We want beautiful pictures of our family without the tense smiles and the glassy eyes! How?
June 18, 2012 12:06 PM   Subscribe

We would like to stop taking "say cheese!!!" pictures of our family, but we get uncomfortable when we're trying to do candids. How do they work?

Let's say my husband and I go on a trip. What we're trying to avoid is a million pictures of landscapes, plus another million of pictures of "cheese" posing next to whatever tourist atraction is nearby. We figure that the world has enough pictures of Macchu Picchu, and we would like to develop the habit of documenting the reality and the feel of our lives and our experiences (in trips, and anywhere), more than just getting the "tarumba wuz here!" shot.

But how do we do that? When I aim the camera at my husband, is he supposed to carry on pretending not to notice, or am I supposed to be super quick and snap a shot before he sees me?

How do you get comfortable and good at taking candid pictures? I see the ones my parents have from their youth and it feels like they were lying around reading poetry all day and an elf with a camera was following them around.
posted by Tarumba to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Practice, often. That is, take so many pictures of each other that you stop reacting when the camera comes out, because the camera is always out. Each of you get a camera, and enough storage to just shoot like mad. Don't look at the pictures afterwards, as a family; just dump 'em all *except* the one that, right after you shot it, made you think "ooh, that's a good shot."
posted by davejay at 12:09 PM on June 18, 2012

Step one: Shoot tons (for a while), even you if you know you'll delete most of them. This gets people used to the idea that the camera will be in use and that they don't have to pose every time you look through the viewfinder.

Step two: If someone poses while you are aiming, just stop and say "No, that's ok, keep doing what you're doing."

Step three: Repeat steps one and two until the "pose for the camera" reflex has subdued. Then feel free to be more selective in your shots.

Extra note: It's ok to have "posed candids" that look candid but are actually slightly posed. Such as, if someone is looking at something in a museum, it's ok to say "Hey, keep looking at that" until you get the shot you want.

Extra note 2: If you have a decent telephoto or zoom lens, sometimes it's good to sneak away from your group and get some distance as they interact with things. You can take pictures without them even being aware.
posted by The Deej at 12:17 PM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I once spent an evening with Lixin Fan, film-maker of Last Train Home, an incredibly candid documentary that involved thousands of hours of filming in close quarters of a Chinese family over two years. Watching that film, its hard to believe that you are watching a documentary, rather than a scripted movie. Fan told me that the incredibly naturalistic effect was due to the constant filming. That, after some time, the family almost completely filtered out the presence of one, two or sometimes three people with videocameras constantly trained on them. Only at one point of the film, does the "fourth wall" get broken with the young daughter in the family suddenly turning towards the camera and yelling abuse at the camera during a particularly nasty argument. Mostly, however, its as if the normal, incredibly intimate rhythms of family life were being filmend by hidden camera.

My point is that, especially in a day of essentially free photo storage, you can reproduce something like this effect by taking so many pictures, at all times, that the subjects will eventually stop caring or reacting to the camera. Even if you aren't always shooting, having cameras nearby or always on hand de-sensitizes subjects to the camera. Over the last few years, I've gotten much better at capturing the personality and 'real look' of friends and family. I've even had friends tell me that normally, they refuse to let anyone take any pictures of them but that they don't seem to resist or mind or notice me.
posted by bumpkin at 12:18 PM on June 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I take hundreds (actually, thousands) of pictures of the family doing stuff around the house. It has become normal to have the camera randomly taking photos. (Then it's a balance of enjoying the moment instead of through the lens.) Then, I keep the 5 good ones out of the 300-1000 I took that weekend.


1) Do it regularly
2) Take many
3) Don't try too hard--don't even try at all
4) Keep very few
posted by TinWhistle at 12:18 PM on June 18, 2012

We have a friend who is a freelance photojournalist, as a side gig he pays the bills by doing family shots when he's in town for a while. As he's an action photojournalist he just doesn't like to do posed shots. He likes to use my kids as fodder for his website (they're cute, what can I say?) and so he's done a few family shoots for us. For me it was a bit weird at first too. We'd wear nice clothes and then go to some photogenic place like the botanical gardens and just walk around with this paparazzi gadfly circling us, rather off-putting. Then we got the first shots back and they were awesome! So we've gotten over it. Basically he just burns a LOT of shots and then sifts out the wheat from the chaff (of course there is the matter of his professional skills and expensive equipment too). The best stuff comes when we try to keep our kids from getting bored between vigniettes rather than actually trying to "not pose" in some lovely spot.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:20 PM on June 18, 2012

Oh, one more thing: if you shoot people enough this way, they'll start using posing as a tool to make you STOP taking pictures. My kids do this; if I try to take a candid and they see it, they strike a typical cheesy pose and make faces, knowing I'll never shoot that shot.

