can arise from them. At the very least you will have some interesting experiences and new stories to tell.
3. Use a small camera and lens
A friend of mine is an experienced model. I have photographed her with an EOS 5D Mark II and an 85mm lens, which is a fairly large combination. I have also used a Fujifilm X-T1 and 56mm lens, which is much smaller. She commented afterwards that the experience was different, and that she felt under much less pressure to be a good model with the smaller camera.
If an experienced model feels this way, then imagine the effect on somebody who is not used to having their photo taken. I’m sure this is one of the reasons that people like to take photos on smartphones, and why the results can be surprisingly good – because the people being photographed feel no pressure to do anything, other than act natural.
The lesson is that camera and lens size matter. Cameras and lenses are tools, and it is up to the photographer to choose the most appropriate one for the job at hand. A smaller set up will help you capture candid portraits, even of people you know.
4. Find a good reason to ask someone if you can make a portrait
If you are not used to asking strangers if you can make a portrait of them, it becomes a lot easier if you can give them a good reason. You don’t always have to search very hard to find one.
For example, a few weeks ago I visited a blacksmith’s forge that uses forging techniques from 100 years ago. The smiths there do demonstrations for the visiting public, and I simply asked if I could take some photos while the smith was doing his demonstration. The result is a very natural portrait of somebody at work.
At carnival in Cadiz earlier this year there were lots of people dressed in costume, but only a few with face paint. When I saw somebody with interesting face paint I asked if I could take a photo (it helps that I speak reasonable Spanish). Each time I explained that I really liked their make-up, the person said yes, and I took a couple of photos.
This is one of the natural expressions I was rewarded with.
5. Undertake a project
Early last year I thought it would be interesting to take some photos of people practicing parkour, and got in touch with some local traceurs through a Facebook group. Two of them in particular were interested in a shoot, so we went out into the streets of Wellington and they showed me some of the things that they do. I took photos and portraits as we went along. It was easy to create candid portraits as well as some action photos, because they were enjoying what they were doing and having fun.
I didn’t think about it until afterwards but now it occurs to me that what we were doing was a form of street photography, just one where I was working in a collaboration, rather than trying to take photos of people without them noticing me. That led to a entirely different set of photos than I could have made if I had seen them doing their thing in the street, and just taken some photos without any form of interaction.
6. Take photos of friends doing interesting things
A friend of mine made her own gypsy caravan to live in. I think this is a fantastic tiny space project, and once it was finished I asked her if I could take some photos of her there. Her natural enthusiasm came across as we talked about it. I asked her to sit outside and play her guitar. While she was absorbed in what she was doing, I made some candid portraits that captured expressions like this.
Do you have any techniques of your own for taking candid or natural portraits of people that you know? I’d love to hear them – please let me know in the comments.