Seven Tips for Taking Photos in Public Places

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.

<i>I photographed this elderly gentleman at a public park in Kowloon, Hong Kong.  I smiled at him, gestured that I wanted to take his picture, and he obliged.</i>

I photographed this elderly gentleman at a public park in Kowloon, Hong Kong. I smiled at him, gestured that I wanted to take his picture, and he obliged.

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.

<i>I captured these ladies laughing out loud as they waited to cross a street in Medina, Ohio.</i>

I captured these ladies laughing out loud as they waited to cross a street in Medina, Ohio.

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.

32 Responses to “Seven Tips for Taking Photos in Public Places”

  1. Thank You Peter. This was a funny yet very informative article.

  2. Great tips. Your posts are always really good. I love #1. No offense to the guys, but a few male photographers need to check their appearances before heading to shoot. I am a photographer myself and some of them frighten me when they are out with their camera. I notice this quite a bit when I am traveling. For example, when I was in Tokyo in front of Meiji Shrine where Harajuku girls congregate, many of the male photographers out there honestly looked like they just made a break out of jail. Of course we want to be comfortable when shooting, but grooming is still important.

  3. I like your comment on the fact that police officers are not lawyers.

    A lot of the time, they are completely oblivious to the law frankly, and can be rather annoying to deal with.

  4. Great advice Peter.

    Especially Numero 7. For every one person that says "no," there are hundred that say "yes."

    As for Numeros 1 and 3: I had the cops called on me once while interning at the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner. I was photographing in a park and the police showed up asking what I was doing. After about 10 minutes of explaining who I was, showing my credentials and waiting for the police to verify it, I was let go and the parents informed I was legit. Embarassing, but a great learning experience.

    I have a really funny story concerning Numero 4, but that's for another time.

    Thanks for the great article.

  5. Loved the article, thanks, I am a stock photographer, so this is very helpful.

  6. Excellent tips!

  7. Sometimes the subject becomes more at ease by reviewing the image preview. That way they see your professional camera and how good the professional quality of the image. Also get the age of young and elderly subjects. Age can be a news worthy fact.

    What about social media like Facebook for photo rights and releases? Maybe that's another discussion?

  8. Very good article and I'm happy to see that I am following much of what you covered. I love street photography and learned that asking for permission, even of parents tends to change the atmosphere from that point on because some says something that draws attention to me, after the fact. When people approach me I stop and chat, even if they only glance or speak because I know they want to know what I'm doing & in most instances I wait 5-10 minutes before I resume my work. Zoom lens also create more danger because the thieves presume it costs a lot and think you have money on you.

  9. Great article. I passed the link on to my camera club (WICC). We OFTEN discuss issues concerning privacy and permission. Getting a signed release is a STANDARD!

  10. m:\wp\3\5SK25

    If you’re an editorial stock photographer, test this one out. Here’s a way to get good co-operation from people in public.
    On your shirt or sweater, wear one of those small black plastic badges, -the kind a deliveryman or a nurse will wear. It should have your name on it and your website or agency. They cost under $5. In addition to the camera you’re using, always wear another camera around your neck, not in your camera bag.
    Reason? If you look like a hobbyist, you won’t be taken seriously. People actually love to be photographed if there’s something in it for them. As Andy Warhol told us, “It’s their twelve minutes of fame.” (The people know your picture will appear in print.).
    Test this out. Leave your extra camera and badge at home and try to photograph in public. You’ll feel naked.
    I can also suggest a 4-line phrase you can say to strangers, but that will be for another time.
    - Rohn

  11. Hi Peter,

    This is a great article for folks like me that are just getting into people photography. I was recently listening to a podcast by a pro who said he always looks people in the eyes a little bit longer than normal to see if he can make a connection, then asks if he can ask them a question rather than asking how are you today which makes most people uncomfortable. He then asks, "can I take your picture". He said that makes it very clear whether it's a yes or no. Always be pleasant and if it's a no, be gracious, say thank you and walk away.

  12. Some excellent advice here! I've always wished I could indulge in more street photography than I do...but most times the chance of negative confrontation and possible physical risk makes it just not worth the risk for me...I'm not the type to bleed for my art, LOL.

  13. Really useful advice. I have classically avoided including people in my stock photos but your article has given my some Dutch courage to give it a go. Must remember to carry around Release forms. Thanks

  14. Amen to number 7 - I wish a few more people could get their heads round this very simple concept.

  15. Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment.

    I can't offer any concrete evidence that this is the way to "operate" when taking pictures in public. It's anecdotal of course.

    In my 25-year career with the newspapers I have never been arrested. Threatened with arrest? Sure. But I knew when to stand firm.

  16. We have just been discussing this subject on Facebook. At one moment I felt confident now more confused. I have a lot of photos from the state fair and some of a professional native dance group.From this converstation Im thinking I should get in touch with them offer copies of the photos and get permission in writing (email) from the elders showing respect for their talents as well.