So, you can make this work to your advantage if they don't like having photos taken of themselves: turn it around by only "shooting" when they pose, and pretending not to shoot when they don't. Just "shoot" the pose, then drop the camera and make like you're looking at the picture, and as soon as they go back to what they were doing, grab one more.
posted by davejay at 12:22 PM on June 18, 2012

it might go without saying, but just in case: you'll also have to say "c'mon, pose!" so that they won't pose if they don't want their pics taken, and then you act a small bit disappointed and sneak one momentarily after.
posted by davejay at 12:23 PM on June 18, 2012

A camera with a decent zoom lens that lets you stand a little bit back can help. I applaud your interest in candid photos because they often look better.
posted by dgran at 12:30 PM on June 18, 2012

It helps to cultivate what I think of as sideways attention. Instead of staring directly at the person you're trying to photograph, look at little bit past them or a little off to one side. They're still clearly in your range of vision, but I think they don't get the laser-beams-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling that you get when someone's staring at you, which means that they forget about you, the camera person, faster.

You can also keep your camera ready to shoot for, say, a continuous hour or two of the time that you're at Macchu Picchu, so that when your husband is doing something interesting, you can just lift the camera and take a picture. Small digital cameras are good for this: you put the loop around your wrist and keep it on, and you're ready to go. As soon as you take a picture, you go back to not-quite looking at the people you're trying to take pictures of. It is easier to do this too if you're not standing right up next to them. If you are standing just a bit outside of the group, your picture taking movements won't be as obvious and therefore won't register as strongly.
posted by colfax at 12:44 PM on June 18, 2012

Just to add to the great suggestions you've already received, I have found it useful when taking posed, "say cheese" style photos, to take three or four pictures at a go. After the first photo, people relax, and laugh or say something, and if I keep clicking and if I'm lucky I'll end up with a nice group shot where everyone's smiling and relaxed.
posted by Ziggy500 at 12:49 PM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Personally I think the effect you noticed in your parents' photos was the difference between film and digital cameras. For me, I am much more relaxed as a photographer if I am able to look through a viewfinder and capture a moment rather than looking at a screen; there's also less temptation to edit the photo immediately after the fact (from both myself and the photo subjects!). My digital camera is also terribly slow and I always lose some momentum using it, not to mention any chance at a 'sneak attack' candid, as opposed to my film camera. I think the advice to take a lot of photos is great, especially with digital, but you might get some good mileage out of a film camera.

Another trick I've used in the past, especially at events where there are multiple people like birthday parties, etc., is to just pass the camera around and make everyone take a few pictures. You get lots of different perspectives and angles and that way everyone appears in the shots, not just everyone minus the photographer.
posted by stellaluna at 12:49 PM on June 18, 2012

Don't try to hide the camera. No need to keep anything a secret. Use direct communication. If people start posing for the camera, tell them you don't want them to pose, you want to take candid shots, so they should just act normally.
posted by John Cohen at 1:07 PM on June 18, 2012

I have have a camera with a viewfinder, I use the biggest card that will fit in my camera, and I shoot a TON. I never chimp photos immediately after taking them - I save this for "sitting on the bus time" or "waiting for lunch to come in a casual place time" or similar, and weed out the obvious bad. I always talk while I'm shooting - for me at least, conversation keeps people engaged but distracted, if that makes sense. It's harder to make duck-face if you're answering a question or laughing at a joke. For serious, just practice this in the back yard or at brunch or something and you'll feel 100% better about the pictures you take.
posted by ersatzkat at 1:14 PM on June 18, 2012

I just came back from a family vacation and I am very happy with our photos ... very! I think the key for me is always anticipating (or finding if I have to) the quieter, off moment -- much more interesting than the kids lined up in front of the boat is the local lady applying aloe from the plant to my daughter's sunburned shoulders. The group-at-dinner shots are great but more evocative are shots of my daughters shopping in a local market, conferring with their heads together over produce. Also, shoot juxtapositions when you find them (I shot an amazingly pimped out Harley in front of the world's dustiest "bakery" -- really just a window in someone's house -- in Central America.) And I love to shoot the almost-forgotten-everyday-stuff shots -- like the wicker chair where I read for hours every day, or the table with the Scrabble pieces scattered, or the shucked corn husks at my daughter's brown feet, or the inside of our ancient refrigerator right after our marketing.

davejay's MO is mine too -- I am a pretty sneaky shooter, and get my best shots when my subjects think I've stopped shooting and am just futzing around.
posted by thinkpiece at 1:52 PM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

When travelling I bring one body, one lens (usually a fixed lens with a large aperture 50 1.4 or a 30 1.4etc) and a big card. And just shoot.

