9 Smart Tips for Taking Great Candid Photographs You’ll Love

Joel Lee 24-06-2016

Candid photos are tough to get right. It’s not just about capturing a moment, but the emotion of that moment — and moments are fleeting. They come and go in the blink of an eye.


To be clear, when talking about candid photos, I’m specifically referring to unposed and unplanned shots. For example – group gatherings, family activities, beach trips, a night out on the town, etc.

I’m also assuming that you’re shooting with a DSLR Not Everyone Needs a DSLR: Which Camera Is Right for You? Some people say you can't take good pictures without a DSLR camera. They're unequivocally wrong. Here's our guide to which type of camera you should buy. Read More . Some of these tips can be applied to smartphone cameras and point-and-shoots, but others can’t. Do your best with the gear you have. Don’t grab your first DSLR The Best Entry-Level DSLRs For New Photographers If you want to take your photography skills to the next level, or you know someone else who does, then there's no better way than to enter the world of DSLR cameras. Read More until you know you need it.

That being said, here are a few tips that can really help to sharpen your candid shots and prepare you for capturing those fleeting moments.

1. Aperture or Shutter Priority Modes

Most DSLR brands, including Canon and Nikon, have two semi-automatic modes called Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. Manual mode is often too slow for candid photos, so consider using these instead.



In Aperture Priority, you set your ISO and aperture values, then the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed for proper exposure. In Shutter Priority, you set your ISO and shutter speed values, then the camera automatically adjusts the aperture for proper exposure.

Which should you use? Aperture Priority if you’re in a low light situation How to Take Great Photos in the Dark (Even If You're a Newbie) What can you do when you're shooting photos in the dark? A combination of knowing your basics and a few tips from pros can make any picture pop, regardless of lighting conditions. Read More or if you need bokeh (background blur). Shutter Priority if you’re trying to capture fast action, such as sports or playing children.

2. Zoom Lens > Prime Lens

The thing about candid photography is that the situation is always changing. Within five minutes, you can go from a group shot, to a shot of birthday cake, to a shot of the birthday celebrant, and back to another group shot.

There isn’t enough time for you to switch lenses or run around and reposition yourself to accommodate a fixed focal length. This is one instance where you should pick a zoom lens over a prime lens Zoom Lenses vs. Prime Lenses: What's the Difference? After graduating from a kit lens, you’ll need to decide between a prime lens and a zoom lens. But what exactly is the difference? Which one is better for you? Read More .



Ideally, the zoom lens should cover a wide range. A short focal length is great for group shots while a telephoto focal length is perfect for close-ups and keeping your distance.

I’d recommend a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4.0L IS USM for full-frame sensors and a Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM for APS-C sensors. I’ve found that to be the ideal range.

3. Use Ambient Light, Not Flash

Whenever your location changes, the first thing you should take into account is the direction and quality of ambient light (also known as natural light during the daytime). Then make sure to expose your camera accordingly.



Once you’ve done that, position yourself so that the light falls favorably on your subjects, compose your shot How to Compose a Photograph: 5 Essential Rules to Follow If you want to get really good at photography, there are some vital rules around image composition that you should consider. Here are five of the most important. Read More , and wait. Now, any time a snap-worthy moment occurs, you can take the shot immediately. No need to run around.

And I highly recommend avoiding flash. Sure, you can try some neat flash tricks — like bouncing it off a wall 5 Flash Tips for Speedlight Newbies At its core, the camera flash is a simple piece of technology that's deceptively hard to use well. Read More — to get good lighting, but nothing kills a candid mood faster than a camera flash. Everyone will freeze up and you’ll lose future moments.

4. Change the Autofocus Mode

Most DSLRs have at least two autofocus modes worth using.


The first mode is called One Shot AF (on Canon) or Single Point AF-S (on Nikon), which simply looks to focus the lens on wherever you’ve placed your autofocus point. Most photographers use this mode.


The other mode is called AI Servo AF (on Canon) or Continuous AF-C (on Nikon), which constantly autofocuses as the camera detects motion. This is used less often, but it’s indispensable for high-action shots.

Tired of locking focus on your friend only to have them move a couple of inches and come out blurry in the shot? It happens a lot in candid situations, which is why you should switch to continuous ASAP.

5. Take a Lot of Photos

One of the worst things you can do is hesitate. Holding onto your shutter button for one extra second could mean missing the shot. But worse than that is only pressing the button when a shot is “perfect”.


Waiting for “perfect” shots is how you miss them.

