How to Take Pictures of People in Public

by Jon on January 18, 2011

No one wants to be rude, or annoy someone for the sake of a photograph. But the truth is that people mind less than you think, if they notice at all. The biggest barrier to great people shots is getting past your own apprehensions.

I enjoy shooting people more than anything else, and I get asked about it a lot. The problem is usually that most people feel uncomfortable pointing a camera at a random stranger, even in public, so they just don’t bother. Fair enough too – it’s never polite to go around poking a fat camera lens in someone’s face. There are other ways to go about it though, and in this article I’ll offer some tips I use to get people shots that I hope will help you too. There’s a fair bit to share on this topic, so apologies in advance for the length.

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First, let’s get this out of the way: shooting in public is legal pretty much anywhere. And no, you don’t need to ask permission – in most places, anything or anyone you see in a public place is fair game (though a google search will answer this definitively for your area). There are exceptions though: some places – bus or train stations and airports for example – might require a permit. Some countries are less forgiving than others too: I had absolutely no problems taking pictures in the Emirates, but I hear Saudi Arabia… not so much with the picture-taking.

Anyway, just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean people will like it. The trick is to get the shots without making enemies – and preferably with your subjects none the wiser! Here are some tips to help make it happen:

  • Zoom lenses are your friend. If you want to shoot people looking natural, do it from far away with a long lens. They’ll never know. You don’t need 300mm worth of glass for this: a short distance is enough to ensure you’ll never be noticed.
  • Seize the moment. The number one reason people fail to capture interesting and compelling people shots is because when the shot happens, they freeze, paralyzed by their own insecurity: What if they see me? Will they be mad? Am I being rude? Never mind all that! People see cameras every day, and it’s not as if you’re pointing a rocket launcher at them. Shoot it, and whatever happens after, happens – 99% of the time, nothing will happen, and you’ll have the shot.
  • Be sneaky. The advice above works well when you aren’t too close to someone, and when it’s spontaneous and things happen fast. If you need a few seconds to get it right though, things could get uneasy. Standing in front of someone and pointing your lens right at them will make anyone nervous if it’s not over quickly. In that case be discreet – maybe sit nearby and appear relaxed before you shoot, or lean against and shoot around something nearby. I also shoot from the hip a lot, meaning with the camera at waist level and without looking. It’s surprising how often this works.

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I shot this woman’s striking dress against a blue field in an Emirates restaurant with a long lens and high ISO.

  • Be quick. No one will feel uncomfortable if the shot is over before they even notice what’s happening. Have your finger on the shutter, focus-locked if possible, and steal the shot. If they catch you in the act, just smile and be nice. Show them the picture if they look interested. Don’t apologize, since that would imply you’ve somehow violated their rights. Speaking of which…
  • Know your rights. Some think they own exclusive rights to any photo of themselves. They are mistaken, but arguments arise. I’ve had this happen a couple of times, thankfully with neither escalating too far. Be patient and explain the situation. Remember, as a photographer you have rights too! You don’t have to delete a photo, even if your subject demands it. If they just won’t let it go, suggest finding a police officer or security guard to ask. Most folks will drop the issue at this point, and if they don’t, the authority figure will back you up.
  • If in doubt, ask permission. I don’t mind telling you that this is a last resort for me; once they know you’re shooting, you lose the element of natural behaviour. People become rigid and start to pose, even without meaning to. But if you must or want to ask permission, it’s easy: a simple gesture from them to your camera lens and back, along with an enquiring look, is all it takes. I’ve used this in many countries and it’s universally understood. The occasional person might wave you away, but not often.
  • Be cautious around kids. These days parents are extremely protective of their offspring. If they see you pointing a camera at their little ones, they’ll probably be wondering why. Be sneaky, quick, or both – or just ask permission beforehand. Common sense applies: don’t capture anything that shows the child’s name (eg. a name tag) or where the photo was taken (eg. a sign in the background). A business card can go a long way towards setting a parent’s mind at ease that you’re a pro, not a perv.

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Girl and Mother at Vancouver's Chinatown Night Market. I asked Mom's permission for this shot.

  • Dress the part. I’ve noticed in the wintertime if I wear my usual black woolly hat and black jacket and go shooting in public, I get some strange looks – I suspect the kind usually reserved for guys who show up to little-league games in a trenchcoat. I realize it’s a social stigma, but dressing in a non-threatening manner can make a lot of difference to peoples’ attitudes.
  • Don’t forget the legal stuff. If you’re shooting for yourself, for fun or your portfolio for example, there’s nothing legal to do. If you plan to use the image commercially though, you’ll need the subject to sign a model release. Be aware too that portraying someone in a negative light, even by accident, could land you in some hot water – so if you see a celebrity exiting a strip club, exercise discretion!

If all of this seems somehow sneaky and underhanded, remember we aren’t doing anything wrong here. No one is being photographed against their express wishes – we’re just trying to keep from making anyone uncomfortable while we shoot. It’s not that hard, and it gets lots easier the more you do it.

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