We’ve all been there. Your dad/cousin/uncle/grandma/best friend asks you to document a birthday party/reunion/soccer game/bachelor party and you say yes without batting an eye. They know that you’ve got a camera, and so assume you must know how to take perfect, spontaneous photos of anything, regardless of lighting, movement, or color. Though this prospect may seem daunting, there are some solid guidelines and recommendations out there that will make your once-in-a-lifetime photographs beautiful rather than boring.
Keep it candid
The first mistake a well-meaning photographer friend will make is to pose their photos. After all, the only way to guarantee the perfect shot is to frame it perfectly, right?
Though this might ensure adequate lighting and ideal framing, it sacrifices a key ingredient to any good picture–authenticity. The beauty of a candid photo is that it can never be repeated. The facial expressions, emotions, and movements are spontaneous and fleeting, therefore utterly organic. These are the photos that get remembered and held on to. They are the photos that help define memories and immortalize events.
Because candid photos capture life in real time, it will often take a bit more of them to capture a winning image. As long as you are willing to spend the time, that’s a good thing. Not only will an extended duration encourage higher quality photographs, but prolonged exposure to the photographer will also enable your subjects to grow accustomed to your presence; an uncomfortable candid photo is not a memory that needs remembering.
Where to shoot
If you’re photographing loved ones, make sure it’s clear that you’re one of them, too. Stay amidst the action, walking amongst your subjects as they duck, kneel, bob, and run. Talk to people as you go, laugh, make a joke, and have a drink (if you’re 21). Knowing your subjects gives you an inherent advantage: they already trust you, which is half the battle when photographing any social event. So get up close and personal, and avoid taking photos from a safe distance.
As you weave your way through the scene, be sure to capture the space around your subjects as you click. Not only will it add depth and contrast to your photos, but it will also encourage a narrative and give context to the pictures, which may only be picked up on years later. “Oh my goodness, I just noticed Uncle Gary’s picking his nose in the background!”
How to light it
If you can help it, DO NOT USE FLASH. The most sure-fire way to undermine the authenticity of a moment is to impose a red eye-inducing, ghostly pall on it. Not to mention that as soon as it goes off the entire world will know that someone is taking pictures, thereby eliminating the element of surprise. Available light will, more often than not, give you everything you need as far as lighting is concerned. Early morning or late afternoon sun will give you some incredible shadows and color variants, and the simple, soft light from a living room lamp will give a sense of comfort and closeness that a flash would totally annihilate.
When shooting intimate pictures of friends and family, the lens is as important as the camera. Since essentially all DSLR models are adequate for photographing people, you need to make sure that you’ve got the right lens for the job. Prime lenses, being much smaller than their high-speed zoom counterparts, tend to be a little less intimidating to kids and camera-shy adults, and allow you to shoot with a little more anonymity. And go wide. It will allow you to capture your target in the foreground, and still capture what’s happening behind. You can go in later and figure out if you want to trim any of the background out of the shot, but you’ll be left with a dynamic picture that tells the whole story.