You have seen them and maybe even taken them or wanted to. I am talking about what is commonly called street photography. Those great photos that capture people and the culture in an authentic setting. Not staged, not posing, just real people in real life.
When done right, and you get lucky, street photography can capture all types of emotions and behavior. Some people have no problem snapping pictures of people, no matter what the situation is, while others find it difficult to just take a picture of a stranger without saying anything.Have you ever wondered if it was even legal to take those photos without first getting permission?
Well it depends on several things but one of the biggest factors is the country you are in. I did some research and could never really find one really comprehensive guide for all the countries. I did find this listing on Wikipedia for several countries. Now being Wikipedia, I would not rely solely on their word. I mean who knows if it is accurate or the last time it was updated.
I can however, talk about the US. The bottom line is you do not need permission to take a photo in public. A property owner can prohibit photography on their premises but it is legal to photograph those premises from another location. For example, a building has a gated parking facility and they prohibit photos anywhere on the premises to include the parking area. You can legally stand across the street and take photos of the building, people entering and leaving and people or anything else in the parking lot. There are exceptions. Photography on parts of military installations and certain government buildings and facilities can be prohibited.
As long as a person is in public you can generally take their photo. This includes people walking on the street and even children.
Bert Krages II is an attorney in Oregon and handles intellectual property issues. He is also an advocate for taking photos in public and has done a lot of work in this area. He has an excellent article on photographer’s rights posted on his website. You can read it here.
What can you do with the photos you take?
The courts have decided that photography is an art and protected unless used commercially. That means you don’t need releases and you’re pretty much free to use them. You can post them on your blog and even sell them. The courts have decided that commercial use of a photo exists when the photo is used to promote or advertise a product, like a soft drink ad for example.
A good article explaining this can be found here
If you plan on going out and taking a bunch of candid street photos it is always best to do some research and see if there are any particular laws or statutes you need to follow in your area.
Ask ten street photographers how they get their shots and you will get ten answers. Some are aggressive, walking right up to people and taking their photo. Some do it from a respectful distance, some smile and wave after, some even say thanks and offer to show the photo to the person. Digital cameras today make it easy for you to just hold it at your waist and snap away without anyone knowing or you can use a telephoto lens.
The law about taking photos of people in public is pretty clear but opinions, even among photographers, are pretty wide ranging. Is it legal to walk up to a young woman with a baby, not say anything and start snapping photos of the kid? Yes, it is, although kinda creepy in my opinion.
Some photographers don’t take any photos of people without asking first. Other photographers say that while those might look good they don’t capture the person in real life and people when asked, tend to pose.
Here are a few suggestions.
If you are traveling in a foreign country find out the laws.
A few years ago, I was traveling in Greece and saw an organ grinder. The guy looked like a photo waiting to happen. Now according to the laws in Greece you do not need permission to take someone’s photo in public but I asked him anyway. He said I could take his photo for 1 Euro. I paid him since I figured it was better to donate a Euro than have an angry Greek organ grinder chasing me down the street.
Be polite and respectful
Just because you can take the photo doesn’t mean the person appreciates it. Don’t invade their privacy. If they ask you not to take their photo then don’t be an ass. Stop taking their photo. If they see you taking their photo then smile and offer to show it to them. Hell introduce yourself and strike up a conversation. I love talking to people I meet when traveling. They tell me all the best places to eat and where I can find interesting things to see and do in town.
When in doubt, ask
If you are traveling in a foreign land it is always best to ask before you take photos of government buildings, military or police. Just smile, walk up to them and say “Hi can I take a quick photo?” If they say no, then don’t. Don’t ask first and you may find yourself being detained or questioned in a language where you don’t understand a damn thing they are saying even if it is legal.
Use common sense
Just try to treat people like you would like to be treated. If it feels creepy then it probably is.
Do you take street photos? Ever had someone take your photo without permission? What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them.
Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice, nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. The information contained herein is no substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your state and may or may not be applicable to your specific situation. You are strongly encouraged to consult with local counsel to discuss your individual circumstances. It is your responsibility to research the laws in your location.
Doug Ditchez says
I don’t think a property owner in the U.S. can prohibit you from taking a photograph. They can ask you to leave their property, however.
Ok, I will play. By your reasoning a bank cannot prohibit you from robbing them only call the police and have you arrested. I own my house and say you cannot take photos inside my house. What happens when you do? I ask you to leave or we get into a scuffle. So yes A property owner has the right to not allow you to take photos and say no. Photographers may have rights but not against the wishes of property owners on their premises.
Stuart Forster says
Some very useful advice here. And I love the way you have illustrated the piece with quality street photography.
