Tips for Taking Candid Portraits of People

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A candid portrait is often defined as one which you take without the subject being aware that you have done so. The idea is to capture a natural moment, that shows the person’s character or something interesting about them.

A candid portrait

Wedding and portrait photographers often strive to capture candid portraits, so do street photographers. It is the latter form of candid portrait photography that I will concentrate on in this article.

I prefer to take candid portraits when I am travelling, it is rare that I do so at home. There is something about the excitement of travelling and seeing a new place with fresh eyes, that makes me want to take photos that capture life in the streets.

The question is, how do you take photos of other people safely when you are travelling, and how do you create evocative images that capture the spirit of that place? Good photos aren’t taken, they are made by the photographer. The following tips will help you create candid portraits.

All the photos in this article were taken while I was traveling, but you’ll find the principles hold true when you are working close to home as well.

1 – Think about your equipment

Part of the craft of photography is selecting the most appropriate tool for the job. There are two approaches you can take here. One is to use a telephoto lens and take photos from distance. You are unlikely to be spotted by your subject, especially if you are quick, but your photos may also have a lack of involvement in the scene as they are taken from some distance away. Having said that, you can use a telephoto lens to create a cinematic look that pulls the background in closer to the subject, or throw it out of focus.

A candid portrait

I took this photo with a 50-150mm Sigma lens. It’s an enormous lens that I no longer own, but it enabled me to take photos like this from a distance, without being noticed.

The second approach is to use a small camera with a small lens, and get in much closer to the action. The idea here is that the small camera gives you the perception that you are less intimidating, than somebody using a large digital SLR and lens setup. You are much more likely to be able to take photos without being noticed, or to be ignored if you are.

A candid portrait

I used a small 35mm lens on a Fujifilm camera to take this photo. The smaller size of this gear lets me get much closer to people than I ever could with the Sigma 50-150mm lens.

The ideal small camera could be a small digital SLR (such as the Canon EOS 100D), a mirrorless camera (such as the Fujifilm X-T1, my personal favorite), a compact camera (like the Ricoh GR II) or a smartphone.

If you are using an interchangeable lens camera, then a prime lens may be a good choice. Primes are usually smaller than zooms, and the wide apertures come in handy in low light.

2 – Slow down and explore

Become an observer of life. Go somewhere interesting and just watch what happens. Every city and town have their own rhythms. The tide of people ebbs and flows as the hours pass by. Where are the most interesting parts of the city? The most picturesque? Where is life lived on the streets?

What are the unique aspects of that city? A photo of somebody taken in front of a shop could be created almost anywhere, but a photo taken with a well known landmark or typical building in the background (such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Forbidden City in Beijing) has the potential to be much more evocative.

The key is to relax, take things slowly, and enjoy yourself. A small camera helps because it is easier to carry around all day than a large system.

A candid portrait

This photo could only have been taken in Beijing. The ancient buildings in the background are unique to this city.

3 – Enjoy the process

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. An empty memory card can be as terrifying for a photographer as a blank piece of paper (or empty computer screen) is for a writer.

One way to get started is to take a photo of anything remotely interesting. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but I find that taking the first photo gets my creativity going and puts me in the right frame of mind to start seeing other images. Remember that you are there to enjoy the day, the sights, and the process of exploration and meeting new people, as well as photography.

4 – Don’t be afraid to talk to people

Talk to people, not necessarily only the people that you want to photograph, but anybody, particularly in shops, markets or working in cafes, who may be open to a conversation. You may have to forget about this option if you don’t speak the language. But don’t let that stop you from using non-verbal communication. Smile, and be open and friendly.

Talking to people lets you get to know the area, and the people who live there. Afterwards, you may be able to ask the person you spoke to if you can take a photo of them, or if there is anywhere that is a good place to take photos. Local people often like to make recommendations, especially if they are proud of their city.

If you can’t speak the language don’t let that put you off even rudimentary attempts at communication. Last year in China, I came across a group of men playing a game of Xiangqi (Chinese chess). I stopped to watch, and held up my camera with a questioning look. One of them nodded to say yes, and I took a few photos before saying thank you and moving on. This is my favorite photo from the set.

A candid portrait

5 – Use a wide-angle lens

The beauty of wide-angle lenses is that you can get in close and photograph somebody, without them even being aware that you are doing so. How? Simply place them at the edge of the frame, or on one of the thirds. The camera will point away from them and they may not even be aware that they are being photographed.

