No one should expect privacy if they are out and about in a public place. That means that everyone is fair game to be photographed on a public street and in open areas like a public park.
But defining “public” can sometimes be tricky. And even if you technically have the right to take someone’s photo, this doesn’t necessarily protect you from, say, a punch in the nose.
So here are seven tips for taking photos in public places legally and safely:
1. Don’t look or act like a stalker.
Take a look at yourself in the mirror. Could you be mistaken for a stalker? Do you tend to frighten small children? If so, you might want to put on a nice pair of slacks and run a comb through your hair before venturing out with your camera.
Always carry yourself like a professional. And never conceal yourself to take pictures. Be quiet and unobtrusive, but stand out in the open. If someone makes eye contact with you or asks what you’re doing, tell them.
Carry business cards and hand them out when you’re questioned. This will put your subjects at ease about your intentions.
2. Ask for the subject’s name and/or a model release — after taking the picture.
If my subjects are doing something animated and fun but not embarrassing, I will always take the picture first. I love capturing spontaneous expressions, and asking permission first usually ruins the moment. My subjects will be self-conscious after I interrupt.
I do typically ask for permission after taking the photo, however. Legally, this is not required — but practically speaking, you can avoid some hassles.
Newspapers require their photographers to get the names of the people they photograph. This serves as implicit consent for the newspaper to run the picture — even if no such consent is required. It’s like when a reporter asks, “Can I quote you on that?”
It’s also a good idea to ask your subject to sign a model release (perhaps in exchange for an 8 x 10 print). A model release is not required unless you intend to use the photo for commercial purposes, such as in an advertisement, but it’s always a good idea to get one to cover yourself.
3. Ask a parent’s permission before photographing children.
Seeing a stranger taking pictures of their children freaks parents out. If you aren’t sensitive to their fears, you could end up having a nice chat with a police officer.
Before I photograph a child, I look around to see if I can figure out who the mother or father is. I approach the parent and explain why I want to take their child’s picture. Then I hand them a business card.
If it will allay their fears and put them at ease, I will even suggest they grab a picture of me with their cellphone.
Why not? If I want to take a picture of their child, the least I can do is allow them to take a picture of me.
4. Don’t make assumptions about couples.
Couples are often easy subjects to photograph in public. Affectionate couples who are “in love” can be so into each other that they don’t notice you, so you can capture their spontaneous displays of emotion.
Intimate images of couples holding hands or kissing, for example, can make for romantic silhouettes. And silhouettes are safe to shoot because you don’t need to show any faces.
But whether you plan to include the subjects’ faces or not, be warned: Things are not always what they seem, and you need to be careful.
Just because both parties are wearing wedding bands, that doesn’t mean they are married to each other. This can make Romeo a little sensitive — even violent — if he spies a photographer out of the corner of his eye.
I can tell you from my years of hunting for newspaper feature photos in public parks, this scenario is not as uncommon as you might think. More than a few times, I’ve had to sheepishly walk away after thinking I scored a wholesome image of a loving couple enjoying a beautiful day outdoors.
By the way, if a couple is sitting in a parked car, don’t even attempt to sneak a picture of them. They aren’t in the open, and it’s debatable whether they are in public.
5. Remember, not every place where people congregate is public.
Many people think of malls as public places, but they are privately owned — even if they are open-air malls or shopping centers. When I worked as a newspaper photographer, I used to carry a little point-and-shoot camera that I would use if there was breaking news inside a mall. It allowed me to be low-key and stay under the radar of mall security.
But unless you specifically need to take pictures at a mall for your project, I’d avoid them, along with other privately owned venues.
6. Long lenses can take the “public” out of public places.
A public place like a sidewalk becomes a little less public when you pull out a long lens. If you use the lens to look into a yard or over a high fence, for example, you could be running afoul of the law.
Paparazzi get away with what they do partly because they are tracking celebrities; don’t try their approach with non-public figures. And even laws protecting celebrities against the paparazzi are tightening.
7. Do take no for an answer.
If your subjects are obviously agitated by your presence and tell you to get lost, move on. It’s not worth being hauled away in handcuffs for a picture.
Police officers aren’t lawyers. They might be more inclined to arrest you than to listen to your lecture on the First Amendment.