Thanks, appreciate it.
I tend to ask for permission first, or take photos of people from the back! If it was a photo of a child, I’d always ask permission from the parents first
Yeah, it may be legal but I find it a little creepy to take photos of kids without asking.
quite detailed and informative post, very useful advice.
Marcus and Mel says
Some great tips. When it’s a group, I tend to just take a pic but I would ask individuals. However, they will then be aware of the camera as you have mentioned. You could try the sneaky shot from longer away.
As a European and where laws change around the world about this kinda thing, I always ask for permission first. Saves me getting my head a pounding 😉 . Great tips here in the post and a subject which many people will not think about before taking the photo.
Great advice. I am also a photography enthusiast and I am usually afraid of taking people’s photos up front, just to feel sorry later on why I let that photo opportunity pass by. Later on, I’ve learned just to take the photo anyway, smile when they see you taking photos of them, say thank you and leave. If they question what it’s for, explain politely and if ever they refuse, delete the photo in front of them and apologize. But it takes judgement in other situations when you should ask permission first.
Such an interesting blog post and definitely a subject I have always wondered about. Some great tips as well that everyone should think about before taking photos. Since we have been travelling around Asia I have had my photo taken so many times by other people. Most of the time people come up to me and ask for their photo with me (or sometimes even with their baby – that happened in India!) and sometimes you can see people taking a photo of you as you walk past, but it has never been an issue for me, although it was pretty strange at first!
Sarah Boyle says
I definitely feel that respect is the most important aspect of taking photos. Asking is definitely the way to go. When I was in India I was constantly asked for photos as I’m fair skinned and blonde which was fine but then I also had creepy guys trying to take sneaky selfies or photos of me which I didn’t like at all!
Thank you so much for this valuable info! It’s one of those gray areas that I wonder about but never had the chance to track down an answer to.
Great tips, but as you said, taking pictures of people can be tricky. Personally, I do my best to avoid people in my pictures. Having said that, there have been a few occasions, when I simply couldn’t resist and I’ve never had any issues.
I never really had any problems either.
Castaway with Crystal says
I take a lot of street photography and I found this a great subject to touch on. I don’t like asking before-hand because I like people to look natural, but if it’s a sensitive subject (like kids or on someone’s property for example) I will ask. But mostly I will just take the photo and if they look at me I’ll smile and point at my camera, then show them the photo if they look interested. I have had people tell me before I’ve taken the photo not to, but have still yet to have someone be angry at me afterwards.
I enjoyed reading this post since I relate a lot to it. Whenever I am traveling, it can be quite challenging to take pictures but I do ask most of the time out of respect. However, depending on the environment and public events, then I will click away. It’s good to know about street photography in the U.S. I also like sharing the pictures with the people and seeing the smile on their face when they like how I capture them.
These are some great tips. I tend to always ask first because I don’t want to cop it from someone if they don’t want me to take a photo! Great shots as well!
Jamie Italiane says
Useful and helpful. I always shied away from taking photos of people in the US because I wasn’t sure.
Kyle Williams says
Best tip is be mindful of culture & sensitive to what’s going on around you! e.g. Pointing a camera at a Muslim woman (usually in a burka) will invariably lead to a swift smack in the chops (as happened to my dad in Egypt!) Other faiths & cultures can be VERY sensitive about stuff we might think nothing of! Some peoples still think taking a photo somehow takes their spirit away, so you’re going to get a VERY violent reaction (e.g. when you do your “Livingstone” bit & trek the jungles!) Military personnel ANYWHERE I would say is a no no, unless it’s a display of some sort! Even seemingly “ordinary” things can get a reaction! Decades ago I was in the old soviet Bratislava & it was the first time I’d seen people queuing for bread. I whipped out my camera & within seconds I had to run! Think logically & I realised the secret police would take photos like that, no wonder they were mad! Inside museums, just because there’s no “no photos” signs doesn’t mean it’s OK, I ALWAYS ask! The more I travel, the more I realise things are different!
A final thought, don’t get so focused on what’s through the lens that you either miss something else or get yourself killed (yes, I’ve been so focused on a photo I backed onto tram lines, with one coming!)
I can relate to the tram incident. It is easy to become so focused on what you are trying to shoot you can forget your surroundings.
I find it courteous to ask a person permission before snapping them. Great read Bob.
Elsa Dixon says
An incident that stands out in my mind after a good 15 years took place when I photographed an orthodox Jewish person from the back at a distance, and another passerby hissed at me with great venom:” You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” I still smart from that comment. Your article made me feel much better, after all these years. I meant no harm, his face was not visible, and he was totally unaware that he had been photographed.