Here’s a rule of thumb: only 1 out of every 20 photos will be a keeper. Want to walk away with 5 great shots? Aim to shoot at least 100. If you’re a newbie, aim to shoot even more. Bad shots are part of the process. Don’t worry about it.

6. Shoot in Burst Mode

If you’re still hesitating because you’re afraid of missing the shot, then maybe you’d fare better by shooting in Drive mode (on Canon) or Burst mode (on Nikon). The two modes are essentially the same.


In these modes, you can HOLD DOWN the shutter button to continuously snap shot after shot at multiple frames per second. It only stops when you let go.

This feature is immensely useful for capturing high-action shots as you no longer have to worry about good timing. Fire off a burst of shots and pick the one you like best from the whole bunch.

7. Never Put the Camera Down

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed an awesome shot because I got lazy and set my camera down. In the time it takes to find your camera, pick it up, expose and compose, then snap the shot — the moment’s gone.


Always keep the camera on you, either in your hand or on a strap. A strap is one of several essential items every photographer should have 9 Essential Photography Gear Items Every Camera Newbie Should Own Many photography accessories are only situational. Here are the most essential gear items, useful for any type of photography. Read More , and in this case, it’ll reduce the chance of you missing a great moment.

Another benefit of this is that people will get used to the fact that you have a camera, whereas if you constantly set it down and pick it back up, people will tense up every time. Relaxed subjects make for the best photos.

8. Learn to Post-Process

Candid photos are prone to imperfections. Often times your exposure will be off. Good composition is hard to hit on the fly. And if you’re like me, you’ll always forget to change white balance when moving locations.

Long story short, you’re going to have to tweak a lot of your images in post. That’s just the nature of something as impromptu as candid photography.

So you should learn Lightroom or Photoshop Photoshop or Lightroom: Which One Should You Use? If you can gain access to both of them, we highly recommend it. But what if you could only choose one? Read More as soon as you can — even if you’re a newbie who has no intentions of going pro. Post-processing is the secret to taking photos that pop and impress.

On a budget? Try these free photography software alternatives 7 Free Apps & Programs for Photographers on a Budget Photography can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. Why spend money every month for professional quality software when you don't need it? Read More instead.

9. Shoot in RAW Format

If you want to post-process your photos, you MUST start shooting in RAW format instead of JPG format JPEG, GIF, or PNG? Image Filetypes Explained and Tested Do you know the differences between JPEGs, GIFs, PNGs, and other image filetypes? Do you know when you should use one instead of the other? Fear not, MakeUseOf explains everything! Read More . RAW files contain way more image information than JPG files and give you more editing flexibility.


Simply put, it’s easier to edit a RAW photo than a JPG photo. A JPG photo is one that has already been processed by your camera. Changing your camera setting from JPG to RAW should be straightforward in the menu.

The downside is that RAW files can be up to 25 MB each, which means you’ll have to use a bigger and faster SD card How to Pick & Buy the Best SD Card for Your Needs What kind of SD card is right for you? Not all of them are the same, after all. Here are the minimum specs you should aim for depending any given activity or need. Read More . But it’s worth it.

Most of All, Shoot With Confidence

You can’t be shy. If you want to capture those great moments, you must be bold and willing to put yourself wherever you need to be to get those shots at the right time.

These tips are meant to empower you. Now that you know what to do, it’s up to you to put them into practice. Shoot with purpose and confidence and you might be surprised by how much better your images come out.

And when you’re ready, consider using VSCO for your smartphone photos What Is VSCO and Why Do Smartphone Photographers Use It? You've probably seen the name, but what is VSCO and why do serious smartphone photographers use it? Read More ? Our guide tells you all about its features.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Sonia Prescina
    January 11, 2020 at 4:32 am

    Good guidance for beginners.. thanks!!

  2. Sanjib Mukhopadhyay
    February 11, 2019 at 7:52 am

    Excellent web article. Very comprehensive; getting everything in one place in a nutshell. Great resource for the beginners to start with.

  3. Manik verma
    December 1, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    Very nice article and very helpful

  4. R A N J I T
    September 19, 2017 at 11:37 am

    Nice article..... !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    It will help to beginners....

  5. Astrofotograf
    June 28, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    4. Change the Autofocus Mode
    -> Or even better: Switch to back button focus and never have to touch focus mode again. Press and hold the button for servo af, release it for single shot.

    • Joel Lee
      July 4, 2016 at 2:03 am

      Yes! Back button focus is sooo useful. Once I started using it, I couldn't ever go back. Thanks Astro.