How to Take Great Candid Portraits

1. Take your camera everywhere. Probably the best way to take spontaneous photographs is to always be ready to do so. Taking your camera with you everywhere also helps people to be more at ease with you taking their photo. Once  friends and family expect you to have my camera out, they will act more relaxed if they do catch you taking a photo, making the photos appear more natural.

2. Position yourself strategically. Anticipate what is about to unfold in front of you to increase the chances of getting some great shots. Which way will people be facing? What will they be doing? What will the light be like? Thinking through these issues will save you having to run around repositioning yourself when you should be shooting images – it’ll also mean you take a whole heap less shots of the back of people’s heads!

3. Zoom in. The further you are away from your subject the less likely they will be to know that you’re photographing them, and the more natural and relaxed they’ll act. Using zoom enables you to shoot from outside their personal space but keep the feeling of intimacy in the shot you’re taking. One of my students pretended to be upset with her fellow classmates. They then gave her enough space that she was able to take better candid photos without them noticing!

Note: This tip only works if you are using an actual camera, not a camera on your phone. Most phone cameras don’t have a true zoom; rather, their digital zoom feature merely crops your photo. Avoid zooming on a phone camera to prevent blurry images.

4. Shoot first, compose later. And shoot lots. Don’t worry about framing the perfect shot while the camera is in your hand. Keep moving, getting as many angles and moods as possible. Click fast and often. Back at the computer, you can refine your raw material into a beautifully composed candid. Purists like Henri Cartier-Bresson shunned cropping as a kind of photographic half-truth; for the rest of us, there’s Photoshop. When you shoot multiple images quickly of a person, you’ll increase your chances of that perfect shot. This is especially helpful if your subject moves quickly or is a talker.

5. Don’t pose subjects. People look relaxed and comfortable when they’re engaged in activity – talking with one another, fixing their hair, petting the dog. Anything that keeps their mind off your lens is good. Wait until your subject is has forgotten that you are photographing them and is fully focused upon what they are doing or who they are with.


6. Photograph people with people. Something very interesting happens when you photograph more than one person in an image at a time – it introduces relationship into the shot. Even if the two (or more) people are not really interacting in the shot it can add depth and a sense of story into the viewing of the image.


7. Frame images with foreground elements. Purposely include something in the foreground of the shot to make it look as though you’re hiding behind it. You might do this with by shooting over someone’s shoulder, by including a little of a tree branch or the frame of a doorway.

8. Be patient and catch people in the moment. Waiting is an important part of getting a good photo; wait for that perfect smile, or for your subject to turn to you. Capturing people in the moment provide the best results and details of what’s going on in a photo.


9. Add context. Without context, photos lack depth. Try positioning subjects to the left of right of the frame to show some of where they are or what they’re doing. Another great way to add context is to shoot through the environment that they’re in, like trees or people.

Note: Be strategic with the cropping. You don’t want to crop out so much of the environment that the photo loses context.


10. Avoid clutter in the picture. At the same time, make sure anything in the background adds to, rather than detracts from the picture. Frame the shot by moving the subject left or right in the viewfinder. If the background continues to be too cluttered, use a wide aperture to blur the background. You can fake a wide aperture in on a point and shoot camera by switching into portrait mode.

11. Move around your subjects. If you’re taking a photo of someone candidly, you can’t exactly ask them move to create a better composition. It’s also pointless asking them to look natural, as that creates the most awkward shots of all. Get up and walk around your subjects until you have them positioned how you’d like and then take the photo.

12. Watch the back. Never take photos of people’s backs. Nothing is more boring than a group of people with all backs turned to the camera. It just doesn’t work.

13. Keep quiet and blend in. Do what everyone else is doing so you fit in with the situation. This will ensure that you do not distract from the main event. Your subjects will act more natural if they forget that you are photographing them.


Today we will:

  • begin taking photos for our “Portray YOUR Rochester” photo essay
  • upload your photos to your username AND a back up location
  • create a new blog post with the best photos taken today

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