Friday, July 9, 2010

Lag is a drag: Tips for shooting candids with point-and-shoots

Can you say "Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese?"

Back from vacation. Nine days away from the grind of daily newspaper production. It was nice, but vacation with a 2-year-old can be hard work, too. I've been back on the job a few days, finding my sea legs, thinking about something worthwhile to write about.

One of the things I discovered on vacation, much to my chagrin, is that someone has taught my son to say "Cheese!" when a camera makes an appearance.

Chagrin? That's cute, you say. Right?

Well, first, that "cheese" is really a "chaaaaaaaaaaaaaayze" which results in anything but a smiling, happy face. Second ...

Okay, I'll admit it. I can be a snob. I just can't abandon my professional approach when photographing family and friends. I'm a passionate admirer and advocate of candid photography. Always. To the point that I think some people are afraid of (or annoyed with) me.

Now don't get me wrong. I enjoy great portraiture. There are tons of photographers who have a gift for using light and working with subjects that results in memorable photographs. That takes great skill and talent. But I'll confess it drives me crazy when I watch folks with cameras proceed to line up their subjects and either elicit silly faces and poses, or wait – seemingly forever, sometimes – for everyone to put on their "best" faces.

No cheeseball here. Just a real moment between 
father and son.

If those kinds of pictures constitute memories for folks, that's great. Photography should be fun. Me? I guess I prefer my family photos to be like my news photos – real. Honest depictions of what really happened. Of how people really looked and acted instead of how they behaved for the benefit of a camera.

It can be a challenge, both with family and on the job, when some people freak out at the sight of a camera. But I persist in my candid approach, much to the chagrin (there's that word again) of others. I think it's worth the effort, though. You can win people over when they see the results.

I learned a few things myself about shooting candids over vacation. I borrowed a point-and-shoot camera so I wouldn't have to lug my work gear down to the beach and other locales. That would feel too much like work and I was, well, on vacation.

One thing, for sure, is that point-and-shoot cameras are made to make snapshots easy-peasy, Unfortunately, they are not built to make candid photography a breeze. Internet social networks are saturated with cheeseball pictures, and it's no wonder. These cameras are designed and built for cheeseball. You take the camera out of the box and commence to shooting. It's not long before the complaints start. Why are my pictures blurry? or Why won't the thing take a picture when I push the button? The fact is, the default settings on nearly all point-and-shoot cameras are designed to shoot still lifes – not living, breathing, moving people.

The reason for this post is to pass on what I learned during my getaway. If you want to learn how to shoot candid photographs of your friends and loved ones with your point-and-shoot camera, here are some tips.

Lag is a drag

I knew Jasper would turn and look
when his mother called out to him.
Anticipation is key.

The first thing you must be aware of is something called lag time, and there are two types of lag time you need to be aware of. The first is unavoidable. A brief amount of time passes between the time you see something, your brain processes it, you press the shutter release, and the camera actually makes the picture. If you wait until you see a moment to press the button, you've missed it. So anticipation is extremely important in candid photography. In reality, you must press the button slightly before the moment you want to capture actually happens. How much before? That depends on how fast your brain and finger work together. And it depends on the second type of lag time: shutter lag.

The shutter is the little mechanism in every camera that opens and closes to let light in and make an exposure. There is a small, but measurable amount of time between when you press the button and the shutter actually opens. Many of you may have probably experienced it – you push the button and the camera hesitates before it actually takes a picture.

Cameras differ in the amount of shutter lag, and it is usually commensurate with the cost of the camera – the cheaper the camera, the longer the lag time. Shutter lag is measured in milliseconds with costlier cameras and basically unnoticeable. Shutter lag in point-and-shoot cameras is usually noticeable and often aggravating. Ultimately, you are going to have to get a feel for the shutter lag with your particular camera and learn to anticipate moments.

Red-eye reduction is the devil

Nice moment. Devil eyes.