  17. Linda I think you are missing an opportunity for exposure if you do not contact the dance group. I love street photography & I have never had a problem with someone whose image I captured. I have always take 1 of 2 approach's.. (a) I capture the image & in most instance the person never knows because they are actively involved in something. (b) Something is going on or I see a photo opp that I want so I walk up to the people, smile & ask them if I can take their picture. My most recent Gallery was at a tailgating event where I had my camera on a monopod & walked around the site for 30 minutes trying to be seen. When I came back people either ignored me or agreed to the shot when requested.

  18. Great set of tips and good advice. I would add to #5 that in the UK the police have become paranoid about photographing in many public places, the key is to look like a tourist, and don’t even think about using a tripod. If you set a tripod in parts of London you can count the time in seconds before there is a hand on your shoulder, and then you have to give a long explanation about why your not a terrorist.

  19. Yesterday was the Christmas parade. Lots of kids with parents or clubs. Not one person turned me down when I asked if I could take their picture. Many wanted to know if it would be in the newspaper? Sorry, but not unless the newspaper wants it. And it's pretty impossible to get a signed consent in a moving parade.
    I like taking shots of the banners of the school/club before other photos so if I get a good photo I can contact them and find the person I need.
    Luckily this is a small town, many people know me and as a newbie, I'm very willing to give a parent a photo of their child. Never know, might like what I do and become a paying client.
    Thanks for the tips! 🙂

  20. Great tips here! I am a photographer and this is a great, quick list to look at.


    What's your story?

  21. I am surprised how suppressed is to photograph people in the United States, when many of northamericans travelling for example to Mexico, they take pictures of people, children, freely without any legal consideration or being affraid to be arrested. I think that is because the 'northamerican (usa) system' is filled with too much garbage, just for money, and in people mind's is always money how to take advantege of each other. And still they believe they are free?
    Freedom is a word that implicates many things, and there is not total freedom, there are only restrictions that terrorize people.

  22. Peter, thank you for the article!
    I have question regarding model release. How do you explain why you need it and it is normal procedure? I found that most people don't mind or like being photographed, but once asked to sign the release form they get suspicious. Any tips on this?
    Also when shooting abroad, not everybody speak english so it can get really difficult to explain let alone get someone to sign something in a foreign language.
    Thank you

  23. Thanks for the tips, really helpful!
    What about if your not a professional photographer, and therefore don't have any forms or anything to get peoples approval? I have to take photos of people for my school project(because I'm a kid anyway the whole parents-freaking-out thing might not be a problem) but I'd rather not have my family and friends as the subjects in all of my photos...

  24. Thank-you so much for this informative article Peter.
    Very much appreciated.
    Funny isn't it, the more we learn about stuff, the more we have to learn about it!


  25. I ran afoul with this situation recently, when I decided to take pictures at a tennis court that displayed signs saying "Open to Public." I was asked by a tennis instructor to leave, and as a result, I've started to educate myself on this. I tend to be the type to take more still lifes when I do photography, but if I see a good moment involving individuals, I like to know I can snap a shot if possible. Kind of frustrates me tho, I brought this topic up on deviantART and someone actually flamed me. After talking with my local Police Chief, yes, I went to City Hall to find out better where I stand on these issues, I have decided that whenever possible I will try to stay away from private property that announces itself "Open to Public" and he reassured me that I was legally in my rights to take photographs of anyone, even children, in public, and he even wished me good luck with my photography and suggested in the future I try the nearby public tennis court lol.

    So this article was very helpful, I'll have to remember that about the business cards and I'll try to remember the other tips as well, such as taking down names and so forth in the future once I take a photograph. Thank you so much for the useful tips, Peter. =)

  26. On Tip No5 you are talking about shopping centres.
    What if you have the consent from the shopping centre?
    Can you still picture the shoppers?
    I have covered the shopper's faces and the pictures look really unprofessional on the website.
    I'm worry that someone will try to take me to court if I don't cover their faces.
    Do you have any suggestion?
    The Shopping Centre manager has agreed for me to take pictures but what it will happen if someone saw his/her face on a website?
    Am I going to be in treble?
    It is very hard to ask people to sign a photographer’s contract on busy places.
    What do you think?

  27. Sorry the shopping centre is in the UK

  28. are public officials considered public even if they are in private spaces, places? thanks!

  29. Dude. Your ugly watermark spoils your photos.

  30. Just pulled up your insightful article because I just got back from a mall where a very creepy woman took photos of my children and me without our consent. My husband who can be very intimidating scared the daylights out of her and we alerted security immediately. I don't care if it is legal, it is borderline harassment and should be frowned upon as at least unethical among serious photographers. Especially when children are involved.

  31. This reminds me of a story several years back where a guy was taking pictures at water polo games. The pictures ended up on porn sites. No one was ever charged with a crime.

  32. I just happened to stumble across your website and the article Georgia Sea Turtle Center » Blog Archive » Nifty Nesting at the Beach!. The info you have written down really causes me think. Thanks for sharing.

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