How To Make Candid Portraits When You Travel

How To Make Candid Portraits When You Travel


Editor's note: This month only – 50% off five classic photography ebooks! Click here to get the deal. Thanks for reading, Andrew.

A candid portrait is one where the subject is unaware that a photo has been taken. The idea is to capture people acting naturally. They should be unaware they are being photographed, as their behavior can change once they become aware of the camera.

We’ve all seen what happens when people are forced to smile for the camera, or to look at it while somebody is taking a snapshot.

Another reaction is to pose or perform for the camera. The result doesn’t give us a true likeness of our friends and loved ones. Nor does it give us a true likeness of people we photograph on the street.

Take a look at the photos below. In the first (left) the family is unaware that I’m making a photo of them. The girls are playing around. This makes the photo.

In the second (right) the woman in the photo saw me pointing the camera at her and reacted with a smile. It’s a nice portrait, but it’s not a candid. She was aware of the camera and it changed her behavior.

Candid portraits China

Tips for making better candid portraits

Here are a few techniques that can help you create candid portraits while taking photos while traveling. For me travel is the best way to make candid portraits as local people add character and interest to your photos.

Use a small camera. The bigger your camera and lens, the more likely you are to be noticed by people. There is something about smaller cameras (like mirrorless cameras or compacts) that are less threatening. A friend of mine who is a model told me that she is more relaxed when the photographer uses a small camera. If an experienced model feels this way, then how will ordinary people feel? You can also consider using a smartphone.

There is an exception to this: telephoto lenses are useful for taking photos from a distance, although there is less sense of involvement in the action with this type of photo.

Note: My ebook The Candid Portrait (50% off this month) discusses the use of lenses in street and travel photography in more depth.

Find an interesting location and wait for interesting people to appear. In this sense the street becomes a stage and passersby the actors in a play. Once you’ve find an interesting location the only thing you have to do is wait for the characters of your play to appear. This is easier to do when traveling, when everything appears new and interesting, than it is in your home town.

I made the photos below in Beijing. I noticed that people were entering a courtyard, walking past the prayer wheels and spinning them. I found a place to stand and made some photos.

Candid portraits China

Don’t make eye contact with people, or look at them. Look past them, at whatever is in the background. People will assume you are taking photos of something else and that they just got in the way. This works best when you keep the camera to your eye, even if you have just taken a photo, as it makes people think you’re waiting for them to move.

Use a wide-angle lens. With a wide-angle lens you can point the camera away from the person you are taking a photo (imagine that they are placed close to a third) and they may not even realize that they are in your photo, especially if you don’t make eye contact. Do this when you want to make an environmental portrait and show somebody in their surroundings.

This is a great technique to use when you don’t want to get too close to people. You’re not even making photos of people, rather photos with people in them. It’s normal tourist activity.

The main problem with wide-angle lenses is that you can end up with too much in the frame, especially in a crowded scene. Pay attention to the composition and keep it as simple as you can.

I made the portraits below in India and China respectively. Both show people in context and give a great sense of the environment and the way local people behave in that settings.

Candid portraits

Make photos at cultural celebrations. People expect to be photographed at events like this. For example, I made the photo below at carnival in Cadiz, Spain. All I had to do was stand nearby in the crowd and make photos of the performers.

Candid portrait Spain

Make photos of people absorbed in what they’re doing. People are far less likely to notice you when they’re absorbed in whatever they’re doing. The woman in the photo below was loading her truck and didn’t pay any attention to me.

Candid portrait China

Do your research. What are local people’s attitudes to being photographed? Some people don’t like to be photographed for religious reasons. People in countries like China and India are much less bothered about being photographed than most people. In some European countries there are laws against making photos of people without permission in public places, especially children. It doesn’t stop people making candid portraits, or even leading street photography workshops in countries like Spain which have these laws, but it’s good to be aware of them. Find out what to expect so you understand local people’s behavior and know what is seen as acceptable and what isn’t.

Have a nice demeanour. When you travel, are you open to having conversations with local people, or do you tend to close yourself off? A lot depends on where you are. If you’re in a place where some local people swarm around visitors trying to sell them things, or that has a reputation for pickpockets, then you’re naturally going to be on your guard. But from many years of travel I can tell you that you’re much more likely to have interesting experiences if you talk to local people. Be open and curious. The world is full of friendly people who are happy to help.

Think about how this applies to photography. What’s your body language telling people when you have your camera in your hands? Is it defensive, as if you’re doing something wrong? Or is it friendly and open? People respond positively to smiles and friendliness. If somebody asks you what you’re doing, talk to them about photography, or wherever the conversation takes you.

With practice you’ll get a feel for which of these techniques to use in certain situations.

Candid portraits – summing up

The most useful tip here is to use a small camera (and lens). The lighter your setup the easier it is to carry it around with you all day. The second is to have a friendly demeanour, and to be open to talking to local people. The rest is just technique. Feel free to start with a wide-angle lens, look for interesting settings and photograph people walking through them. Cultural celebrations of any kind are also a great opportunity to make candid portraits.

photography ebooks

If you’d like to learn more about these ideas then check out my ebook The Candid Portrait. You can grab it today for just $7 – that’s 50% off! It’s all part of the 50% off in July special. Click here for the details and to make your purchase.


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Street and travel photography

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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