Candid Photography: The Best Guide (w/ Practical Tips)

(Last updated on July 21st, 2022)

Photos captured of people who are unaware of the camera can be most intriguing. Authentic, honest glimpses of friends or strangers are often full of rich narratives. Candid photography is all about capturing these interesting moments and freezing them in time.

People watching is a common pastime. Sitting at a cafe while waiting for a friend. During the daily commute, watch people on the train or bus, or those outside. Anywhere we have a few moments and there are people around, we love to observe other humans. Candid photography is like people watching with a camera.

Practicing candid photography is a great way to learn many things about camera management and photography. You have to work with your camera and remain unnoticed. The more you fuss with your camera settings, the fewer photos you’ll capture. Often with candid photography, you have to assess the light, set your exposure, and compose your image reasonably quickly. The more you practice and repeat these things, the better you’ll become at virtually any form of photography.

Good camera skills, the right gear, and stealth are all required to make great candid photos. In this comprehensive guide to candid photography, you will learn tips and tricks on how to capture people discretely. I’ll also include some tips and guidelines as to what camera gear will help you capture better candid photos.

What is Candid Photography?

Candid photos are unposed. The subject remains unaware of the camera, at least until after the photo is taken. There are no adjusting lights, adding props, or giving directions to your subject.

Documentary and street photography are often candid. So is a lot of photojournalism. Candid photography is about capturing moments as they happen. This must occur without any interference from the photographer.

Some candid photography, like wedding photography, happens when the subject is aware of the photographer. They know the photographer is present, but are paying no attention to them. The subject is not focused on the photographer or what they are doing. This is more of a semi-candid photography style.

The most qualifying feature of candid photography is that it is never staged or completely posed.

Holi. Candid photography in busy locations helps you remain unseen because there’s so much activity happening.
Holi. Candid photography in busy locations helps you remain unseen because there’s so much activity happening.

Equipment Choices for Candid Photography

There are two popular gear choices for photographers who like to capture candid images. Some photographers love to work with a small camera and a wide lens. They can get in close and remain unnoticed because the gear they use is not obvious. Others like to use long focal length lenses and remain at a greater distance from the people they are taking pictures of.

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Small Cameras and Lenses

Mirrorless cameras are very popular among people who like to capture candids. These cameras are often smaller and easier to conceal than DSLR cameras. Concealing a small camera with a short lens under your jacket or in a bag is easy.

Cameras with flip-out monitors also make candid photography much easier. You can take photos using live view with your camera at your hip or to your side. So long as you can see the monitor you can compose and take photos without your subjects noticing what you are doing. Some monitors are more articulated than others which makes them more suitable for this style of candid photography.

Smartphones are also great tools for candid photography. They are small and capture good-quality photos. Their wide lenses make it easy to photograph people in close proximity. Because everyone has a phone these days, most people will pay no attention to you taking photos discreetly. You can be sitting next to someone and take their photograph without them even noticing.

Switch your camera to Quiet or Silent mode when taking candid photos and are close to your subject. This is more important if you use a DSLR camera as they tend to make more noise than mirrorless cameras when you press the shutter button.

Photography. Using a small camera can help you take better candid photos.
Photography. Using a small camera can help you take better candid photos.

Long Lenses and Larger Cameras

Using a longer lens means you can also use a larger camera body. With a long prime lens or zoom, you can pick a location to take photos from and remain completely removed from the scene. Standing well back from the people you are photographing while using a lens of 300mm or more helps you remain anonymous.

Shy photographers often prefer to use a long lens. This is because it leaves less likelihood of them having to interact with people. Using a long lens and remaining at a distance, a stealthy photographer can capture many photos without being seen.

Keep reading for more details about the differences in using a long or a short focal length lens for taking candid photos.

Coworkers. Using a long lens helps you keep distance between you and your subjects so it can be easier to remain unnoticed.
Coworkers. Using a long lens helps you keep distance between you and your subjects so it can be easier to remain unnoticed.

Camera Settings For Candid Photography

It’s possible to take candid photos in any location or lighting conditions. So there are no set rules about what camera settings to use. Here are some principles and guidelines that will help you capture candid portraits.

