Candid Portraits | Travel Photography Tips

Chicago street eyeball lady sitting down laughing using phone

Impressive monuments, sacred ruins & imposing architecture really in a lot of ways define certain locations.  However, it´s often the people of a region – specifically the locals – interacting naturally that really offers insight into the culture, lifestyle & general morale transpiring at that exact fixed moment in time.  It´s what is often referred to as candid photography.  Capturing the moment in a natural way where the subject is unaware of the presence of the photographer or the fact that even a photo is being taken of them.  In a lot of ways it´s one of the most perplexing and challenging genres of travel photography.

Specifically, as a photographer, you´re faced with the daunting task of trying to capture that perfect shot, gesture or facial expression with a subject who is not acting in a rehearsed manner, all the while trying not to blow your cover!  Furthermore, the concepts of ethics come into play where you feel an obligation to respect the individual and not intrude upon his or her space.  Moreover, it´s not the type of photography where you can recompose, adjust settings and try it again.  If you miss the golden opportunity it´s gone forever.

Thus, it begs the question, why on earth would you ever want to consider taking these kinds of shots?  Well, at least in my opinion, they often make for some of the most dynamic and enduring photos to show others.  They´re not pretentious, composed or artificial in any way, shape or form.  They´re truly storytelling photos in every sense imaginable.  Finally, they´re your own unique photos.  Somebody can take a photo of the Eiffel Tower from the same vantage point as another, but it´s never possible to capture a candid moment more than once.

Anyhow, I´ve personally been focusing in on this type of photography recently & would like to share some travel photography tips and suggestions regarding equipment and techniques that can be used to capture these kinds of moments with your camera to dazzle your audience on your top travel blog.

Old Bolivian man with lots of wrinkles at Lago Tititcaca, Bolivia

EQUIPMENT

Optical Zoom / Telephoto Range

Example of optical zoom for dslr and point and shoot cameras

Starting off with equipment, one of the most important features is what is referred to as optical zoom or telephoto range of your lens.  Specifically, this refers to your camera/lenses capacity to zoom in on a subject without compromising image quality.

Typically, a consumer level basic point and shoot camera has only a 3X range allowing you get in a bit closer but not really close enough for this type of photography.  To remain in stealth mode you don´t want to get too close to your subject.  Being able to stand further away enables you to not intrude upon the personal space of your subject and more importantly ensures you don´t blow your cover.  Otherwise, you might just get a big nasty grimace from the individual(s) you are taking a photo of which in all cases is best avoided.  When caught, all you´ve managed to do is offend the individual causing them to act unnaturally – hardly candid photography!

Anyhow, getting back on topic, in recent years there has been the introduction of two new genres of point and shoot cameras which are ideal for travel.  The first being a compact superzoom point and shoot camera.  This type of camera typically is small enough in size to easily fit into your pocket yet has a powerful enough telephoto capabilities allowing you to get up close.  Typically, these cameras offer 10X or greater zoom capacity.  The second type of camera is what is called a premium superzoom point and shoot camera.

The body resembles that of a dSLR and often has enhanced manual features and a greater zoom range starting at around 20X.  Finally, the last category of recommended cameras is a dSLR itself, the full sized digital camera with interchangeable lenses.  When equipped with a lens that extends to 200mm (over 10X optical zoom) it provides the ability to get in tight while offering the best image quality, operational controls and performance.

Below are pictures of a typical model of each type of camera along with a quick summary of the pros and cons each has to offer:

Compact Superzoom

Super zoom compact camera long optical zoom Panasonic Lumix TZ5Pros:

1)    Cheapest

2)  Most pocket-able & easiest to carry around

3)  Least likely camera to be noticed since it is the smallest

Cons:

1)  Least manual controls for shutter speed & aperture

2)  Lower quality image than dSLR because of smaller sensor size

3)  Slower performance (time you press shutter speed to when the actual picture is recorded by your camera – in other words, the least likely to capture the exact split second moment)

Canon superzoom camera power shot sx 20 IS

Premium Superzoom

Pros

1)    Longest zoom range (20X or more)

2)  dSLR like controls over aperture and shutter speed

3)  Quality ergonomics (fits comfortably in your hands)

Cons

1)  Far too large to fit in your pocket

2)  Small sensor size (does not offer image quality of a dSLR

3)  Sometimes close to double the price of compact model and pushing into the territory of the price range of an entry level dSLR kit

Sony Alpha a500 dSLR camera body

dSLR equipped with 200mm lens:

Pros

1)    Best image quality with largest sensor

2)  Top performance (often able to shoot 3 frames a second or faster)

3)  Most manual controls over aperture and shutter speed

Cons

1)    Most expensive

2)  Largest and most noticeable camera

3)  Typically comes with a kit lens that does not extend to 200mm.  Thus, often necessary to buy a separate lens (added expense)

Techniques

Approaching Your Subject

Yawning man sitting down on a park bench in Chicago candid portrait

Okay, so now you´ve got the camera that allows you to get up close without actually brooding over your subject.  It´s now time to discuss manners in which you can take these candid shots without being noticed.  In a lot of ways, it´s really not terribly different than if you were asked to spy upon a person.  Although, that sounds kind of shady, if you have that type of mentality where you don´t want to be observed you´ll likely avoid doing such things as approaching your subject head on, making it totally obvious you´re wielding a camera & taking photos or wandering around aimlessly like a lost tourist sticking out like a sore thumb.

