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. 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 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 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.
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.
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, 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 — 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, 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 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 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. 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. 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? Our guide tells you all about its features.
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