Freeze the Action, or Not

Candid photos that include some action or activity are often more interesting. To avoid motion blur and freeze the action, use a fast shutter speed. To incorporate some motion blur in your images, use a slow shutter speed. This is best if you have a camera and lens combination that has good image stabilization.

Think about how you want to portray the people you are photographing. Do you want them clear and sharp? Or would using a slow shutter speed and including some motion blur add interest to your images?

For most situations, unless people are moving very fast, a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second will freeze any movement sufficiently. To include motion blur, use a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second or slower. How well you hold your camera and how good your gear’s image stabilization affects motion blur. These things govern the slowest shutter speed you can use before camera shake becomes an issue.

Run. Freezing the action requires a fast shutter speed.
Run. Freezing the action requires a fast shutter speed.

Blur the Background, Or Not

Using a faster shutter speed means you’ll need to use a wider aperture to capture well-exposed photos. A wide aperture has the tendency to create a shallower depth of field, so the background will blur. This is more pronounced when your subject is far from the background.

Isolating a subject in this way helps to draw a viewer’s attention to them. This makes for interesting candid portraits as it helps people to connect more with your subject.

At times you may want to include more of the background in sharp focus. This is desirable when taking candid environmental portraits. In this case, using a narrower aperture setting, a higher f-stop number, helps to keep more of your scene in focus.

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Manual, Aperture, Shutter Priority, or Program Mode

You can use any camera mode you are comfortable and confident with.

If your intention is to freeze movement, manual or shutter priority mode are best. In these modes, you have more control over the camera’s shutter speed so can ensure that it is fast enough. For photos where you want more control over the depth of field, using manual or aperture priority mode is best. This is because you have more control over the aperture opening in these modes.

If you are not so concerned about freezing the action or the depth of field, Program mode makes taking photos easy. You are then more free to concentrate on not being seen and capturing the decisive moments as they happen.

Many photographers prefer not to use manual mode because they think they will miss opportunities if they don’t have the setting right. My encouragement to you is to practice. I always use manual mode for candid portraits because it gives me the most control over every aspect of my exposures.

Couple. Using manual mode allows you to have more control over every aspect of your camera.
Couple. Using manual mode allows you to have more control over every aspect of your camera.

Focusing Modes for Candid Photography

I use single-point autofocus most of the time I take candids. I like to focus on my subject’s eyes. Being able to control the focus point I can place it precisely where I want it to.

Depending on how much your subject is moving, you can switch between continuous or single servo autofocus settings.

Using Flash

Simply, don’t. Make sure that your auto flash settings are turned off. As soon as your flash fires you’ve given yourself away. Your photos will no longer be candid because everyone in your vicinity will know you are there with your camera.

Instead, use a higher ISO setting if the light is low. This will help you maintain a faster shutter speed and keep photographing even when the light is low.

Jogging. Learning to use your camera with confidence will help you capture a greeted number of photos that are worth keeping.
Jogging. Learning to use your camera with confidence will help you capture a greeted number of photos that are worth keeping.

How To Blend In and Capture the Decisive Moments

As you plan to make candid photos, think about where you are going and the nature of the location, and the other people who will be there. Dress in the same style of clothing. Dress down a little and pick clothes that will not draw attention to you. A gray or black shirt is better than a red one.

Take a jacket or bag, (not a camera bag,) along so you have somewhere to stash your camera until you’re ready to use it. Having a large camera backpack or other obvious camera bag gives away your intention easily. There are some great stealthy-looking camera bags available.

Anticipate the kind of photo you want and choose a discrete location you can capture these images from. Look around and find a place to position yourself where you have a clear view of everything. And then stay there. The less you move about, the less noticeable you are.

Keep your camera out of sight as you observe what’s happening. Get a good idea of the flow and pace of the activity. Look for repetition in what people are doing. This is often the best way to capture the decisive moment.