Instead, you´d be more likely to consider taking shots at a 45 degree angle across from your subject, trying to blend in with the crowd, using props such as a garbage can, park bench or lamp post to stand behind and not staying in any one place for a long period of time noticeably firing away shots.  It´s something that takes time to master.  It´s as much of an art as it is a specific skill.  At times, especially when you first start out, your subjects are going to notice you taking photos of you blowing your candid moment.  The whole concept of this travel photography tutorial and technique is being stealth.

At certain times, this will be offensive to these individuals and you´ll get a dirty look or a scowl.  Don´t let this discourage you from trying again.  Instead, improve your craft and consider the following suggestions I have posted in the last section of the article that deals with these awkward moments.

Live View & Fully Articulating Screen

Sony Alpha live view articulating screen

Some premium superzoom cameras and dSLRs now have what is called a fully articulating screen with live view.  What this means is that you can compose your photo without having the camera held at eye level looking through the optical viewfinder.  Instead, you can have the camera dangling around your neck at chest/waist level.  By articulating the screen so that it is facing upwards you can look down as though it appears you are reviewing a picture or changing something with your camera settings.

While in Chicago recently, I sat down at a park bench at a place called Navy Pier where there were lots of fascinating events and people constantly wandering about creating an impressive scene.  As I sat down at a nearby park-bench, I found that by having my camera on my lap and looking down at the articulated screen I did not give the impression that I was taking photos.

I was able to capture many candid shots without a single person noticing what was going on.  It´s another feature along with technique to consider when purchasing a travel camera.

Thai lady praying and begging for money in Bangkok, Thailand candid portrait

Respect / When Problems Arise

1)    Consider the culture and environment of where you are taking photos.  In certain cultures, there is a very negative association with having a photo taken.  Take extra care when shooting in these kinds of environments and consider not taking these types of photos at all.  For example, in South America, some Andean cultures believe you are stealing the spirit away from the individual.  However, when I was taking photos of football fans watching an Argentina game at a public square the fans were totally digging it and even posing (obviously not candid) at times for that extra shot if they noticed I took a photo of them.

2)    Perfect your technique so that you are not sloppy.  If people are noticing you more often than not you´re obviously performing rather poorly in this area.

3)    Take your shot and move on.  Don´t hover in one area or fire away senselessly without consideration of your subject.  You´ll be noticed and this is when you really move into obnoxious/rude territory.

4)    If you get caught in the moment and sense that somebody is offended obviously stop what you are doing immediately and move on.  If they approach you kindly offer to delete the photo and show them that you´ve done this.  Even if you can´t speak the local language you can visibly show them you´ve deleted the shot and didn´t mean to offend them.  Finally, in certain cases, you can offer to share the photo with the individual.  They may just wonder why they had their photo taken in the first place.  When you offer to share it they might react positively and it could even lead to new friendship.

Smiling man on the streets of Quito, Ecuador candid portrait

Conclusion/Final Thoughts

Candid travel photography is something that I thoroughly enjoy.  I feel it really tells the story of what is going on in a way that just isn´t captured with the artificial pose or inanimate object.  However, it´s not without controversy.  There are those who have the staunch opinion it is rude, intrusive and inappropriate under ANY and ALL circumstances.

I ´m certainly not somebody who slots into that polarized category; however, with that being said, I do feel that slapdash technique, arrogance and/or an aggressive approach is without a doubt obnoxious and deplorable behaviour.  If you´re going to master taking these types of shots you should not be getting noticed very often and when that odd case occurs that you have, the utmost respect and courtesy should be shown on your part.  Anyhow, everybody has their own style, technique, and approach to taking photos.

It´s what makes it a true art-form.  Best wishes to all in your pursuit of this fascinating hobby :)

Young girl picking her nose on the streets of Quito, Ecuador candid portrait

Man pondering and thinking in Quito, Ecuador candid portrait

Samuel Jeffery (Nomadic Samuel) :P

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

george jeffery May 14, 2011 at 11:09 pm

excellent article sam…just add if you’re lucky enough to find willing participants, who are willing to share their stories as well their pictures….this would allow the photog to compose their enviroment they live in.

