Candid Travel Shots: Capturing the Elusive Parisians

On our trip to Euro world last June, I went heavy into landscape mode in Greece and Italy for obvious reasons. But by the time I made it to Paris, I was feeling pulled to do more candid people photos and less postcard perfection.

Capturing people being people — without pose or artifice, is a huge challenge.  You don’t know what they’ll do, so you start off by noticing who they are and the activity they are engaged in.

Who They Are, What They’re Doing

Montmartre Night

Montmartre Cafe, Night

The Shiseido counter, Galerie Lafayette

The Shiseido counter, Galerie Lafayette – The counter manager waiting on her customer and just being perfectly French.

Palais Royal Gardens

Ball Players, Palais Royal Gardens – Timing is everything. I left some space on the left side to indicate the direction of focus.

Sunday, Luxembourg Gardens

Sunday, Luxembourg Gardens

When I see a person that interests me — immersed in their Moment, well, I’m thinking about shot set up. Because when you get an image of someone that’s totally There … and the background carries the story forward, you have an unbeatable combo.

It also helps if you can see them engaged in activity for more than a few seconds. A couple having a long moment, a rower sculling by, if you have time to see the moment and get a shot off, sometimes that’s the best you can expect.

Walk the Line

Walk the Line – As the skater made lazy turns around the cones, I had time for setting up the composition. To ensure you’ve got the best moment, take more shots than you need.

I get truly stoked when I notice how immersed in a feeling my subject is. But as the situation develops, you need to be ready for the person to serve up something good. The entire process — see it, get it, can be quite fast if you’re ready. If the talent is too self-aware, you lose the shot. Add the fact that you’re in a foreign country adds its own je ne sais quoi.

So seek out folks doing an ongoing activity. Because while a moment unfolds, you can only do two things: 1. Take stock of your environment fast. 2. Compose. 3. Take many pics to improve you chances.

The Old Birdman -

The Old Birdman – I spent about 10 shots on Birdman, getting the abstract feel I wanted. So when the pigeon’s spooked, I was there for the explosion.

Yeah, it kinda comes down to that. Take pictures. Many. Because if you’ve got all the basics covered (and you probably won’t), you still have to get the person with their eyes open doing something totally cool.

Capturing the Moment 

Subway Trains - f4, 1/8 sec

Subway Trains – f4, 1/8 sec

I got the subway shot just as the second train went by and the windows lined up.

The Environment 

When you have a bit more time, you can really work the entire scene, the environment the person is in. That’s what takes a travel shot to the next level.

Street performer, Sacre Coeur

Street performer, Sacre Coeur

Montmartre coffee shop, 105 mm, 1/100, ISO 6400

Montmartre coffee shop, 105 mm, 1/100, ISO 6400

One of the big mistakes that’s made shooting candid is not focusing on the core dynamic. By that I mean the intimate aspect of that person, what they’re thinking and feeling. Less experienced photographers feel they have to show everything, explain.

Showing too much adds distraction. As with any creative activity, you need to weight what’s important — by zooming in or cropping. For example, the image above was cropped, I was half way across the street zoomed out to 105 mm and got this:


Clearly this shot sucks on almost every level. It’s got all kinds of clutter, the waitress’ face is hidden — all of which I knew when I took the image. The only think I cared about was the deliberate focus of the guy. And I cropped aggressively so his internal focus, his eyes, were central in the composition (using Rule of Thirds). I could have cropped even tighter but I wanted to pull in some of the menu board and the coffee cup for context.

Models on a photo shoot, Montmartre

Models on a photo shoot, Montmartre

I cropped this one as well — but not so tight. The girl’s tennies were essential.

Seeing a moment. Being prepared to capture it. Using the environment to tell the story in a nuanced way. There’s a lot to a good people shot.

Part Deux: Heighten the Composition by Going Abstract

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