How to Make Candid Portraits

On Film

18 min read by

For a medium that’s often referred to as “slow,” film has enabled countless spontaneous masterpieces. The candid approach is responsible for creating distinctly sincere portraits I’ve come to admire ever since I got interested in photography.

This guide explains a few methods that should help you improve your unstaged photographs.

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What is “candid” photography?

Candid means unstaged or without any direction from the photographer. Your subject’s consent and whether they know that you might take a photo of them isn’t relevant.

As long as your subject does not pose for the picture, you are taking a candid portrait.

My Twitter friends strongly prefer candid images over studio portraits.

Any scene may be photographed candidly or as staged. However, portraiture is generally implied when talking about “candid” photography.

Neither candid nor staged approaches are intrinsically better or worse than the next. The terms are so broad that it would be inappropriate to make those kinds of generalizations.

When it comes to public opinion, my not-very-scientific Twitter survey revealed that the 37 photographers who answered strongly prefer seeing candid images over studio portraits. However, the same group showed no preference for either type of work when they are the ones holding a camera.

When is it most appropriate to shoot candid portraits?

If your staged photos of someone you know aren’t giving you the results you want, the candid approach may help.

Most of the portraits I take are candid. It may have started as a side-effect of my introverted nature and perpetuated as I saw favourable results.

Whenever you point a camera at someone, people react. Some people may maintain a confident, natural expression in front of a camera without training; others do not. You may try to build a rapport with your model and influence their expressions with some work; however, you may not have much expertise or desire to do that if you are like me.

The candid approach gives you an option to circumvent that tension by avoiding it altogether. Keep in mind that this is not a “get out of jail free card.” A good candid photograph may require just as much work as working with your model on a staged image.

If you want to document an event with your subject’s attention away from your camera, the candid approach may be more appropriate.

If your subject is performing a dangerous task, it may be best to let them keep their attention on doing it safely.

It may also be unethical to ask people to pretend to do something when you are planning to present your work as a documentary.

Or you may look for a particular expression from your subject that is difficult or impossible to stage.

If your subject is a random person, you may not have the chance to stage them for your photograph properly, in which case you may take an opportunity to take their portrait candidly.

Note that taking photographs of strangers (or people you know) without their consent may not be legal in some circumstances or it may be ethically inappropriate. I generally try to be sensitive to how people feel about my camera and avoid ruining peoples’ day over my hobby/project. There are times when certain events have to be documented, and there are times when they feel like they do, but it would’ve been better to put the camera down.

What’s the best lens for candid portraits?

The consensus seems to be that it’s generally easier to take candid portraits with smaller lenses and cameras. 35mm film is probably the best format for this type of photography. My preference is with compact rangefinder and autofocus cameras with fixed (non-detachable) prime lenses.

Candid photography requires quick reaction times.

Your subject(s) and the scene may change rapidly as you busy yourself with creating a composition and choosing the right moment to capture. I think that a good autofocus system isn’t a bad idea, though it has failed on me on a few occasions with cheaper cameras — so beware. Zone focusing, expanding your depth of field, focusing using your feet, and letting your subjects walk into your focus area are discussed below. All of these methods employ manual lenses.

Film cameras have a greater variety of quality prime lenses than zooms. Zoom lenses often add complexity, bulk, and unnecessary attention to self.

A flight attendant, trying to recall something from her memory. Shot on 45mm Yashinon lens on Electro 35.

All of the photos in this article are taken on either 35mm (Pentax PC35AF), 45mm (Yashica Electro 35), or 50mm (Voigtländer Ultron) prime lenses on 35mm film. I find ~50mm to be a comfortable focal length for most of my work as it allows a little breathing room between me and the subject. It is also the most common length on 35mm cameras from the ‘40s-’70s.

Wider lenses are easier to focus as they have a greater depth of field at all apertures and distances. They are more suitable for tight spaces like apartments if you’re looking to capture some of the environment along with your subject. 28mm on my Minolta TC-1, for example, is a lot easier to use indoors as my 50mm tends to force a choice between the face and the subject’s body with little of the interior to ever make into the shot.

