Some of the most powerful portraits are candid ones, and these can be made anywhere - no expensive studio lighting required! Read on for our tips on taking better natural photos of people.
Whether you are photographing strangers in the street or at a public event, or family and friends at home, your subject will be more at ease if they are either unaware of your presence, or very comfortable with it. Furthermore, if you are comfortable in the setting they are more likely to be as well. Take the time to blend into the background by simply being there without taking any photos, and before too long people will start to trust you, or at least become less aware of your presence. Spend some time getting to know your subject so that they relax and you can learn to predict their movements. Some of the best candid photos are taken when the subject is distracted, whether in animated conversation or engrossed in some activity.
There is a reason why many of the great photojournalists used Leica cameras – being small, quiet and discreet they appear less threatening and can quickly be pocketed or bagged so you can keep a low profile. But not everyone can afford a Leica! As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you, and excellent candid photos can be made with a compact camera, film viewfinder or rangefinder camera, or even a disposable or phone camera. Remember, capturing the perfect fleeting moment or expression is more important than all the megapixels in the world!
If you shoot with a SLR, choose a lens appropriate to the subject and setting of your choice. If environmental portraits are more your thing and particularly if you are shooting people you know and trust, choose a lens with a wider perspective and get up close for a more intimate feeling portrait. Keep in mind that ultra-wide lenses can distort faces, which can be unflattering or a cool effect depending on your point of view. If you are shooting strangers, a small telephoto lens (e.g. 85mm) can be great for creating beautiful shallow depth of field and isolating the subject from potentially distracting backgrounds.
If you choose your time wisely, natural light is all you need! Try to take photographs early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the harsh contrast light of the middle of the day sun. Overcast days often provide lovely soft and diffused light, or pick a spot where you can photograph under the shade of a tree or awning.
A portrait need not always include a face. Sometimes it is what isn't there that makes a photograph interesting. Leave something to the imagination by photographing only part of your subject such as a hand, their eyes or lower body. Your audience will be drawn in as they try to fill in the rest of the picture. Get up close or use a lens with a long focal length. Hands can be very expressive and often less camera-shy than faces!
Putting the camera up to your eye is the fastest way to give yourself away and lose the candidness of the moment. Try shooting more discreetly by using your LCD screen or live view to compose the photograph.
In order to build trust and give something back to the person whose photo you have just taken, consider sharing the image with them. Digital cameras make this easy, as you can show them immediately on the screen. If you do a lot of candid photography, it might be worth carrying business cards so your subject can find you and your photographs on-line. Finally, if they do not like the photo be prepared to respectfully delete it and move on to a more willing subject.