The choice between staged photography and candid photography.


Lifestyle or staged photography choice

When I was starting out in photography I liked to create vibrant and sharp images, not understanding many things but trying to get a “stunning” shot. I was sometimes doing candid photography and sometimes portraits or completely staged photography. For a very long time, I disregarded documentary photography. Later I realised that a documentary photographer’s job is going beyond photography and their work is to capture something unique in life as it is. While capturing that, they try to capture the beauty of that thing or person that might soon cease to exist forever. Not always do they have time to set the right exposure or composition. Their pictures can be distorted or the colours can be dirty. But these people are going out there and sometimes are working hard weeks or even years on one project.


Why is it a hard choice


Black and white street photo with silhouettes of people

The hardship of this choice starts from the realisation that most of the time you can’t make a perfect shot without preparation. But if you want to capture life and real events and emotions you can’t do it staged. Most portrait photographs are staged and often you can see how unnatural it is. I realised that a few years ago I also did photographs which look fake. Lately, I started liking photographs which have true emotions and resonate with me. It’s very hard to create documentary photos that resonate with people but they will always be full of real emotions.


What to choose: staged photography or candid photography


For me personally, it’s always hard to choose between staged or candid style but I also realise that the best genre probably would be the fusion of both mentioned above.


If you choose staged photography


Street fashion portrait of a young woman in front of a blue door

Staged photography often lacks sincerity. It’s a great deal that requires a lot of skills to make a staged photograph look natural. When I look at photos I took a year ago I notice that many portraits look unnatural. Nowadays I would rather allow everything to be less under control.

It is more important how people appear in your shots than how well the portrait is composed. Even if the picture is blurred - use the blurred shot if it's the only shot where you can truly see the charisma of the person.

I always wanted to have power over every part of the frame to create that stylised version of the world and create a certain atmosphere. And I started doing more and more portrait photography. At the same time, I created that fake, nonexisting scene that could be beautiful and out of everyday life. While going deeper into this I noticed that only fine art photography can look like real life at the same time being staged photography. I realised that fashion photography is also mostly about clothes and styles rather than pictures.

Nevertheless, you can almost create new worlds in your photo series by carefully choosing the settings, colours and outfits. In the example below I did the whole series on the grass but with a white background. It's exciting how much you can achieve by choosing the angle and setting.

Musicians sitting on grass playing on flute and a hand pan

How to do a staged photoshoot:

  1. Find a concept for your photoshoot (I’m not talking about stock photography when someone makes a look like he is working)

  2. Do further research like choosing the scene, and colours and read about the style.

  3. If you think that your style is going to be unique then most probably you have not found similar pictures yet. So go to Pinterest and try to search for them.

  4. You can try to combine some features of this style with another one but try to keep colours consistent.

  5. When you are ready and found a model - do the first shoot

  6. Wait for a couple of days before editing the pictures to have a clearer approach to the photo editing process

  7. Edit the pictures also taking brakes and returning to them later

  8. Probably redo the photoshoot in a couple of weeks to get even better results.


If you choose candid photography


Shadow of a person on a yellow wall

Here often the topic is more important than the pictures. Of course, you can capture it very beautiful but you can become a documentary photographer even without particular photo skills.

To do candid photography you can also simply go out and capture the life around you. The photos can highlight a certain topic or be just an expression of how you see the world. While working as a documentary-style photographer you might not create certain masterpieces but you will capture life as it is and you will explore and observe the world. I would say doing documentary photography is probably better when you’re starting out. Documentary photography of course can be staged but here I refer only to lifestyle photography. By doing candid photography you capture existing stories and concepts and enrich your visual library. By enriching your visual library you can improve at both lifestyle and staged photography. If you like going out in the field and working closely with your subjects and getting to know them very well - documentary photography is for you.


A woman alone next to a tree under a street lamp at night

How to create a documentary photography project (not staged)


  1. Find the topic. It can be a certain society of people at an event.

  2. Research the topic more. If it’s an authentic society of people for example - read some books or articles about them. That can help to improve at photography too.

  3. Spend some significant time photographing this event or society. Better to take too many pictures rather than fewer. I made that mistake a few times. Sometimes people can spend weeks in one society photographing how this group of people lives

  4. Capture all aspects of the happening. Not only happy and beautiful moments.

  5. Choose very strictly and only the strongest photos. Edit all of the photographs in one particular style and publish it.


I personally continue to struggle with this choice but I guess I try to do a bit of both. The problem with staged photography is that you can see that it’s been staged and you don’t believe the feelings that are shown in these pictures. At the same time, there are very beautiful candid photographs that are captured at the moment of the happening. The choice between staged and candid photography is in creating a mood in an artificial setting or observing, experiencing and capturing real emotions. And the more I learn about photography and the world, the more I move towards the candid photography style.

I wish you to also define what you are fond of more. In both variants at a very high-level people create masterpieces which resonate with us, and inspire and move forward in our photography journeys.


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