However, my TC-1’s loud motor is too distracting for up-close candid photographs. I advise you to keep the sounds that your camera and lens make in mind when deciding which gear to bring. Think motor and shutter noise. Manual film-advance cameras with leaf shutters tend to be the quietest. Leaf shutters can be found on many rangefinders, all TLRs, and most zone focus (viewfinder) cameras. The majority of SLRs use plane shutters (with some notable exceptions like Hasselblad 500 C/M) that tend to be on the louder side.

𝒇2.0 50mm Voightländer Ultron at the Moscow subway with Ilford Delta 3200. I kept the lens wide-open so that I can shoot at ~1/250 and avoid motion blur. The focus fell on the blocky station signage instead of the passengers, which I think made this picture a little more interesting.

Candid shots tend to happen during all kinds of situations, so it certainly helps to have a versatile camera that can shoot in various lighting conditions. A fast lens with an aperture of 𝒇2.8 or better, paired with a shutter at least as fast as 1/500, would do great. You can also have multiple compact cameras on your person with different film speeds and focal lengths. I do not recommend carrying multiple lenses for a single body as switching them tends to make the photographer’s presence evident, thus ruining the “candid flow.”

 ☝︎Further reading: “A Beginner’s Guide to Film Photography

What’s the best film camera for candid portraits?

Small and quiet cameras are easy to keep out of the way. Compact 35mm jewels like Rollei 35 and Chinon Bellami are comfortable enough to keep on your person at all times, and neither draws too much attention. Large cameras can still serve you well, though I find a lot of value in being able to pocket mine.

Rollei 35b with a flash.

Automation may help you focus and set your exposure faster. However, I found that it sometimes comes with its own drawbacks. For example, a good auto-exposure camera can help you make quicker captures under various lighting conditions, but it may also do you a disservice when shooting in complex situations, i.e. against the sun.

If you aren’t comfortable with setting the exposure on your camera manually, do not place this additional burden on yourself while taking candid photos. Get something that works in either aperture or shutter priority if you want to control your depth of field or fully automatic to make your job even simpler.

Many older cameras also came with uncoupled light metres, which require you to point the camera at the subject and copy the meter readings onto the lens. These types of meters are better (faster to use) for candid photography; however, they are often flawed. Some may be completely inaccurate and have a lot of trouble providing guidance in low light.

Polaroid SX-70 is a large, loud instant film SLR camera. An even louder boat motor and my dad’s laser focus on not getting us drowned helped me get a candid portrait where he isn’t looking at the camera directly or trying to pose for the picture.

Your viewfinder type may make a considerable impact on the kind of photos you take. For example, TLR cameras let you look down and shoot from the hip by default — or reach places above head — kind of like tilt-screen digital cameras today. Rangefinders may help you adjust manual focus quickly in most lighting conditions. Zone focus cameras (where you guestimate your distance) may force you to choose narrower apertures and free yourself from hunting for sharpness in every frame.

An instant film camera may be a viable option as it allows for quicker feedback and a faster learning process. However, most come with loud motors and large, awkward shapes.

Overall, the best camera for candid portraits is an equal balance between form factor, ease of use, and discreetness. You may want to place some extra weight on your camera’s size if you plan to take your portraits for long periods of time.

By the way: if you choose to get either Rollei 35BellamiTC-1Vitessa, or any other camera from eBay, please consider using the above links so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!

What’s the best film for candid portraits?

While specialty films like Lomochrome Purple and Aerochrome may create incredible effects with your images, I don’t think they are suitable for most candid portraits. you may feel more comfortable working with specialty medium than me; however, I suggest you begin by shooting with monochrome or “natural” colour films.

Kodak T-Max P3200 let me shoot portraits in subdued light without driving attention to my person with flash.

Black and white film may help you drive attention towards your subject and simplify colour management, particularly when it comes to skin tones. Monochrome film also tends to be forgiving to exposure mistakes and is your best choice for high ISO ratings, i.e., Kodak T-Max P3200.

On the other hand, colour film may add a layer of realism and surface details not found in monochrome.

High film ISO will be helpful for faster shutter speeds, help against blur in your photos, and shoot with narrower apertures (higher 𝒇-numbers) for a greater depth of field.

