Here’s how to capture the perfect candid photograph, according to Greg Williams

The famed English photographer explains how to craft and capture the most honest, candid photograph you can — whether you’re using a smartphone or a SLR…

Greg Williams’ Instagram page is picture perfect. Just look at it. From Matt Damon to Tom Hardy, Kate Winslet to Benedict Cumberbatch, the famed English photographer has been capturing stars in his trademark black-and-white style for decades. He even shot a Gentleman’s Journal cover, featuring David Gandy, back in 2018. 

So that makes him the picture perfect person to teach you some key photography lessons. As the king of the candid photo, Williams has spent much of his professional life honing the art of the unplanned, unposed photograph — and we want to know how he’s done it. Below, he reveals some of his tips, tricks, techniques and secrets…

Tip #1: Don’t try to be invisible

Your first thought when capturing a candid photograph may be that you need to become ‘invisible’ — to disappear and remain unnoticed by your unsuspecting subject. That, surely, is the only way to capture a truly natural, honest picture. Williams, however, says this isn’t so. While he admits using this tactic in the past, today the photographer embraces his presence — and uses it to inject a little fun into proceedings.

“In the last 10 years,” says Williams, “my style has very much come out of me being a participant in my photos. So, rather than disappearing, I’m very much a presence in the majority of my shots. There are still absolutely times when I disappear — if I’m on a movie set and someone’s going through their lines, they don’t want to be worrying about me. 

“But, for most of the pictures that you see of mine,” he continues, “I’m often talking to people, I’m often lighting the fuse to create a reaction, or a moment, that I then capture.”

Tip #2: Discourage your subjects from posing

A ‘candid’ picture, by definition, is not posed. But turn a camera towards someone, and they’ll likely strike a pose, crack a smile or move themselves into a more flattering position. It’s human nature — and Williams know this better than most. But he’s developed a system to put his subjects at ease.

“I tell people what I want and what kind of photos I’m taking,” he says. “If I’ve never met someone, I’ll explain to them what I do. If I can, I’ll show them pictures I’ve done with other people. And I talk about the kind of vibe that I want within the pictures. When people pose, I literally say; ‘You’re posing, that’s not what I want’. 

“And I very much direct things as they go along,” he continues. “In a split second, I can flip that direction depending on whatever spontaneous thing happens. But I do try to discourage posing wherever possible. I think my greatest asset as a photographer is probably my empathy.  I have a knack of getting people to trust me very quickly, it’s probably more important than my eye in a way.”

Tip #3: Try to place people within ‘frames’

While we may not all be blessed with the social skills of Greg Williams, we can benefit from some of his more technical tips. And one of the most notable hallmarks of the photographer’s work is the use of lines and shapes in the composition of his shots. 

“I use vanishing points a great deal and lines that lead the eye,” he explains. “If someone’s in a corridor, corridors have a vanishing point and then I try and place that subject within that. 

“The other thing I do is to look to place people within frames,” he adds. “The frame of a window, the frame of a door, it could be there’s a puddle on the ground, and you’re a little higher and you place their head within that frame. Framing the subject within the greater image, and therefore drawing the eye.”

Tip #4: Think about incorporating ‘props’

But not the feather boas, novelty sunglasses and inflatable saxophones that may initially spring to mind. Instead, Williams advises that we use what we find around us — be that a hat, a menu or even a cocktail. In his latest partnership, with MARTINI, the photographer has been exploring our post-pandemic return to socialising; and raising a glass to normality.

“I’ve taken a lot of photos of people ‘cheersing’,” he says. “So I have the glass in my hand, and I go up to someone and they cheers me back and I take a picture. I’ve done it with glasses, fist bumps and high fives. And so it was a very natural thing to do when Martini approached me, because I’ve been shooting shots like that for years.

“Food is good also. There’s something about someone biting into food that’s really in the moment. And it’s interesting, because in terms of photographing talent, it’s normally a real no-no. But I quite like doing the absolute opposite. But ‘cheersing’ is definitely one of my favourite go-to photos for candid shots.”

Tip #5: Consider shooting in black-and-white

The monochrome look is the photographer’s signature style — but why does Williams shoot in black-and-white? And should you be doing the same for your candid pictures?

“With colour pictures, there are more things to distract the eye from the subject,” Williams explains. “Also, my pictures have a slightly nostalgic feel to them. I take photos that feel quite timeless; like they could have been taken a very long time ago. And my inspiration for the work I do today comes from old Life Magazine film set reports of the 1950s and 60s. I find that shooting in black and white helps with that. 

“And the final reason I shoot in black-and-white,” he adds, “is a funny one; I work fast. I often post fast, because I’ll take a picture and share it via my Leica camera wirelessly to my phone, and just post it. Any colour pictures I put out, I’ve generally done a bit of grading work. But, for speed, I can get my work out much quicker in black and white. There is something in the immediacy of how I shoot and publish my work that means working in black-and-white greatly helps me with speed”.

Tip #6: Take lots of shots — and rely on instinct to pick the best

“If I’m free to,” says Williams, “I will take lots of pictures”. This, the photographer adds, is also what we amateur snappers should be doing. The more pictures we take, after all, the more we’ll have to choose from, and the more likely it’ll be that we’ve captured something fun, unique and worth sharing. But how, when confronted with a full camera roll, do we decide which picture we’ve taken is best?

“As soon as I’m editing,” Williams explains, “it becomes a process of the heart, not of the brain. The taking of pictures is a mix of art, brain and science. As soon you start the edit, it all becomes about heart. Do I believe the picture I’m looking at? In what picture do I feel that image is the most authentic? It’s something that you train in yourself, where you listen to your heart, and it tells you which picture to choose”.

Tip #7: Get to know your smartphone settings — but also trust automatic

“I heard a statistic the other day,” says the photographer, “that six billion people now take photos on smartphones, which is more than there has ever been in history.”

It’s a baffling statistic, but one that Williams is buoyed by. The photographer is a firm proponent of technology — having shot extensively with revolutionary ‘Red’ video cameras in the past. And, despite the many manual settings of smartphone cameras, that can be adjusted and altered, Williams always begins with simple ‘Automatic’ mode.

“And then,” he adds, “if I see an issue, I’ll go manual. For instance, if someone is wearing a black suit against a black wall, the camera will automatically try and make that image a mid-grey — thereby bleaching out the image. So then I’ll manually expose. 

“On the iPhone, particularly, there is a fantastic way of doing this. Either touch the screen and swipe up or down to brighten or darken the image or choose the manual exposure setting on the menu. In fact, I think the most important thing that we should learn how to use on a smartphone is the manual exposure. But, in most day-to-day settings, shooting automatically is fine. The important thing is that you don’t expose for the whole picture, you expose for your subject.”

We interviewed Greg Williams as part of the launch of the new #MARTINIMOMENTS campaign. For more tips, these smartphone camera accessories will turn you into a mobile photographer…

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