DCR Workshop: Taking Better Candid Portraits
by Jim Keenan -  8/4/2010

Hard to believe, but that's the Fourth of July in the rearview mirror and Labor Day on the horizon. For many folks, this marks a return to school in one form or another, and since everyone these days seems to be packing a compact digital camera we at thought we'd provide some food for thought in capturing images as you reunite with friends (or enemies, for that matter).

Webster's offers one definition of candid as "relating to photography of subjects acting naturally and spontaneously without being posed." A portrait is a "pictorial representation of a person, usually showing the face." When I think of portraits, a head shot or head-and-shoulders type of subject framing comes to mind, but there are any number of images hanging in museums and art galleries that feature half, three-quarter or even full length paintings or photos that fall into the portrait category.

Our first rule is to not be bound by any particular perspective, and here's why: I have captured literally hundreds of images of Jeannie on her boogie board in the local surf, and without exception her expression is one of intense concentration as she navigates the waves - intense bordering on almost angry-looking, and completely out of character. But as she was walking up the beach after a morning session I unexpectedly turned the camera on her and got this full length:

Years ago CBS had a show called "Candid Camera" that sought to, in their words, "capture people in the act of being themselves." The show would set up improbable situations and insert unknowing people into the mix, filming their actions with a hidden camera. So, operating under Webster's generous guidelines, let's talk about some more ideas you may want to try and incorporate when you set out to capture folks in the act of being themselves.

Focus, Focus, Focus - The Eyes Have It (Usually)
Good focus may not be the most important factor in an image, but it and proper exposure are my top two, and exposure arguably offers more leeway in producing acceptable images by post processing. A light or dark image can be worked somewhat, but all the sharpening in the world won't fix an out of focus shot (or one where the point of focus is in the wrong spot).

If you're framing a head or head and shoulders type shot, the eyes are generally where you want to concentrate the focus. More and more compact digitals are offering face detection technology, and this may be a viable focus option, but the possibility exists that with the face filling most of the frame, face detection may not recognize it as such. An alternate method would be to select a focus option from the camera menu that uses a small, central focus point and set the camera AF mode to single rather than continuous. You acquire focus with a half push of the shutter using the eye(s) as the focus point, and then are free to recompose the actual shot, if needed, by holding the half push while you compose the shot you want and then capture. Here's a couple of shots that, while certainly not candid, illustrate the importance of careful focus when you're in tight on a face. (Both shots are 35mm film transparencies (slides) that have been scanned and digitally reproduced).

The image on the left has good focus on both eyes despite the shallow depth of field; the image on the right looks good small, but when you look at it enlarged the focus point appears to have been the model's right eye, and the left eye is noticeably soft. The softness is a byproduct of the shallow depth of field, but mostly due to the initial focus point, which should have been a bit more toward the left eye to bring both within the depth of field.

If you have doubt as to the ability of the camera to bring both eyes into focus in an image such as the righthand image, where the subject is turned and the eyes aren't in the same focal plane, it's probably best to use the closer eye as the focus point and let the rest of the face fend for itself. On shots where you're some distance off the subject and/or the eyes or face might present a relatively difficult point of focus, you can always try for focus on some part of the subject or scene that's in roughly the same focal plane as the important features.

Both images below are examples of this - the focus point on the lefthand image was in the waist area and the in the image to the right, the focus point was about where the shirt and the shorts overlapped.

Exposure - Dark or Light, Get It Right
Good exposure is the second element I feel is a necessity for a quality image, but before we delve into what constitutes good and how do we get there, let's talk about types of lighting.

If you're shooting indoors, unless the area you're in has extremely bright lighting, you're probably going to be depending on your flash for virtually all your shots. Once you manage to sneak your camera in unobserved in the hopes of striking candid portrait gold, I guarantee your cover gets blown with that first blinding flash. After that, chances are at least some folks are keeping one eye on the guy with the camera and your candid opportunities may dry up a bit.

Two film scans follow: in the one on the left, the boys were into their adult beverages and didn't catch on I was aiming an SLR and flash their way until their world lit up. In the second Al saw the shot coming and instinctively aped for the camera with Mrs. Al. I still like the shot, but it turned out like it did because he staged his part (she was caught by surprise), reacting to the presence of a camera.

Unfortunately, compacts pretty much universally don't have the high ISO noise performance to allow you to ramp up ISO and get shutter speeds fast enough to hand hold indoors without flash unless you're willing to pay a pretty severe image quality penalty due to noise. Shooting at the wide angle end of the zoom is the best way to try low light without flash as the camera's maximum aperture is available there, and the wide angle is a bit more forgiving of camera shake at slow shutter speeds. The other side of this coin is that at wide angle you'll need to be right up on the subject for head or head/shoulder shots, and the perspective with a wide angle may not be what you're looking for. We'll discuss some ideas on lens length later in this article.

Where things get interesting is shooting outdoors, making use of the light you've got and recognizing other lightning options that may exist. Direct sunlight is easy to recognize and difficult to make look good for portraits, particularly during the hours when the sun is overhead. Deep shadows under eyes, noses and chins from direct sun look terrible, so whenever possible, see if you can shoot from an angle where your subject's face is backlit. You're trying to capture the image from a point where the face is shaded and not lit directly by the sun. Here's a film shot (left) and a digital (right) with the model backlit in each case - not candid, but good examples of shading the face from direct light.

Backlight is by no means perfect - if you've got a light background highlights are going to get lost because you're going for an exposure that looks pleasing for the darker shaded portions of the face, and the lighter regions get overexposed as a result. But the good news is that more and more compact digitals are coming with settings that allow you to capture images which expand the apparent dynamic range (the ability to record detail in highlights and shadow) of your camera. Some models even have a "backlit" mode. If your camera has these type of features give them a try with backlight to see how they do.

