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Photography In Public Places

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Photography in public places is exciting but tricky given privacy concerns. Here’s how I reconcile this dilemma.

It can be difficult to know when it’s okay to photograph a stranger and if you need permission to do so?

Laws regarding photography in public places may very depending upon the country or local jurisdiction.

I’m no lawyer so I advise you to do what I do. Undertake research that’s relevant to the destination in question.

That research should include both legal and cultural sensitive practices relating to photography in that part of the world.

Candid Photography Is Special

There’s a special quality to candid photography that sets it apart from more formal, posed portraits.

But how you go about making candid, people based images is important. I believe you’re either a photo maker or a photo taker.

Travel provides us with a veritable treasure trove of photographic opportunities. Markets, festivals and parades all offer unique possibilities and challenges for the travel photographer.

I photographed this lovely food vender selling produce from her traditional long-tail boat at the popular Damnoen Saduak Floating Market near Bangkok in Thailand.

I had gestured to her with my camera in a way that requested permission to make a photo. She nodded and then got back to business.

This photo followed almost immediately. I moved on happy to have created a beautiful image in a way that was respectful to the person photographed.

Street photography of a mime artist in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Street photography of a mime artist in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Travel Photographers Please Do Your Research

Whenever I’m considering an overseas trip I always consult a guidebook, or do some research online, to determine any local sensitivities towards photography.

Such sensitivities could be religious, age, gender, political or security based.

Some of my own research led me to the understanding that candid street photography is illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Not knowing this fact could place the photographer, whether professional or simply a tourist snapping away with their phone camera, in serious trouble.

My approach is to undertake some research to gain a general understanding of any local expectations and taboos that might relate to the kind of photos I’d be most like to make.

In some cases this research could cause me to choose different subject matter or to photograph in a completely different genre.

While it’s never happened to me there’s always the chance that my research will determine that the trip I’d envisaged simply won’t come to pass.

The best solution might then be to set my sights on an entirely different destination.

Fortunately, prior to undertaking a journey to Argentina my research suggested that it was acceptable to undertake candid street photography.

However, I did so in the highly touristed areas of La Boca and San Telmo where I deemed it was both safer and more acceptable to do so.

I think there’s a reasonable argument, though not necessarily a legal one, that local folk are probably more likely to be accepting of candid photography in a public, highly touristed part of town.

Nonetheless, I still got permission from the street performer in San Telmo before making the above photo.

Given the fact that he was a mime artist permission was given and understood through a wink and a nod from the performer.

This allowed me to photograph quite close to the performer which eliminated the chance that people would walk in front of me and spoil my photo.

Employing a wide angle lens, from a relatively close distance, enabled me to ensure the performer appeared relatively large in the frame while still allowing me to include quite a bit of the surrounding environment in the photo.

In this case that’s important as, rather than isolating the subject from their environment, I’m using the surroundings to add to the story that’s being told.

Portrait of a woman in front of a colorful background in Kolkata.

Portrait of a woman in front of a colorful background in Kolkata.

Portrait Photos Are A Collaborative Process

When it comes to people-based photography my own preference is to make interactive portraits that are created out of a collaborative approach between myself and the subject.

I’ve hardly ever photographed a truly candid image. Although, in practice, I’ve made many images that have the look of a candid moment.

Take a look at this environmental portrait of a lady in the back streets of Kolkata. She was both aware and happy to be photographed. In fact she very much wanted me to make her picture.

Isn’t it great that our digital cameras allow us to share the beauty of the moment we’ve just recorded by showing the subject the image within seconds of having made it.

Are You Are Sneaky Sneaky Photographer?

It’s silly to think that, unless you’re hidden from view with a very long lens, that you’re unable to photograph someone in a way that appears candid.

The fact is that your camera and, in particular, the size of your lens, announces your presence and advertises your intentions.

Some folks probably think that by sneaking around they’ll be able to catch or snatch a photo.

Chances are the locals have formed much the same impressions of your intentions and, by implication, of you.

Do You Make Photos Or Take Photos?

I understand what I’m about to say might seem like semantics. Nonetheless, words are powerful and words have meaning.

Personally I don’t like using any of the following words when it comes to my own photography.

  • take
  • shoot
  • capture

I make photographs based upon a totally different mindset and I aim to approach the event in an open, honest, empathetic and authentic way.

Rather than taking anything from anyone I’m working to bring my own unique character, personality, experiences and expertise to that interaction.

I’ve written an extensive post on this topic which I believe you’ll find interesting. It’s titled Words Related To Photography I Hate.

I’m the photographer so I need to keep control of the situation, but I do so in a way that’s enjoyable and stress free for the person being photographed.

That means being polite, enthusiastic and making my photos quickly and efficiently with a minimal amount of direction.

Porter, loaded with goods, walking a hard road in winter on Huangshan.

Porter, loaded with goods, walking a hard road in winter on Huangshan.

Etiquette For The Concerned Photographer

There is one lesson, in particular, that I learned as a child which has stayed with me throughout my life and largely determines how I interact with people.

I remember my dear old mum rebuking me, more than once, with this simple statement.

“How would you feel if someone had done that to you.”

Perhaps that’s a question the long lens brigade should ask themselves the next time they try to capture or shoot someone unawares from behind the bushes.

I photographed this porter in extremely cold and windy conditions on a high mountain pass on Huangshan Mountain in China. To suggest it’s a hard road would be an understatement in the extreme.

There was only a few seconds after seeing him emerge out of the mist to gain permission, make a few quick adjustments to my camera and make this extremely emotive photo.

I don’t speak Chinese and, even if I did, I doubt he would have had the energy or the time to converse with me.

I’d traveled to Huangshan Mountain in Winter specifically for landscape photography.

Huangshan is a cold and spectacularly beautiful location at that time of year and toiling up and down thousands of steps was a hard and grueling experience.

But boy oh boy was it worth it. I was rewarded with one of the greatest adventures of my life and a portfolio of photos with which I’m really very happy.

I only saw a few dozen people (most of them in the hotel restaurant at dinner time) during my three days trekking across the top of the mountain.

But I always had my camera handy and was constantly adapting it’s settings to the changing light. I just had to be ready for the possibility that a great photo opportunity might present itself.

And it did. Here’s how I photographed the porter.

  • I saw the porter emerge from the mist
  • I asked for permission to make his photo by raising my camera and, simultaneously, bowing my head
  • I received a nod in reply
  • I made a single exposure
  • I smiled as a way of thanking him as we passed each other and continued on with our respective journeys

Now that, my friend, is living in the moment.

Two girls step anxiously into the waters of the Hooghly River, Kolkata.

Two girls step anxiously into the waters of the Hooghly River, Kolkata.

Candid Photos And The Exception To The Rule

Of course there may be times when you see something that’s about to happen.

If you wait until after you’ve been granted permission to make the photograph you’ll miss the moment.

None of us should be so dogmatic in our opinions or approach that we prevent ourselves making truly great images that, one photo at a time, can bring positive change to our world.

“The compassionate photographer has to balance the needs of the subject with their own needs and those of their audience.”

— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

In this case the best option might be to make the photo and then approach the subject, or their guardian, and explain why you felt it best to make the picture without first asking permission.

Usually that’s because you felt the moment you saw unfolding before you was unrepeatable.

In such circumstances I feel it’s important that your explanation be framed, in part, with an apology.

That’s exactly how this photo of the two young girls stepping gingerly into the waters of the Hooghly River in Kolkata came about.

I was there and anticipated the event unfolding. The only way to document the moment was to immediately react and make the photo.

I love the eerie, somewhat surreal nature of this image and the balance achieve between the girls and the crows on the other side of the picture.

To me the photo explores the crossing, whether spiritual or actual, between two worlds: the world of the known and the world that exists on the edge of our everyday experience.