Red-eye. You know. When your subjects' eyes take on that demonic glow. It's caused by the light from your flash reflecting off the retina. Unfortunately, if you like to capture spontaneous moments, the cure is worse than the ailment. To battle red-eye, camera manufacturers have programed cameras to set off a series of preflashes that reduce the size of your subjects' irises, hence eliminating red-eye. And you've probably seen it in action: a camera-wielder gets everyone in position, tells them to smile, mashes the shutter release button, and the preflashes begin. Some subjects think the preflashes are the actual exposure and change their positions or expressions. The results are pictures with half the subjects still smiling while the other half look like they're already walking away. Sometimes those pre-flashes last so long, I think I can go grab a cup of coffee and still make it back in time for my picture to be made.

Easy fix

If you ever want to delve into candid photography, turn off red-eye reduction. DO IT NOW! That means you will have to explore your camera's menu or (gasp!) read the manual because red-eye reduction is almost always turned on by default.

Besides, red-eye is very easy to remove from your pictures. Most photo-sharing web sites, like Flickr or Picasa, have re-touching options you can perform on-line. Even your neighborhood photo processing lab usually has software that automatically removes red-eye. So don't worry about those ghastly glows when you view your pics in your camera's LCD. It's an easy fix and you'll be glad you captured a meaningful moment, instead.

The Little Green Monster

One of the things people love about today's point-and-shoot cameras is that they can take it out of the box and start shooting pictures. But that's only true to a point. Like I said, the complaints start quickly. Every camera I know of has several shooting modes, and the default mode is the green "A." A for automatic. Set it and forget it. But the automatic mode is limited and not typically suitable for shooting anything that moves. Especially people. So explore some of your camera's other settings. In fact, this may be necessary if you want to eliminate red-eye reduction because the default "A" mode often won't let you make modifications.

"A" is not for action.

Many cameras have a shooting mode especially for action or sports. It is often designated by a symbol showing a person running, or something similar. This is a good starting point for shooting candid pictures because this mode is tailored for stopping action, and that's what you want. Go ahead and try out other modes, too. Experiment and see which ones work best for you. Don't be afraid to leave the "A."

Wait for the moment

Iconic photography pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined a term: The Decisive Moment. This is what he said:

"There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative..."

That's the essence of candid photography. Fill the frame with your subjects beforehand. Find your best angle. Create an interesting composition in your LCD or viewfinder. Then wait for life to happen before you. Just be patient. It will happen. It always does. And the satisfaction of capturing those life moments is worth the wait.

Sometimes, the best face is no face at all

The "face" of a 2-year-old.

Pictures can tell the story of your life, and of those around you. A happy, smiling face doesn't always tell the story, though, does it? Maybe the best way to remember your goofy-but-hilarious friend is to shoot his or her picture being goofy. Maybe the bed-head we wake up with at the beach house is more memorable and representative than the picture at the restaurant with perfect hair and makeup.

I've argued this point with editors in newsrooms, and I'll make the same argument to casual snapshooters: sometimes a face isn't necessary at all. Things like scale, and juxtaposition, and body language are all that's necessary to capture the essence of a moment.

Shoot lots and lots … and lots of pictures

You'll end up with more throwaway pics than keepers. This is simply the nature of candid photography. To get good at it, you'll have to practice. By practicing, you'll develop the necessary intuition, anticipation, and patience to capture the spontaneous moments in life you really want to remember.

Worried about filling up your camera's memory card with all those duds that accompany the money shots? Here's one of the beauties of digital photography: you have a delete button. Use it, too, because everyone's a photo editor, these days. Don't show them the outtakes, or you might scare some people off. Just show 'em the good stuff, and you'll be the envy of all your friends and family.

By the way, my wife Kathryn shot many of these pictures, so you don't have to be a pro to capture candid moments with a point-and-shoot. Just have fun!

Three duds. One money shot by my wife Kathryn.


  1. You're right on about faces not always being necessary to tell the story, but convincing editors is tough. I've found the compromise usually is a second picture where the person's face is visible. Or even a small mugshot.

  2. This is a link to one of my favorite newspaper portraits.

    Third Place,
    Christopher T. Assaf, The Baltimore Sun

    It won 3rd place for the Portrait/Personality category in the Pictures of the Year contest a couple of years back. Great example of storytelling. You know just about everything you need to know about the guy without ever seeing his face. It's brilliant, but I bet it would drive a lot of unenlightened editors crazy. Probably wouldn't have been published in many (most?) newspapers.

    Too many people have narrow expectations about what a photograph should look like.


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