Another option outdoors is to look for open shade - try to find a spot where your subject is in an outside shaded area, such as the shadow of a tree, wall or anything that casts enough shade to blanket your subject. Open shade has the advantage of often providing a fairly even light without the directional highlights of backlight - you may have many shooting angles compared to a backlit spot. Here's a pair of digital open shade shots.

Back when we all shot film, you had to be a bit careful about film choice for certain conditions. For example, folks shooting Ektachrome, a Kodak slide film, would find that shots in open shade could take on a bit of a blue cast. Fortunately, the auto white balance setting on most compact digitals does a pretty good job across a range of light, including backlight and open shade, so unless your subject is getting hit with reflected light from a colored source, color reproduction should be pretty good in most cases outdoors. Be wary of your white balance if you're shooting under incandescent light or your subject is getting some illumination from incandescent - most compact digitals shoot a bit warm in these conditions with auto white balance and switching to a tungsten or incandescent WB preset would be a likely cure for warm shots.

OK, you've found an angle to your subject that puts the face in a shaded configuration. What to do about exposure?

Most compact digitals use a multi-point metering system as their default to calculate exposure - the camera reads light levels at various spots across the image frame and uses these to come up with an exposure level. Depending on the camera brand, this method may be described as "matrix", "evaluative" or some other descriptive term. Because these type systems read light across the whole frame, they are metering areas that are not our principal interest - the face - and the overall exposure might cause the face to be rendered somewhat darker than we would like. Exposure compensation is an option, but it may take a few shots for you to dial in the right setting for that scene, and when you point the camera in another direction the lighting levels there may require different or no compensation.

Here's another option to try: virtually every camera also offers center-weighted or spot metering methods, and in most cases both. Center-weighted metering takes readings from various points on the frame but assigns a higher level of importance to the readings from the center (on the theory that this is the most important part of the image). Spot takes a reading from a relatively small area and uses that to calculate exposure. Either method will likely produce better results for a backlit subject than the matrix method if you position them on the face or shaded portion of the subject. Since they're calculating exposure largely from the area of greatest importance to the image rather than a wider field that may contain bright background highlights, they'll tend to get you closer to a pleasing exposure, assuming the subject is of average complexion.

Folks with very light or dark complexions may require some exposure compensation even with these methods, and you need to be particularly careful when using spot that the location you meter on is representative of the general illumination in the area of interest, and not an isolated light or dark patch.

The big advantage we have with digital over film is we can see the results immediately and take steps to fix images coming out of the camera that aren't what we want. We also don't have to depend on a darkroom and various printing techniques to change the way images look once on film - a basic software program like Photoshop Elements and a computer allow us to manipulate digital images after they come out of the camera.

So, what's a good exposure? I would argue it's one where the important parts of the image are exposed in a pleasing manner. Back in the film days it was not unusual for folks shooting portraits of women to overexpose by a third or half stop in order to lighten the skin tones a bit, which sometimes seemed to help hide minor blemishes and smooth features. Digital cameras make it easy - practically every one offers exposure compensation. If you're shooting women and expect to be doing a lot of head or head/shoulder shots, try some with +.3 or +.5 EV compensation and see if you like those results better. Here's a backlit digital shot and the same image with +.5 EV exposure compensation.


Base +.5

Don't go overboard sharpening with close ups of women. Digital shots need to be sharpened somewhat and many cameras offer additional settings beyond the defaults that come in the camera, but too much sharpening may bring unwanted attention to skin imperfections that we're trying to downplay (in most cases) with a woman.

As you might imagine, things tend to go the other way with men. Normal exposure or a bit of underexposure may impart a more masculine, rugged look to an image, and if your sharpening accentuates skin flaws it's more acceptable than with a woman.

Other Considerations
With a 35mm camera a "normal" lens was one in the 50mm range because it produced an image that took in roughly the same area as the naked eye. "Portrait" lenses tended to range from 85 to about 135mm depending on the photographer's distance from the subject. In the digital world, even the most modest 3x compacts usually cover the 35 to 105mm or thereabouts focal range, so almost everyone has a good selection of "portrait" focal lengths available. Add to that the advantage of being able to zoom and alter image perspective rather than having to change distance with a prime lens, and any compact becomes a fairly formidable instrument for candid captures.

There's a growing trend in wedding photography to shoot in a more journalistic style - rather than pose wedding party members and guests in formal shots, the photographer(s) shoot images of opportunity throughout the ceremony and reception. Those of you who are thinking this sounds a bit like Webster's "spontaneously without being posed" definition of candid get a gold star. But you needn't have a wedding to go to in order to capture some great images.

And Finally, the Non-Candid Candid
What's the quickest way to turn a posed, set up shot into a candid? Have the subject look away. Ever notice how some folks freeze or tighten up when a camera points in their direction? It's almost a deer-in-the-headlights kind of gaze. Have them direct their eyes elsewhere and once they're not looking into the camera most folks relax and you'll probably get your shot. Even if they don't relax they're not looking into the camera so the shot doesn't look posed. You can spend hours getting someone into position in front of the camera, and if the eyes don't make contact with the camera the shot screams "candid." Try it. Here's two shots from a Brooks Institute workshop - the model was posed with backlight and about 20 photographers were arrayed around her. Where her eyes go makes all the difference...

There's a lot of folks out there waiting to be caught in the act of being themselves. Good hunting!

Additional Sample Images