Of course, if your intentions are pure and you’re not photographing someone in a derogatory manner I think, given local laws and cultural sensitivities, that it’s generally reasonable to proceed under such circumstances.

However it’s a decision each of us has to make for ourselves.

And of course by showing the photo you make to the subject and/or their guardian they’ll realize you mean no harm.

I have, in the past, emailed copies of candid photos to people I’ve photographed as a way of thanking them and as a way of gifting them with something of genuine beauty.

However, where children are involved, I’d only correspond directly with the child’s parents or guardians. I think that’s a very important practice.

I know I can be trusted and that my motivations are pure. But I have no idea as to the motivations or intentions of the next person with a camera and a smile.

Sadly, that fact probably impacts on the way most of us relate to children we meet along our life’s journey.

I really love kids, but I’ve learned to keep a slight distance to help ensure they won’t be too familiar, too quickly with other strangers they meet.

It’s not my preference, but I do think it’s the responsible approach to take.

It’s true that, after photographing a stranger unawares, it can be tricky approaching them or their guardian and explaining why you’ve done what you’ve done.

The interaction could go either way and it’s a matter of acting in a way that you feel best fits the situation at hand. At such times I generally trust my intuition.

However, your courage, tact and preparedness to show the image you’ve made will open up a dialogue and may even provide you with an opportunity to ask permission to make more photographs.

One of the beliefs that underpins my own philosophy to photography is that your camera should not be a physical barrier between you and the world.

I believe your camera should be a passport into lives and places beyond your normal everyday experience.

Photography In A Politically Correct World

Each of us is responsible for the decisions we make and, to a degree, the consequences of those decisions.

However, it’s my view that if your motivations are pure and your intentions are to produce beautiful, life affirming images then, more often than not, you should be able to do so.

Just be aware of local politics, regulations and taboos.

It’s also important that you’re sensitive to the mood of the individual you'd like to photograph.

Clearly there are some folks who, on a particular day, just don’t want to be photographed.

A good street photographer will be tuned into the mood of those around them and be able to adapt appropriately.

Not only is it polite to leave folks alone that don’t want to be photographed, it can also be good for your health.

Photographers who aggressively assert their right to make photos of strangers in public places are problematic.

Whether they’re legally allowed to make those photos or not is, to my mind, somewhat academic if you’re dealing with a seven foot tall individual with fists like hammers.

There are a lot of people who are passionate about street photography which they see as the art of photographing strangers unawares.

I have no problem with that and recognize the skill and dedication required to create great images under technically difficult and rapidly changing situations.

But want I don’t like and what I refuse to support is the aggressive nature by which some photographers defend their right to photograph other people in public places.

Frankly, I feel that kind of attitude is harmful to the genre of street photography and, more generally, to the profession photography industry.

Here’s my approach to photographing strangers.

Candid photo of three girls playing around a tree in Bali, Indonesia.

Candid photo of three girls playing around a tree in Bali, Indonesia.

It’s Not A Crime To Use A Big Lens

I’m not trying to diminish the appropriateness of the telephoto lens for wildlife, sports and certain types of surveillance photography.

Likewise, I’m not ignoring the way a telephoto lens can further emphasize a subject by separating them from their surroundings and increasing the visual power of a sharp subject against an out of focus background.

After all that’s exactly what I achieved in this candid photo of three young girls at play around a tree in Bali, Indonesia.

I suspect part of my reasoning for deciding upon a black and white rendering of this image was to express the timeless beauty of such a moment and to explore the innocence of childhood.

And I’m definitely not criticizing anyone for pursuing wild angle candid street photography. That takes courage and real commitment.

I’m simply pointing out the beauty of an interactive portrait and the merit and positive aspects associated with engaging with people outside of your own life’s experience.

This article should be read very much as an opinion piece. At the end of the day we are all responsible for the decisions we make and the actions that follow.

My most important piece of advice for enthusiast level photographers wanting to photograph people in public places is, where ever possible, to do what I do.

Ask Permission First.

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