The transition from candid photography to super-candid photography to secret or "private-eye" photography is a gradual one. Except for the truly covert techniques, which are not our concern here, the basic approaches are substantially the same.

Candid Photography

In the early days of 35mm photography, candid cameramen were ever alert to opportunities to capture their fellow mortals in such pursuits as scratching themselves privately, yawning their tonsils out in the open, and so on. This brand of candid photography has gone out of vogue. It should stay out. Today, the true candid cameraman is one who is able to capture the spirit and spontaneity of people at work and at play.

The ultra-miniature camera is an ideal tool for taking candid pictures. Its very informality tends to bring out the relaxed personality of the subject who finds it hard to take the camera seriously. If your subject should freeze up, you can pretend to be taking practice shots, telling him that you will let him know when you are ready for the real picture. When you tell him this, you should have already taken your pictures. Another technique is the reverse; after you pretend that you have made your shots, you take another when the subject is off-guard.

Yet another approach is to pretend to fumble with your camera, to look for some special angle from which to take the picture. Throughout this maneuvering, you must appear to be quite relaxed, scarcely intent upon grabbing your picture. In truth, you are alert for your opening.

If you take pictures of adults or of babies and children in their natural habitats, you are more likely to finesse them into becoming engrossed in their own pursuits. The adults and older children will appreciate such pictures much more than the stiff poses.

The group picture should be easier to take than the individual pose. With the group, you can play the members off against each other. As with the individual picture-taking, you can run through some practice shots or you can pretend to be fumbling with the camera while looking for your opportunity.

Watch for the little interactions that precede the formal pose. Help provoke them by stretching out your own preparations. Then provoke one of the group members into talking to or kidding the others. By the time the people in the group get ready to put on their best stares, you will have taken your picture. When they learn that you have taken your picture, they will relax again so that you can get a second picture.

The more interesting group pictures are those in which the members have settled down into little knots of conversation or mutual activity. If you move about quietly and don't ask people to pose for you, you'll be surprised how quickly they lose all awareness of your photographic enterprise.

The Techniques of Undercover Photography

You should not use your camera as an instrument for the invasion of personal privacy. If it is all in fun, enjoy yourself but do not take your pictures with a view to embarrassing others.

The first step is to have all the camera operating controls adjusted beforehand. Make sure of your pictures will fall within the depth-of-field for your lens at the aperture you will be using.  If you are taking your pictures within close range of your subject, make the various camera adjustments out of his line of vision. Do so in your pocket or behind your back or turn casually away.

Your preparedness should include anticipating the acts and movements of your subjects under the particular circumstances. When photographing special events or ceremonies, try to anticipate beforehand the peaks of action or animation for which you must be ready.

Your personal demeanor must be that of someone who is intent on his own business, which is not that of taking pictures. Your subjects will not pay attention to you if you seem to have a reason for being where you are or doing what you seem to be doing. Try to melt into the group, doing whatever all the others seem to be doing. If you appear to be doing something apart, you will make yourself conspicuous. Sudden movements are to be avoided. Maintain a self-confident air which seems to tell everyone that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing.

If you are adept at creating diversions, you can provoke somebody into engaging your subject's attention. You might even set up a decoy of your own -- an accomplice who will create some diverting action.

As you move into slightly covert techniques, you can take advantage of open doorways, arches, windows and other structures which provide some operating cover for you while permitting a clear field of view for the camera. If your subject is in bright light and you are in the shade, he is scarcely apt to see you. The same applies to subjects in well-lit areas in homes or stores. If you keep to the shade or darkness outside, your subject will not notice you.

Special Finders

For some cameras, such as Minox, Yashica and Minolta, special finders are available which make the camera more suitable as a tool for private-eye photography. One is the Minox reflex finder for use at waist-level and another is the Minox right-angle mirror finder for use at eye-level. With the Minolta model (for use with the Minolta MGS and QT), both finders are incorporated into one unit. When flipped to the back of the camera it is used as a right-angle finder.  Rotated to the front of the camera, the same units acts as a waist-level finder.

You can take pictures unobserved at waist level or you can hold the camera overhead, finding the scene in the reflex viewfinder when, otherwise, your view would be obscured by heads of people in a crowd. Seated at banquets and at conference tables, in well-lit rooms, you can pretend to be fumbling with the camera when, in reality, you are busy taking pictures of the people about you as they eat, converse or watch the proceedings. With a little practice, you can use the camera with its finder in a variety of positions, so that you can appear to be facing in one direction while the camera is taking a picture in another.

The right-angle mirror finder operates through the camera's own viewfinder. You will therefore not have any problem of parallax, as long as the camera corrects for parallax. You do your viewing by looking into a small mirror which is at an angle to the viewfinder window. Accordingly, while you face in one direction, the lens of the camera is pointing at right angles to it. Your subject is not alert to any picture-taking by you and hence you can snap away to your heart's content.

A few spy shops with some mini cameras and other equipment:

The CIA operates a rather useful web site with lots of good information, including a 'tour' of some of the exhibits in the CIA museum (unfortunately the exhibit center is behind the fence so not open to the public; a great pity). One of the Web exhibits is of the Minox and features a (reversed!) picture of the B and a paragraph filled with info that is intriguing, if true, but probably just wrong. It says that in 1958 Minox introduced a new model made of lightweight plastic and which focused down to 8 inches (20 cm). I've never heard of such a camera, but who knows. The URL is: which leads you to the front door of the exhibit center pages. You'll probably want to look at the microdot camera and some of the other gadgets. The Minox has its own link from the contents page.

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