Capturing a great candid portrait of a subject is all about how you – the photographer – interacts with the subject, knowing when to engage, when to step back, seeing the opportunities before they occur and being 100% ready when that perfect moment materializes.
Working predominantly as a children and family photographer, specializing in candid portraits, I could make a pretty strong case that a great candid portrait of a child is easier to get than a great candid shot of an adult. It seems that everyone, from a pretty early age has this pre-conceived notion of what they should do when a camera is pointed at them (more on that later). Candid portrait photography is more about getting your subject to forget that the photographer is even present… or even perhaps getting a subject to behave a certain way for a photograph…. without actually having them pose for a photograph. Most of us adults find it very hard to ignore a camera when someone points it at us. But when a kid is really into something the they’re doing, they don’t even notice that there’s a camera pointed at them. Or, they don’t even care. Either way, it’s great if you want to capture one of those wonderful, ‘in the moment’ shots. And the emotion that you capture on their face will be absolutely genuine. This brings us to our first tip for today:
1) Don’t ask them to smile, and don’t ask them to say ‘Cheese’’. If you want your subject to smile, find a way to make them laugh. When you think about it, this is something we all do with young babies and toddlers because it’s the only way to do it…. you can ask a newborn to say ‘cheese’ as many times as you like, it isn’t going to work. One of the great things about all digital cameras is that you can take any number of shots that will never make the cut, and then just delete them. Often I’ll ask a child to cycle through a range of emotional expressions and take a bunch of photos as I’m going. I’m really just looking for a genuine smile, and get it by making silly requests of them – ‘Show me your best ‘angry face’…now your best ‘super super super angry face….now your best ‘i’ve eaten waaay too much chocolate face…now your best ‘I can’t wait till school on Monday face!’. I’ll show them the silly pictures I’ve taken along the way. I find this works on a lot of levels – it gets them away from the idea that they should only behave a certain way when they’re having their picture taken (can’t get a great natural shot if your subject is thinking about how they should be acting for the camera); it makes the process of having one’s picture feel fun; and it breaks the subject free from that expectation that we all seem to acquire from an early age that we have to say ‘cheese’ whenever someone points a camera at us (that word is a short-cut that never quite pays off. An unrestrained grin of pure joy is harder to get, but it’s worth the effort… and you can always tell the difference in a picture).
…if you can be constantly interacting with your subject about something that interests and excites them, then the fact that you’re also taking photos becomes somewhat unnoticable to them
2) If you want to take good candid portraits of your children, then you’ll need to make sure they’re engaged in something. If you’re asking them to stand there whilst you take some nice pictures, then you’re going to struggle to get any really great candid shots. That said, even if it’s a trip to the park, or you have them playing with their favorite toys, the real trick to this is how you – the photographer – engages with your subject. Obviously, this is dependent on age, but if you can be constantly interacting with your subject about something that interests and excites them, then the fact that you’re also taking photos becomes somewhat unoticable to them – when you get good at this, you can even drop the occasional direction. One additional tip here – match their enthusiasm. If they’re really fired up telling you about their favorite game or something… you’ll want to mirror that enthusiasm when you tell them to ‘just look up at me real quick!’ so you can get the shot that you want. If Christmas is the best time of year for this (or the easiest time at least) – I mean who doesn’t get excited talking about Santa and what presents they’re looking forward to getting!
3) Smiling is not the only expression…and that’s ok! The fact that we all feel compelled to say ‘cheese’ every time someone points a camera at us shows how deeply rooted the expectation that EVERYONE MUST SMILE IN PHOTOGRAPHS is. I’ve talked a bit here about getting a genuine smile from your subject… but remember there isn’t a law that says smiling is compulsorary. So don’t get hung up on it when you’re looking to get great photos of your kids. My own three-year old can be quite serious a lot of the time, and he’s presently very into LEGO right now. The pictures that I’ve got of him as he’s concentrating on building his next masterpiece are amongst the favorites that I’ve ever taken of him