However, if you plan to shoot in the sun, keep in mind that the maximum film ISO you can use at 𝒇-16 (the smallest aperture on most film cameras) will roughly be equal to your camera’s maximum shutter speed. For example, ISO 400 film is the fastest emulsion you can use on a camera with the fastest shutter speed of 1/500s. If your top shutter speed is 1/250s, the fastest film you can have in your camera in full sun is ISO 200.

It may be helpful to have multiple films for different lighting conditions if you plan to have them altered drastically during your shoot. Given that most cameras won’t let you change film mid-roll, this means you may want to have more than one camera on your person — another point for shooting compacts.

In short, look for greater dynamic range and higher ISO ratings which will give you a better chance of nailing your focus and exposure.

 ☝︎Further reading: How to Get a Correct Exposure on Film

Candid portraits with flash.

You can make candid photographs with flash, as long as you’re aware of how it will affect your subjects. Flash is certainly more invasive than a quiet shutter click; however, your first shot will capture your subject(s) faster than they can react to your obnoxious burst of light.

 ☝︎Further reading: A Simple Guide to Using Flash on Manual Film Cameras

My mom and half-uncle didn’t mind my flash; however, they became aware of my camera for the rest of the evening, making further shots feel significantly less candid.

How to capture the right moment.

Burst mode has enabled striking visuals, particularly in sports photography. However, it did not make better photographers out of everyone who owned a camera with such functionality. That is because it does nothing for composition, far from discrete, and is perfectly capable of missing every single “good” moment between the frames.

I had enough time to notice and capture this serendipitous gaze because I kept the environment and my position as constants as I waited for someone to walk into the frame with. With my focus and composition set, I’ve increased my chances at getting the shot by redying my camera when the passengers began to leave, keeping my right eye on the viewfinder and my left observing the surroundings.

Successful images are often made deliberately. Being aware of the environment, how it changes, understanding how your camera will render it, which parts it will crop — while observing your subject within and beyond the frame, make a deliberate photograph. This awareness, along with a mental picture of what you think would make a good candid portrait and the ability to react quickly without a plan, will help you time your shutter and composition.

Practice will help you reach a point where you develop a “muscle memory” for good shots. It will help you miss fewer opportunities and produce candid portraits consistently. Of course, that is not to say that luck won’t deliver excellent shots for you on the first few tries.

Long-term improvements like consistency and more accurate captures of your envisioned ideas will take time. If you want to improve this aspect of your photography quicker, consider shooting instant film.

Once the doors of the train close, there isn’t much time to capture its passengers before it leaves the station.

How to set focus for candid portraits.

Because your subjects aren’t holding a pose, their expressions and position may change rapidly, giving you little time to focus. Being quick about it and avoiding having to adjust focus are good skills to have.

Practice makes focusing aids such as your camera’s rangefinder, an SLR split prism, or the TLR preview renderings faster. A few helpful techniques may further increase your chances of getting sharp images in a split second.

Zone focusing is a method where you guess the distance to your subject and set it on your camera’s lens. If you shoot with smaller apertures/higher 𝒇-number, more of your scene will be in focus, making your job easier. If practiced, zone focus may be set faster than with a rangefinder, SLR, TLR, and, in some cases, autofocus.

If you shoot at 𝒇-16, or higher, most of your scene will be in focus if you set your lens to 3m/9’. Wider lenses, like 28mm, will have this effect more pronounced.

Anticipation of movement is another helpful technique that requires you to compose your image and set focus to an area where you expect your subject to arrive eventually. As they walk into your frame, since you’ve pre-focused your lens, all there’s to do is to click the shutter button. This is similar to zone focusing as you are also guessing where your subject’s distance to the film plane.

Focus “with your feet.” You may be able to focus faster by moving your camera until your subject is sharp. For example, if you’re planning to take a portrait of someone from 1m/3’ away, you may set your camera focus to that value first and walk towards your person of interest until your rangefinder/split prism/or lens preview looks right. This way, you are asking your body to do something very natural, walking, rather than fiddling with your camera’s controls.