It's nearly impossible to not be camera aware but if you two are talking and you want a photo of him then keep talking while shooting, don't stop everything, just pick up the camera compose, focus, set exposure and shoot. Put the camera down and keep chatting. If he starts staring at the camera then keep it up to your eye and wait for him to relax and go back to what he was doing while you two are talking.

Candids of strangers can be a bit more challenging but if you are a visitor in a touristy area just act like a typical aloof tourist and shoot away. It really lets you get away with a lot. If people don't want to be photographed then they will let you know, give them a big smile and try and tell them why you wanted to photograph them. "Oh but you looked so nice standing in the light...." Or whatever the case may be. But don't push it.

Don't let it the camera interrupt your life just let it be part of your life. Oh and as others have said, shoot a lot.
posted by WickedPissah at 3:08 PM on June 18, 2012

I don't know if this is what you want, but it's one of my favourite things to do for snapshotty photos.

I give every photo a "theme".

"Okay everybody! The theme of this photo is... Underwater!... Socialism!... Italy!... Explorers!"

Everybody immediately does something they associate with the theme. Now, looking back, it's almost always impossible to guess what the theme was from looking at the picture; people are bad mimes and I generally go for fairly abstract themes. But what you do have are these awesome, tableau-like pictures just crammed with action and emotion. No awkward smiles, no cheesey formality. Just tonnes of emotion, people having fun, and interesting poses, faces, compositions.

Now, as a bonus, these things are usually quite funny, they put people in the mood and relax them, and if you're smart you can snap off a few pictures immediately after the "themes" where people are just laughing and having a good time. It's one of the only ways - if you're going for posed shots - I've found of loosening people up quickly and effectively.
posted by smoke at 3:28 PM on June 18, 2012 [11 favorites]

A couple of other answers have touched on using a viewfinder, but I'll be more explicit: you need a DSLR. I was amazed at the difference when I switched from a point-and-shoot to an entry level DSLR. The speed of shooting is crucial: I can crank off several shots per second, and in between your husband looking sheepish and sticking out his tongue there can actually be a damn good photo. Shooting in bursts lets you get those in-between shots, especially with kids.
posted by werkzeuger at 4:21 PM on June 18, 2012

I have got some of my best candid shots by just aiming around and taking shots of random things - that flower, that wall, that whatever, until others start ignoring me, thinking I'm just experimenting or whatever, then when they are completely ignoring me and start their own conversation or concentrating on something else, swing the camera towards them and click click click.
They usually don't even notice until a week later you show them a photo of themselves mid-conversation with someone else with a beer in their hand
posted by Diag at 8:33 PM on June 18, 2012

And yes, having a fast DSLR really helps with this method
posted by Diag at 8:37 PM on June 18, 2012

Rather than taking candids or "cheese" photos, I try to get photos of people interacting in some way with the scenery.

See a statue of a woman dancing, have someone immitate it and stand next to it. Or do the "holding up the leaning Tower of Pisa" thing. Plank on things. Get a mid-air shot of someone jumping in front of something. Do a human pyramid in front of the real pyramids. A personal favorite is to have someone stand so that it looks like it is their head on the body of a headless sculpture.

This has the side benefit of having a silly memory to go along with the picture.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:27 AM on June 19, 2012

As everyone will suggest, you need to take a million pictures to eliminate the novelty of being photographed. You might have to take it right up to and past the "I wish you'd put that fucking camera down" stage. Eventually, your subject will just go on with life and you'll get pictures of your subject doing what your subject would do without the camera around.

Try a lot of shots of your subject doing something and not facing your way. Eventually you'll also catch a few candid shots as your subject turns to face you.

Also explain to yourselves that you are taking pictures of the situation, not the person, and you don't want smiling portraits, you want natural action.

And this might help: get together to look at some old non-smiling portraits and try to imitate them while you discuss why people didn't smile back then and they do now. Take turns pretending to be dead outlaws, dead Victorian children, monks, judges, grave apes, etc. Learn not smile, or at least to wipe the smile off your face, when being photographed.
posted by pracowity at 11:42 AM on June 19, 2012

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