Thursday, March 01, 2012

Photographing People in Public

Copyright Monica L. Shulman
Taken at South Street Seaport

One of the questions that I get asked all the time from friends and readers often has to do with how to photograph people in public.  Of course that question is usually followed by whether it's allowed.  Street portraiture is one of my favorite styles of photography because I love to capture people when they are in their element doing their thing.  When I take a photo of a person on the street I feel like somehow I am a part of their life and like with all photography, I just captured a moment in time that will never again be repeated.

Here are a few points to keep in mind to help get you started:

1.  Can you photograph a person in public?

The answer is -- it depends.  Basically, you can photograph nearly all public places and spaces. And, you can also photograph people in public as long as it falls under editorial content.

Editorial content is something that tells a story. The subject matter is the image as a whole and any people who appear in the photograph are part of that story.  It differs from portraiture in that in a portrait the person is the subject matter. 

2.  Do you ask permission?

The most important thing is to use your judgment.  Of course the best photos are the ones that are taken spontaneously when the subject doesn't know you're taking a picture.  Like I said, capturing people in their environment is one of my favorite things about street photography.  Still, here are a few things to keep in mind...

As a general matter, people have a reasonable expectation of privacy (hey, I learned something in law school!).  What this means is that you can't take a picture of someone in a situation in which they would normally expect privacy.  You can't take photos of people in dressing rooms or public bathrooms, for example.  Here's a great outline of your rights as a photographer by the ACLU -- incidentally, I took constitutional law with Nadine Strossen when she was the President of the ACLU.  Nerd alert!  I digress...

Photographing Adults

I usually have my camera around my neck or hanging on my shoulder so if I lift it up to my face and somehow make eye contact, I wait a second.  If the person shakes their head, puts up their hand or does any other obvious thing to indicate that they don't want their photo taken, then I just don't take the picture.  Oh well.  I move on.  Most times people will just nod and I'll take a few shots.  It's something that has worked in pretty much every city I've ever visited.  I've found that in certain places that I've visited like Thailand and Argentina, people are more than happy to have their photograph taken.  Some even pose!

If it's a big group of people it's not always practical to seek permission so I usually don't.

A slight complication arises if you're going to try to sell your photos of people for commercial use.  If this is the case then you need to obtain a model release from the person.  The text of a model release is pretty straightforward and you can find lots of samples online.  Keep in mind that if you do intend to sell your work, most companies won't purchase a photo that features a recognizable person unless you have a model release.  So if that's your intended use, then it's better to be safe and get one.  It's not only "safe" to protect yourself but if you have ethics, then you know that it's also the right thing to do to protect another person's likeness.  I license some of my work via Getty Images and they absolutely require model releases for any photo of this nature.

Life on a River
Taken in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Photographing Kids

As a general matter, I never, ever photograph someone's child unless I've asked the adult's permission.  The reasons why you wouldn't (or in my opinion, shouldn't) photograph a child you don't know without permission should be obvious.  Personally, I would freak out if someone took out a camera and just started taking photos of Lucia at the park or where ever.  However, in some cases, like if the child or group of children will not be readily recognizable, I don't ask.

Copyright 2009 Monica L. Shulman
This photo, that I've featured here before and that has actually won a few awards, was taken in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.  

Check out these photos on my website.

3.  Looking for pictures

This is along the lines of the "what makes a photo interesting" question.  The answer is completely subjective.  Sometimes there is a photo that is just waiting to be captured and other times you really have to look for it.  Either way, it takes practice and patience and it's completely personal.  Sit outdoors and watch people or a scene, go to an event like a flea market, parade or concert.  If there's good (magic) light I sometimes just wait for something interesting to happen on a particular street.

Do you have any tips for photographing people in public?  Share your ideas and photos!  And have you ever been turned down for taking a photo?

Also, in addition to the ACLU site, here's a great blog dedicated to educating photographers about their rights. Photography is not a crime.

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