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Nomadic Samuel May 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Indeed, a good tip. Also, if one is interested in taking photos of others it NEVER hurts to ask either. The worst they can say is no :)

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Jim July 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Bookmarked this for future reference.
Thanks, I see I have a lot to learn.

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Nomadic Samuel July 9, 2011 at 12:34 am

Thanks! I just wanted to share how I take candid portraits after having a few people ask.

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crazy sexy fun traveler July 15, 2011 at 12:06 pm

So enjoyed it! Your face photos are great!

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Nomadic Samuel July 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Thank you, I appreciate that. It’s not easy to take candid portraits but it’s my preferred style.

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Leif July 20, 2011 at 3:01 am

Dude, I really appreciate this post because I was just about to ask you about cameras. Or did I already ask you? In any case, I like the Lumix, how much does it cost? What do you think I should use for video? My budget is probably around 500$, what do you recommend?

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Nomadic Samuel July 20, 2011 at 4:10 am

Hey Leif, I’d recommend a point and shoot camera that has solid zoom & wide angle capabilities along with HD video. A good example of this would be here: http://www.cameralabs.com/reviews/Panasonic_Lumix_DMC_TZ10_ZS7/index.shtml It fits within your budget.

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flipnomad July 28, 2011 at 4:54 am

perfect timing…. i just started saving up for a new camera and this would help me choose which camera to buy!!!

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Nomadic Samuel July 30, 2011 at 1:46 am

Which camera are you considering now?

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Darren August 24, 2011 at 10:02 pm

A great article and one I can definately relate to. I know a lot of people (especially other bloogers for some reason) do find the subject controversial and objectionable. I have always found that the best photos are ones where the subject doesn’t know you are taking the photo. It worked at family functions and now is the template for my travel photos. I was also a journalist for 30 years and the worst video shots (we always tried to edit out) were the ones where people in a crowd notice the camera and start playing to it. Sometimes the camera man would just turn off the camera and put it down until people forgot about it again. In any case a lot of the techniques you mention are all things that I do too. I have a pocket point and shoot (Lumix DMC-ZS5) camera that takes amazing photos. I can’t see myself ever trading it in for a big, awkward DSLR. I think good photos are more in the eye of the shooter than the mechanics of the camera. You can check out some of the photos I’ve taken, on my site http://rtwtravels.com/photo-stream/

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Hey Darren, I completely agree with what you are saying. As soon as the subject is aware a camera is in front of them (often) something changes in terms of their mannerisms. I also like that you’ve pointed out that you can get great shots with a point and shoot camera. This is another point I completely agree with as well. The benefits of a p&s is that it is a lot less noticeable.

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Christy @ Ordinary Traveler August 25, 2011 at 1:27 am

Is that little girl picking her nose? Classic. :)

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:18 pm

LOL, it appears she is :P You have to be careful in front of Sam’s candid camera :)

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Cathy Sweeney August 25, 2011 at 4:52 am

Great tips, great shots! Helpful to get the camera reviews, too. I’ve been procrastinating on getting something a step up from my Canon point and shoot. Must make a change soon!

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Hey Cathy, best wishes selecting a new camera :)

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Abby August 25, 2011 at 12:42 pm

I second what Cathy said. I just haven’t made that leap to a better camera yet, and I don’t know why. Excellent post, covering everything from the technical to the skills. I’ve been in journalism all my life, and I’m always running around with a photographer trying to get these kinds of candid shots. It’s not easy to do! But it’s so worth it.

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Hey Abby, it’s not always easy to decide to upgrade or to know which camera to choose with there being so many out there. I’m soon going to post a few cameras I recommend in different classes and price ranges.

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Lauren August 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Awesome post! Really helpful and informative :)

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Thanks Lauren, glad you enjoyed it :)

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Andrea August 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Ahh – sneaky photography, I love it! Great shots!

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:23 pm

LOL, yeah, it’s my favourite genre – should I be ashamed to admit it?

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Sherry August 26, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Impressively thorough, Samuel. I’m sure there will be many who truly appreciate your advice. I’ve never been good at candid photography. Maybe its because I’m too hesitant to shoot people. Though, it would be funny, especially with the things people do. I’ll have to practice the techniques.

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Hey Sherry, I do recommend you practice and naturally over time you’ll become more comfortable with it. It’s not pleasant in the instances where you take a photo of somebody and they are visibly upset about it. With practice that happens less and less, I find.

