You can observe a lot by just watching. Yogi Berra
People-watching. The art of sitting alone in a crowded space and observing those around you. Are you being creepy or just human? How many of us have not indulged in this pastime at least once in our lifetime.
Now add your camera.
A lot of photographs that go on to be very famous are people – posed portraits, people caught unawares. Many photographers make it their business to capture the essence of people in traditional settings with a twist. Think of Yousuf Karsh pulling Churchill’s cigar from his mouth before snapping his iconic photo. Or they happen quite by accident. Think Einstein sticking his tongue out at Arthur Sasse.
When armed with a camera, the daily business of people takes on a new relevance. A grocer stacking shelves or a street sweeper can be fascinating subjects at just the right angle and with perfect light.
But can you just snap away? Do you need to let your subject know?
As a hobbyist, commercial use of my photographs is unlikely. Does it matter? Do I need a model release, just in case Pulitzer comes knocking?
According to Toronto Police in 2015, a stranger taking your photo in a public space doesn’t break any laws. But that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate and certainly can become harassment if done on a recurring basis.
Advice generally focuses on asking permission before taking a picture. Approach the person beforehand. If granted, that typically means however, that the candid, unposed nature of the situation is lost.
You need to be aware of public areas where photography may be restricted – restaurants and playgrounds for example, often have signs banning photography. Respect those. Police and military institutions can be restricted zones. Or they can be smiling and waving for the crowds.
As someone armed with a zoom lens and a healthy dose of shyness, can I snap away from a distance? The caveat here relates to a reasonable expectation of privacy – if your telephoto allows you to see into private spaces even though you are in a public spot – think again.
And what about merchants and vendors. Sure their weaving technique is incredible but do you owe them something for your photo memory? That rests largely on your own ethics and what you feel is right. There’s also the possibility of awkward moments when others vigorously suggest compensation for their image.
Children? Again, not prohibited but generally advisable to speak to the parents first.
How does a photographer balance the pursuit of great subject matter with privacy and appropriateness?
What techniques do you use?
- Most people like to be photographed. They like to be ready to be photographed even more.
- A challenge for new photographers is not as much taking photos of strangers in the street, it’s being prepared to take photos of strangers in the street. There are a lot of knobs and dials to adjust before the “candid” image is captured.
- Some of the best and most telling moments are seen when you least expect it. Have your camera ready.
Nothing in the above post is meant as legal advice.