Some photos may work well without sharp focus. I think that our obsession with sharp images may sometimes be distracting from capturing the right moment and motion.

Nothing’s in focus here. Still, I am happy with the light that reflected onto Betty’s face from a road sign behind the camera and the clear outline of her features on top of the crosswalk sign.

Set exposure using Sunny 16 or use autoexposure for candid portraits.

Measuring light with an external light meter then dialling it into the camera makes you slower and becomes draining over time. A built-in uncoupled meter that lets you point the camera at your subject and copy your readings to the lens is better for candid photography, in my opinion. Still, it is not as fast as guess-dialling or auto-exposure.

If you follow my advice on choosing a wide dynamic range film, you won’t need a light meter to measure each moment. Even if you aren’t comfortable with estimating exposure values, you can still guess up and down 2-3 steps from your initial light meter reading as long as your light doesn’t change dramatically. An example of a dramatic lighting change is moving indoors or into a deep shadow from the full sun.

If you are shooting outdoors in the full sun, you can set your aperture to 𝒇16, and the shutter speed closest to the ISO of your film. For example, with ISO 200 film, shoot at 1/250s and 𝒇16 in full sun. Or you can shoot at 𝒇11 and 1/500s, which lends the same amount of light. This is the Sunny 16 rule.

 ☝︎Further reading: “A Beginner’s Guide to Film Photography” — if none of the above made sense for you.

As I said earlier, if you aren’t comfortable with setting the exposure on your camera manually, do not place this additional burden on yourself. Use an automatic exposure film camera. Or go halfway and get an aperture priority or a shutter priority camera so that you can control your motion blur and bokeh better.

In the subway, I measured the light once and guessed the exposure thereafter. It was lit relatively uniformly, making my job easy.

Build a better candid portrait portfolio by being there, with your camera.

In a studio, you and your model work together to create an image within a controlled environment. Candid portraiture leaves a lot more up to chance.

If you have your camera with you more often, you are giving yourself more opportunities to take candid portraits. You may think of it as a lifestyle choice.

Change the scene for better photos.

I love visiting new places. When I travel, I feel more open to taking creative risks and find more worthy moments of photographing.

Not everyone can afford to travel to set the mind on a creative track, of course, but there may be plenty of events and secret spots you may visit to keep things interesting.

Another day at the office for the driver, perhaps. An interesting composition and a lucky shot for me, a tourist.

Experiment with gear and technique to gain inspiration and increase your creative vocabulary.

A new camera may help you try new things or to shoot the same photos with a restored curiosity. Though film gear is growing in price, 100+ years of innovation keep your choices fresh. There are all sorts of shapesmechanisms, and formats out there that may change the way you take pictures.

A new film may help you see the world differently. Stepping out of the comfort zone with your emulsion choice may cause you to miss more shots as it renders the world in an unexpected way. But the pictures that do turn out may provide you with a new creative direction or bring more diversity into your portfolio.

Your new gear may lead you to change your shooting style completely. Or it may diversify your repertoire of tools, giving you some additional control over the candid portraits. For example, you may reserve wide lenses for indoors and longer ones for outdoors. A rangefinder for travel shots and a TLR for street photography. Your film choice, developing, and printing methods may also depend on the weather, mood, and desired effect.

Your angle of view, distance to subject, creative use of blur, exposure, and framing can give you options you did not know you had.

Or you can do the opposite and limit yourself deliberately to gain more focus on your subject. Using a piece of gear so familiar it feels like a part of your body may feel empowering. Instead of wondering how a new tool or technique may render your image, you may free yourself up to concentrate on many other elements of a successful candid photograph.

Reaching satisfaction with your photography.

Unless you are a professional photographer on an assignment, your results do not necessarily require to match a brief or a vision. Though the images you make should ideally make you happy, they will grow in value with time regardless of the technicalities and your momentary opinion. Give yourself a second chance before discarding photos you didn’t feel were up to your standard.

Most importantly, I suggest that you try to make your image-making a positive experience for everyone involved. Photography is a powerful tool that has the potential to make our world a little brighter with each shot; focusing on that may well make you a happier photographer, if not a better one, too.