There’s an aspect of street photography that’s often overlooked, yet so apparent when you start taking pictures. Street photography ethics! How not to annoy people. How do you achieve those killer shots without invading your subjects privacy?
Of all the street photography advice presented in my blog, this one about observational street photography ethics is quite important. It’s also a question you’re faced with as soon as you begin.
When out on the streets, taking pictures of the public, there is a big challenge and responsibility you must acknowledge as a photographer. Unless the subject has given you permission to photograph them and do a quick portrait, then you must take great care not to invade that person’s privacy, or make them feel uncomfortable.
You tread a fine line between being “an enthusiastic photographer not doing any harm”, to being “an annoying stranger with a camera who’s intruding on someone’s personal space.”
“Observational street photography is thrilling when you capture that one dynamite photo of your subject acting naturally. Being themselves.”
So how do you take the shot without annoying them? Are there times when you shouldn’t raise your camera?
Picture the scene!
You’re out with your camera walking along a busy city riverside, scouting for a photo opportunity. You see a nice couple sharing a private romantic moment on an old wooden pier. The cityscape sprawled in the background, silhouetted by a beautiful sunset The warm early evening glow casting a soft warm light upon their faces.
Now this could be a beautiful photo if you decide to raise your camera. Indeed, this particular picture could be one of your best photos ever! However moments like this, like any moment on the street can be very personal, and mean a lot to the people involved.
So how do you proceed?
“It would not be acceptable to close in on your subject with your big noisy camera, fire off 30 shots, and ask them to “give more feeling”.
It is so important to respect an individual’s privacy when considering taking a picture of them.
Just because someone on the street is wearing a blank emotionless expression as they text away on their phone, doesn’t mean that person will be any less offended than our romantic couple if you stick your camera in their face. Be quick, be discrete, and don’t make a big deal of it. If you see the moment arise, don’t leap out into the open with your camera and draw attention to yourself!
Be quick. Be discrete. Then move on turning your focus completely away from the moment you just photographed.
“As a street photographer, I see myself as a silent observer and avoid interfering with what is going on around me. For those who know Star Trek, just think of the Prime Directive!”
If our romantic couple notice you, then chances are you have lost the opportunity to take more pictures. Simply smile and wish them a nice day. You could even go further and quickly introduce yourself, and tell them your a photographer. You could offer them your website address to invite them to download their picture at a later date?
“Remember, if you are put on the spot, talking politely with a smile can go a long way. If your subject is obviously annoyed, then apologise, defuse the situation, and walk away.”
Now before you think street photography sounds very risky. It isn’t! Taking pictures of people on the street can be so much fun, and a thrill when you get that “one photo”. However it takes practice and above all, being prepared.
“Once you have prepared yourself and your camera, then you can master the subtly of getting in position for a shot, hitting the shutter button, and moving on.”
If you’re interested as to which camera settings to use for street photography, you might want to read my post on the best street photography camera settings. It might help you be more prepared when that ideal street photo moment arises!
To raise your camera, or not?
This is the dilemma in street photography ethics. When you are confronted with an opportunity that’s not a public show or moment of mass intrigue. Quite often, the best moments to capture are the ones that we tend not to pay any attention to. The moment when your subject is behaving naturally, which brings about the question, do you raise your camera for the shot, or not?
“Just see yourself as an observer. Make a judgment call as to whether you can take the shot, and more importantly, should take the shot.”
Sometimes it may not be physically feasible to take pictures. For example you may risk spooking your subject by getting too close. Or, perhaps the subject is visibly upset or in need of help. There are situations where you have to respect a person’s absolute privacy. If in doubt, simply move along and accept that the moment is lost, and start looking for the next one. Trust me, there will always be a “next one”.
When I first started street photography, I would feel so much pressure to “get the shots”. I found myself paying extra attention to everything happening around me, and probably looked like a squirrel who’d drank a lot of coffee! All wide-eyed and extra observational! I found myself taking pictures all the time and I must have really “stood out”. Everyone saw me coming, and this immediately puts people on their guard and there is nothing “natural” to photograph anymore. You end up looking like a cat strolling amongst the pigeons – with a camera!
My best advice is learn to relax. Blend in with the scenery and background noise. Trust your judgement, and get used to the fact that sometimes you cannot capture every photo opportunity. Sometimes you just have to let it go. However when the moment is right, when “you know” it’s okay to take the picture, be discreet, be quick, and subtle.
“Do not force the photograph or overstay your welcome in the moment. Give yourself one press of the shutter button. Two presses is too many.”
The chances of accidentally catching your subjects attention increase as you linger, and rather than photograph the desired natural expression, you risk invading their privacy and making them feel uncomfortable.
When you are finally rewarded with that one golden photo opportunity, treat that one photograph as a gift. Be discrete, snap the shot, and try to contain your excitement as you walk away. Leave the moment behind you unspoiled, and completely unaware that you were ever there to witness it.
Thank you for reading this post on street photography ethics. Please remember this is just a guide, and every photographer is different. My approach to street photography, may not be your way of doing things. Please share this page, and leave a comment below!