One of the pleasures of travel is taking photos of everyday scenes and people. Street photography–also called candid photography–is the genre used by travelers to capture places, moments, and emotions during a trip. It tells a story. Often worth much more than the proverbial 1,000 words…
Because street photography involves taking pictures of strangers without their knowledge, it’s important to be both legal and ethical. As responsible travelers, we should know and follow the etiquette of street photography.
Street photography: the legal stuff
Generally speaking, if you are in a public space, you have the right to take photos without the consent of others who are also in that public space.
Exactly what is a public space? Artrepreneur, an art law journal, says it’s where “a street photographer can take a picture of anything he or she can see from that vantage point, even including subjects on private property, so long as they are within public view.”
While some debate the boundaries of Freedom of Expression (photographer) versus Right to Privacy (subject), privacy is defined as “the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people.” Choosing to walk down a street, shop at a market, or take a bus pretty much means you’re in public…and can be observed by others.
Still, there are situations that give everyone a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” You don’t have to be a lawyer to figure out that toilet stalls are off-limits. In case you’re interested, download the single page The Photographer’s Right to learn more.
Is there a catch? Yes. If you decide to sell your photos for commercial use (profit), your First Amendment Rights are narrowed. It’s not art anymore, it’s business. Big difference.
Be aware that every country (and even city) has its own rules about taking public photos. Finally, if you’re on private property–say, someone’s home or event–you must obtain consent before snapping away. This does not include private property that’s open to the public: Museums, shopping centers, and restaurants all fall under this category.
This is probably more than you want to know. You’re thinking, “Heck, I just want nice pictures of the people I see.” Gotcha. But at some time or other, you must have wondered if your innocent snapshots were legal. Now you have a better idea for next time.
Is it ethical to take photos of strangers?
One word: Yes. As long as you follow basic rules, which really should be just old-fashioned common sense. I like the U.S. National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics:
- Be accurate and honest about your photography.
- Do not alter, stage, or manipulate the scene.
- Provide context to your photo.
- Don’t edit it to change the meaning.
- Avoid stereotypes and your own biases.
- Treat all subjects with dignity and respect.
- Be especially considerate of vulnerable populations.
- Do not reward or pay subjects for their participation.
You’re wondering about those folks who pose with you holding their parrot or pigeon, or who wear a native costume for your selfie. They ask for payment when you take their picture. That’s not street photography–that’s their enterprise. And you definitely have their consent!
The etiquette of street photography
- Don’t haul a ton of equipment. Face it: none of us is Ansel Adams. As a traveler, you’re not likely to do this anyway; you already know how to pack light. The idea of street photography is to blend in, so you can capture natural moments. With today’s phones, this gets easier and easier.
- Know the law. Mentioned above, but worth repeating. The USA and UK allow public photography. But don’t make assumptions about other countries. Germany, for example, requires photographers to get their subject’s permission before taking a photo.
- Be sensitive to the situation. If you’re at a religious ceremony or happen to witness an intensely private personal moment, don’t jump right in as if you’re on assignment from National Geographic. The same goes for photos of homeless or disabled people. Take time to assess if photography is even appropriate…and why you’re doing it.
- Don’t pretend you’re doing something else. Be honest about your street photography. If someone sees you or asks, explain what you’re doing. Show them the photo. Many people are flattered to be part of your experience.
- It’s okay to ask. In fact, sometimes you should. While it may be legal to photograph children at a public playground, it’s polite and ethical to approach the parent and request permission. Proper etiquette of street photography also means showing them the photo…and possible offering to share it.
- You can ask with your eyes, too. Don’t be sneaky. If someone notices that you’re taking their photo, smile and gesture with your camera or phone. Once they indicate consent, even with a slight nod, you’re good to go.
- Be respectful. If someone asks you to delete a photo, do it and apologize. Period. Also consider the Golden Rule. How would you like a stranger to suddenly jump in to take your picture while you ate dinner or hung out laundry? Distance matters.
- Try to engage with your subjects. Meeting people during travel is where the best memories come from. Taking time to interact–even with facial expressions and gestures–makes the experience richer for both you and your subject. Often, you will get a better photo, too, with a natural smile. And you’ll both have stories to tell!
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