When I photograph in fresh markets I often aim to capture the moment a transaction takes place. The vendor and customer are interacting at that point. There’s some interesting action taking place and they are less likely to notice that I am taking their picture.
When I photograph in fresh markets I often aim to capture the moment a transaction takes place. The vendor and customer are interacting at that point. There’s some interesting action taking place and they are less likely to notice that I am taking their picture.

Composing Candid Photos

Making well-composed candid photos takes practice. When you have no control of your subject and want to remain unobtrusive, you often have to keep your camera out of sight until right before you take a photo. This means you have less time to compose.

The main point of interest is the person’s face. Concentrate on this and include it in an interesting way in your composition. Make sure you focus on their eyes.

Practice first on people who are not moving. Watch them and see when the most interesting moment takes place. Choose a focal length that allows you to frame them well. Do you want only your subject to fill the frame? Or do you want to include some of their surroundings as well?

Composing candid photos of busy people is easier. People who are focused on what they are doing are less likely to notice you there with your camera. I like to work with my 35mm lens and get reasonably close to busy people in an unobtrusive manner. I pay close attention to them and take photos when they are concentrating totally on what they are doing. Not only are they less likely to notice me, but this is often the most interesting moment to capture a photo.

Kind. To make good compositions of spontaneous moments you must be good at anticipating when the most interesting action will happen.
Kind. To make good compositions of spontaneous moments you must be good at anticipating when the most interesting action will happen.

Selling Your Candid Photos

There is much demand for candid photography. Magazines and newspapers often prefer candid photographs to those that have been set up and posed. A well-composed natural photo of a person doing something contains more story and will usually hold a viewer’s attention for longer.

Stock photography is another outlet for selling your candid photos. Because of the requirement to provide a model release, the people in stock photos are usually aware of the camera. So images created for stock are more often semi-candid, but still natural looking.

Wedding and lifestyle portrait photography are often candid. Some of the best wedding and portrait photos are unposed captured moments of people living life in the moment.

Conclusion

Take your camera everywhere you go and practice making candid portraits as often as you can. This is the best way to learn photography. Work with one camera and lens. Think about the style of photos you want and stick to this.

Make the same type of image over and over of different people without them knowing you are doing it. This builds your confidence and camera skills. Blend into whatever situation you are in as best you can. Think about the light, what shutter speeds, and the aperture settings you use.

Many photographers prefer to minimally post-process their candid photos. But there are no rules, unless you are selling them to a newspaper or other news publication. You can clone out distractions, alter the exposure and lighting, to enhance your candid photographs.


Every time you come back from taking a series of candid photos, study the pictures. Look at the ones that have worked and also the ones you can improve on. Ask yourself what you could have done differently to take a better picture. Next time you go out with your camera, practice making this improvement.

Street. Practice taking candid photos anywhere there are people.
Street. Practice taking candid photos anywhere there are people.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a candid photo in photography?

A candid photo is one taken of a person who does not know that they are being photographed. They are unaware of the camera so they are more likely to act naturally than someone who is aware there is a camera pointing at them. Candid photos are unposed and unmanipulated.

Is candid photography legal?

In the United States and many other countries, candid photography is legal when carried out in public places. Generally, laws state that people have no expectation of privacy when they are in a public place. On private property, any form of photography can be prohibited by the property owner or management. This includes candid photography.

How do I capture a candid picture?

Taking candid pictures is all about remaining unseen. To take real candid photographs you must blend in and remain discrete. Using a small camera, or a larger camera with a long lens, are two popular techniques candid photographers prefer. Anticipating the right moment to take a photo and getting the timing right will help you capture the best candid photos of people.

What makes a good candid photographer?

A good candid photographer is one who is never noticed, at least until after they’ve taken their pictures. They know how to hide or disguise their cameras, even when they are taking a picture. Good candid photographers have a collection of techniques and methods that allow them to take photos of people and remain unobtrusive.

What is the difference between candid photography and street photography?

Street photography is candid. Street portrait photography comes under a different umbrella. Candid photography is more general and encompasses photos taken of people anywhere, not only in the street. Photos of people at events, in coffee shops, or anywhere indoors may not be considered street photography, but they can still be candid.

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