As long as you don’t look at them or make eye contact they will think you are photographing whatever is behind them. This works best when there is something interesting there that a tourist would naturally take a photo of.

A candid portrait

I was taking a photo of the church when I noticed the man was about to walk in front of me. The wide-angle focal length (14mm, APS-C camera) meant that he became part of the photo without realizing it.

6 – Find a rich environment

Sometimes all you have to do is find an interesting location, and observe how the local people behave as they pass through. While in Beijing last year, I became fascinated at the different ways that the local people interacted with the city’s historical buildings. All I had to do was wait, observe, and take photos of interesting moments.

A candid portrait

While visiting Prince Gong’s mansion, a historical building in Beijing, I noticed that people like to walk by these Tibetan style prayer wheels. I stayed there for a while and took photos as people passed by. The incongruous message on the woman’s bag adds a little extra to this photo.

7 – Go when the light is beautiful

Beautiful light is key to creating evocative portraits that capture the spirit and atmosphere of a place. You’ll increase your chances of creating beautiful images exponentially by going out when the light is beautiful. That means getting out at the end of the day during the golden hour. There is also lots of potential during dusk, especially with the mix of artificial and natural light that you find in urban environments.

A candid portrait

The orange light cast by tungsten light bulbs adds atmosphere to this photo taken in Xi’an, China.

Can you think of any other tips for taking candid portraits of people in the street? Please let us know in the comments, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Click here to enroll in his new Lightroom course for free.

  • leah.lieberman

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  • Gerry Q

    Every now and again I’ll see someone that catches my eye enough to grab a frame or 2.
    There is nothing particular fascinating about this picture other than the lady’s colours matched the bin she stood next to

  • Tom Durkin

    I shot this through the window of my car. The relative darkness of the car interior gives you some cover to shoot people who might not want their picture taken. I used a 200 mm lens and cropped the picture in post to get this shot. This was more of a practice shot than anything I thought I would use.

  • photographicarcadia

    In pursuing great photos, I do strongly believe that we need to remember that it is not right to photograph other people’s children without permission. Photographing someone without their being aware is an intrusive action, if you then share the image (Tom Durkin, how do you think the subject of your photograph below would respond to knowing his image was up on the internet?) it opens up all kinds of moral quandaries. Performers, etc, okay that’s different, they have their ‘public’ faces on. If anyone tried to photograph my children without anyone noticing, I would be furious. Please, everyone, work with the respect with which you would want to be treated.

  • Chris W.

    I believe that anything and everything on “the street” is fair game…the good, the bad & the ugly, young and old and I NEVER never ask permission—just smile and walk on to the next shot. For me, the moral choice is at the point where I have to decide what to do with the shot. I have my own code of decency that has served me well over the past 70 years.

  • Janice9631
  • Genevieve Laurin

    I like to take what I call “sneaky pics” of my friends and family when we are visiting or at social events. Basically, I always have my camera in my hands and take pictures all the time, so it becomes part of the background and they don’t pay any more attention to it. That way, I can avoid the “posed” picture look that I don’t like. I took this one of my friend while we were visiting Harvard. I knew she loved the place and wanted a souvenir of our visit for her. I love how the expression on her face turned out.

  • Adam

    last time I checked copyright laws, you’re the rights holder and in a public place (other than children) any subject is fair game, I do try to ask when I can unless it would ruin the shot in terms of awareness and don’t tend to enjoy being the subject to someone I don’t know but if they get a shot of me then its theirs to do with what they like. but any indoor environment or non public place then you need permission of said owners of the property or just be polite (this is UK law by the way but if I am wrong please do let me know)

  • adam

    but I definitely agree with you, if I had kids, and if someone took a picture of my kids without permission they would end up with minimum a broken camera

  • Some great points raised here. Adam, I fully agree that if you see some kids doing something interesting and would like to make a photo, and their parents are nearby, then you should ask permission. But do you really think violence is the answer if somebody doesn’t do that? Surely, being a photographer yourself, you would understand how easy it is to get excited when you see an interesting scene? Breaking a camera is criminal damage – and if you attack a photographer that person has the right to defend themselves. You could get hurt. I study martial arts and I know how quickly somebody who knows what they are doing can break the arm of or otherwise incapacitate an attacker.

  • Steven Means

    A kid is just a human and you can photograph anyone or anything on public Street.

  • Generic Hipster

    A true internet tough guy, not afraid to break laws and be a general badass.

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