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Raymond @ Man On The Lam August 28, 2011 at 6:33 am

Who’s that dude crouching behind the park bench? Umm…it’s Samuel…up to no good. LOL…

Great tips Sam! I took some candid photos of the guy I was sitting next to on the bus a couple of days ago. Most folks don’t have a clue, especially if they are doing something else. Mine was playing a game on his phone. Surprised he didn’t hear the camera click though… :)

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:39 pm

LOL, that’s hilarious. Maybe I’ll be the guy with a black eye and a busted nose :P Yeah, I find when I’m taking candid portraits that I look for somebody who is engrossed with what it is he/she is doing as the best subjects.

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Amanda August 28, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Great tips! (And some great shots, as well!)

I guess sometimes I feel strange taking photos of people who aren’t aware that I’m photographing them. Being sneaky is indeed a great way to get candid shots. But sometimes it feels too… well, sneaky!

But this is a really good, comprehensive post.

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Amanda, that’s very true. I’ve felt I’ve crossed the line a bit at times & afterwards I feel shitty about it. I especially don’t like to offend others.

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Natalie August 29, 2011 at 4:26 am

Great tips. I want one of those articulating screens. Photography is turning out to be an expensive hobby!

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:47 pm

Natalie, it SURE IS! Although now that I’m addicted I’m afraid I’m hooked for good :P

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Traveling Ted August 29, 2011 at 10:28 am

If you ever need a side job you could be a private investigator. Great tips on an interesting photography genre I have yet to explore.

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Thanks Ted :) It’s a bit of a tricky genre. I feel ‘guilty’ in the rare case when I upset others. I have to remember though that I have my picture taken a lot more (from others not asking) then I have done of any one individual.

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Cornelius Aesop August 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Arg I feel like these posts are edging me closer and closer to wanting a new camera. I have a descent Nikon, while the lens isn’t horrible I can’t switch it out nor do I think I could get a 10x optical zoom like you did.

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Hey Cornelius, photography is a terrible money sink. I can relate well to that!

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Maria Alexandra @LatinAbroad August 30, 2011 at 2:02 am

Excellent post – can’t wait to put these tips to practice. had to share this article on my FB latinAbroad page and Twitter! =)

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Thanks Maria! I totally appreciate you doing that :)

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Theodora August 30, 2011 at 3:08 am

I’d add Islamic cultures to the list of cultures where stealing a photograph can cause immense offence and distress, because of the Koran’s prohibition of graven images.

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Theodora, thanks for informing us about that.

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Nancie August 30, 2011 at 8:27 am

Great advice and shots! Thanks for sharing. You probably know how much Koreans dislike their photos being taken….some of these ideas will work well!

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Nomadic Samuel September 1, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Nancie, I’ll have to be especially careful now that I’m back in Korea.

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Marc Passion September 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Haha! Brilliant mate…i’m hoping with a bit of luck you’ll catch me doing something rather candid!

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jenjenk September 3, 2011 at 6:28 am

Great article! i had one photog professor who insisted that we ask for permission as a sign of respect. that was the hardest part for me. :(

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Nomadic Samuel September 7, 2011 at 7:24 am

I think it is better to ask most people if you can take their photo :) That’s sound advice for the most part.

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Tammy Winand January 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Great share. Learning to take pics of people has been the hardest aspect of travel photography for me to date. I spent a lot of time during my 2011 stay in Kathmandu learning to feel comfortable with it. I prefer to be in “stealth mode”, but sometimes that’s not possible, and I’ve learned to watch people’s body language.
I work mostly in Tibetan communities in India & Nepal, and living there part time does help when knowing what signs indicate someone really does not want to be photographed.

My pet peeve is when tourists indiscriminately shoot private moments of locals who clearly don’t want to be photographed.

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LozinTransit March 9, 2012 at 4:53 am

Easily my favored form of documentation. Because you are literally capturing moments of time that are available for split seconds it can get a bit too much. I didn’t travel with a camera for 2/3rds of my trip but I was a beast when I did have a camera.

Its a shame there aren’t more travel bloggers who take pride in candid photography. Its a style that truly makes someones perspective unique.

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Ada Lajara March 12, 2012 at 12:56 am

Great tips!!! Being an SLR user 4 years now, I am suddenly craving for a compact digital camera, in my list are Fuji X10 or X100 with a quality of an SLR!

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Gary Langrick October 22, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Great post.
I have just upgraded from the Alpha a200 to the a55. Similar to yours and it is so much better then my old camera.

Love doing candid shots and when I have done weddings or birthday I always take a compact camera as well and get one of the kids to go round taking pics with it, you find that people will pose in such different and funny ways that although its not candid you do get some surprising pics you would not get if it was you behind the camera.

Also some advise I do give to people who do realize they are in front of the camera are to exaggerate your pose. If there is a great view behind you step back and wave or point at it, if your with a partner give them a quick kiss or pinch there bottom the pics will be so much better for it.

Once again great post

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