Street Photography Etiquette—A Beginner’s Guide


If you’ve never done street photography before, the idea may be a little daunting. You feel conspicuous, out of place on the sidelines of and in the middle of the action. We’ve compiled some advice on how to get the images you want without also getting a punch to the head, a visit from the police or a smashed camera.

The Law

Flickr / Thomas8047

Of course, the laws differ in wording and in specifics the world over, but take the US’ stance for a guide. You can basically photograph anything you can see from a public place. Exceptions apply when it comes to decency, no up-skirt shots, for example. It makes sense, really. You have the freedom to photograph your surroundings so long as you don’t encroach upon the sense of security of the people around you.

Read more: YouTube Video Ignites Freedom of Speech/Freedom of Press Debate

Your Rights vs the Public’s Rights

Flickr / Frank Knaack

When you leave your house or workplace, you’re basically accepting that you have no right to the privacy afforded to you in that private space. As such, members of the public are not entitled to demand that you put your camera away (though the US police force would love to tell you they can).

Note: we’re not suggesting that you assert your rights so hard you get your ass kicked. There are many right ways—and many wrong ways—to go about it.

In fact, simply asserting your rights without any of the mediating steps below will not end well, even if you think you’ve done a good deed by at least giving them a free legal lesson.

While you’re entitled to snap away at your surroundings and use the resulting images in your portfolio or for editorial use, be aware that commercial use is a no-no without a model’s release from any persons appearing in the image, lest it seem they appear to support the product.

Be Compassionate

Flickr / Eduardo A. Ponce

Now, maybe you can photograph any and all people around you in public spaces, but that doesn’t mean you should. For the most part this is a judgement call. An adult crying unconsolably might make for a striking image, though could also make their worst day that little bit worse. If moments of raw, human emotion are your things then fine, but a crowd of hobby photographers hounding someone in the throes of emotional anguish may have the legal upper hand, but not the moral one.

When it comes to kids, there are real reasons why parents will not want strangers photographing them. This does not mean that kids that have wandered from the herd are fair game. Understand that young children cannot be expected to grasp the meaning of ‘expectation of privacy’.

Finally, while many may consider a moody black-and-white shot of a hard-done-by homeless person on the city streets a boon to their portfolio, consider that the homeless have no private area in which they can expect a degree of privacy. Taking their situation and converting it into a thought provoking print is not edgy or courageous, remembering the human and trying to help them is by far the more valiant route.

Be Subtle

Flickr / Sjoerd Lammers

Many street photographers disagree on the etiquette of approaching subjects you find interesting—should you do it before you take a photo? After? Not at all? More often than not, alerting the subject to your presence and intention will render their movements and facial expressions unnatural.

As suspect as it sounds, if you shoot from the hip, pretend to be photographing in another direction, or wait for someone to walk into your frame, you’re more likely to capture the true moment, as an ‘invisible’ observer. If you get in their face with your lens, you may shock or anger them. If this is your intention, fair enough, otherwise be prepared to see some far from natural scenes transpire.

Read more: How to Pick a Street Photography Style That Fits You

Watch How Close This Street Photographer Gets to His Subject Without Noticing

Be Approachable

Flickr – Frank Knaack

Never underestimate the power of a smile to de-escalate situation. If you’ve been clocked, a simple smile could be all it takes for your subject to get back to what they were doing. This is more likely to work if you live in a big city, in a small town with few tourists or visitors, expect to be asked more questions. If they want to see the pictures you have taken of them, you’re under no legal obligation, but then this post is about etiquette not legality. What’s the harm in showing them the photo? If they hate it and ask you to delete it, well…

Be Considerate

Flickr / Thomas Leuthard

You guessed it, you’re not required by law to delete images taken by your on your own camera. For the most part, I’d recommend you talk the situation around, let them know what the image will be used for and assure them that they won’t be seeing their face on a poster warning about venereal disease any time soon.

Be Prepared

Flickr / Ines Njers

For those who have spotted you photographing them and feel uneasy, handing over a business card containing your Instagram, Flickr or 500px information can be a great way to communicate that you’re a legitimate photographer, not just some creep with a camera (Note: if you are a creep with a camera, please do not follow this advice). In this way they can go check your work out, share your image of them if you upload it and you might get another follower or two.