Paris Candid Shots: Thinking About Backgrounds

One of the great disappointments after your trip — you look at your photos and none of the magic you felt is in the images. Painful. That’s why photo books and classes were invented, to show people how to add that magic. I’ve been doing my own personal exploration of that mystery, what makes one image great and another just so-so, here with a focus on candid shots.

In some ways, doing good shots of the local folks just being themselves is one of the best places to find the magic. A simple image of a Parisian walking down the boulevard can give us a huge body of info about them and their culture, often on an almost subliminal level. How they dress, what they’re doing, their essential mojo — it’s all there.

But like anything else, there are levels to the game. First, just capturing a person being real (however you define that) is incredibly hard. Dealing with the technical stuff, hard. Seeing the potential of the situation as it unfolds — that one’s real tough.

Now, let’s think together about the context of the person at that shot location — where they are situated in the complex weave of culture and the everyday. The cultural weave is hugely important. Just look at how John Ford’s westerns reveal culture vs. the world view in a film like The Matrix. Notice the background of a great travel shot, or even a Vogue fashion spread. All that stuff is chosen to add detailing and resonance and layers of insight.

Most photo snappers probably don’t worry much about the background of a scene. They see something cool, push the button and if it’s kinda in focus, move on. Later they come to find there’s all kinds of stuff in the frame that steals focus away from the supposed subject. Of course, a good photographer understands that issue. And if they see a subject who happens to be in a crowded or chaotic environment, they will push their f-stop down to 2.8 or so and all the mess dissolves into a creamy bokeh.

Depth of Field control can lead to a great candid shot. Because having a narrow focal plane allows the photographer to show that moment of recognition in the eyes.

Boy on Merry-Go-Rund

Boy on Merry-Go-Round – Very little context here. I zoomed in close to get his communication with Mama. But even so, we know exactly where he is.

The background context with it’s cultural, social and emotional threads helps us to enter the image on lots of new levels. For example:

Models Waiting to Audition

Models Waiting to Audition – I happened upon this scene wandering around the Marais area in Paris.

Chatting at the Sunday Bird market

Chatting at the Sunday Bird market

Going More Abstract

The shots above provide detail about the world that person lives in. If you’re shooting at the bird market, show some birds, show the guys who keep birds as a hobby. However, we can also choose to focus on elements of the location “set” that are more abstract or culturally complex.

The clock view, D'Orsay Museum

The Clock View, Upstairs at D’Orsay Museum

With this clock view, I barely care about my supposed subject, the young lady posing. I’m purposely going very wide angle and shooting at waist level. Both choices help the viewer see the context more abstractly. And fully half the frame is taken up with the clock — as if we’re almost inside time. Whoa.

Palais Royal Sculpture

Palais Royal Sculpture

Another people shot. Here the couple is chatting on one of my favorite sculpture pieces in Paris. These black and white columns of various heights take up an entire courtyard and there’s always someone living life in this domino-like landscape.

These young hipsters were chilling by the fountain just across from the Pompidou Museum. But the background, those strange, archetypal fountain sculptures, acts as a counterpoint. I’m aware that the relationship between subjects and background isn’t as clean as I’d want. A better choice would have been to shoot lower and with more zoom. But I could only get the one shot off before the two lads noticed the camera. That’s the point here, to capture the subject in a real way while offering the larger cultural landscape.

The Dance

The Dance

Dancers in the Garden

Dancers in the Garden – Adding more of the formal garden context.


Attending to the environment also allows you to deepen the mood — especially with a few Lightroom adjustments.

After the Tourists Have Gone, Montmartre

After the Tourists Have Gone, Montmartre – Darkening a few areas of the photo allowed me to pump up the feeling inherent in the moment.

Montmartre Scene

Montmartre Scene

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