Photography In Public Places

A classic street scene featuring a street performer and an elderly passerby in La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Photography in public places is exciting, but it can also be a tricky endeavor. The question is when is it okay to photograph a stranger and do you need permission to do so?

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.

Travel Photographers | 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.

Did you know that candid street photography is illegal in Saudi Arabia?

Not knowing this fact could place the photographer, whether professional or simply a tourist, into serious trouble.

Once I have a general understanding of any local expectations and taboos relating to photography I can then decide whether a photography based trip is worthwhile.

This research also enables me to determine, before I embark on the trip, whether my photography is likely to concentrate on people or landscape.

A formal portrait of a woman in front of a coloful background in Kolkata, India

Portrait Photos are A Collaborative Process

When it comes to people-based photography my own preference is to make interactive portraits that come 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.

Three local inuit men on the edge of the wild near Ilulissat, Greenland.

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.

An elderly female food vendor selling produce from her long-tail boat at the popular Damnoen Saduak Floating Market near Bangkok, Thailand.

I’m A Photographer

I understand it 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 away I’m working to bring my own unique character, personality, experiences and expertise to that interaction.

A Hard Road, Huangshan, China

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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 mother saying, “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 someone unawares from behind the bushes.

Two girls step gingerly into the waters of the Hooghly River in Kolkata, India.

Candid Photos | 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.

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

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.

But, again, be aware of local politics, regulations and taboos; and the mood of the individual you'd like to photograph. 

Three young girls at play in the grounds of a Hindu Temple complex 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.

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 when photographing people in public places is, when ever possible, to do what I do:

Ask Permission First.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru