The right to photograph people on the street

As I framed this scene, the woman in blue scrunched up her face and tried to turn her body. As she passed, she said angrily that she didn’t appreciate having her photograph taken.

South San Francisco

In the United States, we have the right to photograph anything we can see when we stand in public spaces (like this sidewalk). The American Civil Liberties Union elaborates this and other rights photographers have here.

I had the right to photograph this woman, whether she liked it or not. But if I had any idea of her feelings I would have waited until she had passed me by. I wanted to capture this sidewalk with pedestrians walking along it, but this particular woman did not have to be included. Other people would have come along who would not have objected, possibly would not have even noticed me. Why needlessly upset people?

I also have the right to photograph children I see in public spaces, but I seldom do. When my children were young I would have objected if some strange man photographed them at the playground. One possible reason a man might do that is unsavory enough that, even though honorable reasons are far more likely, I would have gotten in his face and insisted he leave immediately.

Riding the carousel dragon

However, as you can see above, children do sometimes appear in my photographs. In this case the scene was the busy National Mall in Washington, DC. As a popular tourist destination, many people in the crowd were making photographs. It allowed me to be inconspicuous. Still, I didn’t linger. I wanted to photograph a rider on the dragon, the most interesting “horse” on the Mall’s carousel. I also wanted to practice panning to stop in-motion subjects. I made three quick photographs, two on one pass and one on the next, and then turned my attention to other subjects.


35 responses to “The right to photograph people on the street”

  1. Jen Avatar

    We had a similar situation when my daughter was turning 1 year old. I hired a photographer to do some family photos and we ended the session at The Flying Cupcake on Mass Ave. My daughter sat on the counter they had at the old location and made quite a mess out of her first ever chocolate cupcake. Passersby stopped to watch her through the big window and many of them whipped out their phones to take pictures of her. It made me very uncomfortable, but I’m the one who chose to stick her in a window seat, so…I guess just hope for good intentions like yours, right? :-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The risk is small. I’m sure most people just thought “aww how cute” and wanted to record the moment!

  2. AskDaralynn Avatar

    You have taught me something . I’m always fearful when I photograph in public. I try to avoid having someone’s face in the frame, because I thought I needed a release form. HAHAHA I really did. You’ve prompt me to want to look up more information on street photography. From my understanding I couldn’t photograph a building without a release and post it on the web. Perhaps I’m confusing photographing for profit . This was a great read. I love blogging. It helps the spirit. I try to remember the rules of writing also, but it doesn’t always work out.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You do have to get permission to use peoples’ likenesses for commercial purposes but for personal/art purposes, not at all!

      1. AskDaralynn Avatar

        I thought so;Thanks

  3. Reinhold Graf Avatar

    Hi Jim,
    despite all uncertainties, you have the theoretical right to do so.
    In my country this is strictly prohibited by law … “The right on your own picture”.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Which I broke routinely when I visited Germany many years ago!

  4. jon campo Avatar
    jon campo

    Your photographs are very nice Jim. I don’t often photograph strangers, but have been surprised by the positive reactions when I have asked permission. Of course it is not always practical, and in the Diner shot I would have just snapped away also. I think some people just walk around looking for something to be crabby about honestly.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve never asked permission. I really don’t enjoy approaching people I don’t know!

  5. seatacphoto1951 Avatar

    Harry Benson’s Shoot First Documentary is worth watching. Of course, he was trying to get a shot of a particular person. I also do not like approaching people.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t see myself ever leaning deeply into street photography, but I do want to have enough of a thick skin that when I am on the street I’m able to just get the job done.

  6. Dave Avatar

    Street photography is my passion but I try to be very inconspicuous. Over the years, only a few of the thousands of people I’ve candidly photographed have expressed concern or anger over taking their photo.

    However, in one particular case, I candidly took a photo of a lady walking by (was using a zoom) and the lady caught me taking her photo. At first, I thought she was a put off but she asked how the photo turned out. I looked at the screen and said it wasn’t my best photo. She said ‘try again’ and posed for me. One of my better street photos.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s awesome, and you’ve had great luck then. But what a great story about that one lady!

  7. Dan James Avatar

    Hot topic Jim. I must admit reading this post it seemed to come to an abrupt end, I thought you were going to say more about your views.

    I’ve pretty much given up street photography, after dabbling intermittently in the past. A handful of confrontational situations put me off completely. Plus I realised I’m just not comfortable making photographs of people trying to go about their day. Yes they might be in a public place, but unless they’re putting on some kind of public performance, they’re still entitled to travel uninterrupted and privately I feel.

    We’ve just had new laws come in over here – the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As I understand it, if you take a photograph of someone who can be identified by that image (ie it’s their face) you are collecting data personal to them, and for that under the law you need to have their consent.

    I’m not sure how this applies to images you already took in the past, but given the guidance we’ve received at my day job (I work in Local Government) we have had to contact anyone whose personal data we have stored in some way to comply to get their permission to use it. I would assume that to post an image online of someone’s face, you need their consent too. This is an EU law of course, not worldwide.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wrote this one quickly and didn’t have time to edit fully before it went live. My blog queue isn’t very full right now so I don’t have the luxury of editing as much as I’d like. However, I did make the points here I intended to make.

      I work in the software industry and we are subject to GPDR when our products serve people in the EU, so I do have some familiarity with it. But I’m relieved that in the US someone’s face isn’t considered personal data from a legal perspective.

      Kind of like in the UK you have the right to roam, which we don’t. We have the right to photograph anything we can see when we stand in public space, which apparently you don’t. Funny how things break down.

      1. Dan James Avatar

        Yes, many people object to the GDPR, and the general restrictions we have in Europe and the UK. I must admit it’s frustrating now that every wesbite you go on seems to have extra pop ups about cookies and privacy notices, I guess you’ve seen this too, even though you live in the US? I don’t know, I think there are more scary trends, like how influential and brainwashing TV advertising is for example.

        On the blog front I have just two scheduled now (think my record has been about nine), but nearly 60 in draft! Think I’ll go back to publishing every three days rather than two before long, it hasn’t noticeably increased either site visits or interaction in the comments to post every two days.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I am considering reducing my posting cadence, or maybe posting more single frame posts for a while. I’m just too busy right now with life and blogging keeps taking a back seat.

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          And: I applaud the spirit of GPDR. Unfortunately so many of us have little real idea of what data can be saved or tracked on us or the implications of doing so. And most people aggressively won’t try to find out.

          1. Dan James Avatar

            I have no idea how individual photographers would be approached for any breaches, I would imagine the authorities are more interested in large corporations flouting the new guidelines.

            Regarding the post frequency, I have no evidence of any benefits of posting daily versus three days, and I’ve certainly noticed some people who used to comment regularly have been much quieter when I’ve increased my frequency. The main issue I have is sometimes I have lots to say in a new post and want to get it out there asap, not in a week’s time!

  8. SilverFox Avatar

    Interesting post Jim. I do some candid shots of people I see but not very often. I took a shot of a girl last year at an aquarium and as I took it I felt guilty or something in case I got called out for it. A sad thing when I think about it as there have been so many famous and great images of children taken without their permission and I see that becoming almost impossible very soon.
    I read recently about a photographer who took some pictures in (I think) Starbucks including a child and the police were called on him. They were told there was nothing illegal in whet he was doing and they could not arrest him but still they did an investigation of him, which is a little scary.
    Whether we have the right or not is one thing but there are potential consequences in us doing it I guess.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      As a man who often goes off alone with my camera, I feel quite conspicuous when I come upon children playing. I tend to just steer the other way. Perhaps I’m overreacting but I don’t want to even be suspected of anything.

  9. SilverFox Avatar

    Actually I just remembered I was visiting a stately home in the UK earlier this year and took a picture of my friends daughter. One of the guides went and spoke to my friend a told him I was photographing his daughter and wanted to know if he knew me… people are very suspicious and un-trusting these days .

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow. If those guides’ actions someday saves a kid it will all have been worth it, but what a shame to be suspected as a man with no nefarious intent.

  10. Doug Anderson Avatar

    The only time I was comfortable taking pictures of strangers was when I lived in Manhattan 50 years ago, and then only in places swarming with photographers, like Central Park. It’s a shame, really, because some of my photographs from those outings are pretty good.

    But my discomfort with taking pictures of strangers has only grown since then and has reached the point that I don’t particularly like looking at “street” photography in general. I too often identify with the people being photographed and I don’t like the feeling.

    Perhaps in compensation I am particularly drawn to beautiful and/or useful man-made things as photographic subjects.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Because of my own social reticence I’ve gravitated toward subjects that don’t talk. That’s why you find photos of old cars, old buildings, and old roads all over this site!

  11. Olli Thomson Avatar

    I think there’s a difference between an environmental image with a human element and a photograph where the person is the main subject. I prefer the former both visually and because it is a little less aggressive towards people in the environment, though obviously your experience with the lady in blue suggests that some people will always take issue with anyone with a camera.

    As frustrating as it is though from a photographers point of view I’m old enough to remember when a camera was something you rarely saw outside of a holiday destination and any pictures people took were going to end up in a photo album rather than plastered all over the internet. The ubiquity of cameras and the scope for distributing images online inevitably makes people more wary of / angry about / suspicious of ending up in people’s photographs.

    I think there’s a cultural element to this too. In the western world we’re more reticent, more concerned with our privacy. This was something I had to be aware of when I lived in Germany, though I still managed to get some good street photos. When I lived in the Philippines most people were happy to have their picture taken – many were positively insistent.

    I think a little respect and friendliness goes a long way on the streets. Unfortunately there are too many who see themselves as street photographers and thinks that gives them the right to be as intrusive and aggressive as they wish, which reflects badly on the rest of us.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You make some very good points here. It does seem like attitudes toward cameras in public have changed in correlation with the proliferation of digital cameras. The question of “what are you going to do with that image” is much more real today than in the pre-digital, pre-social-media days. And with good reason. The woman in blue who didn’t want her photo taken might just find my blog someday and not be very happy about it. That wasn’t even a possibility just 15 years ago.

  12. Film Beginnings Avatar

    Personally, I believe this issue gets a lot of unnecessary discussions. It will probably take decades (or longer maybe) to sort out but planet earth has already decided to have your image taken in public is 100% fine. I take a fair share of photographs in public that include people in the frame. I rarely have an issue, but I use common sense. I also agree with Jim, the few times anyone has ever objected that they were my frame, I simply move, apologize if it was on film or delete the photo if it was a digital camera. My photography is only a hobby and no single frame I capture is worth saving.

    However, internally I get very upset when someone “cringes and tells me they don’t appreciate their photo being taken”. Unfortunately, it shows how ignorant they are about the subject. Our images are constantly being captured. When you sit at a red light, when you enter, exit and stand in line at a bank, when you shop at a mall, when you walk around work, when you withdraw money from an ATM, when you attend an amusement park, when you attend a concert and of course I could go on and on and on.

    The women says “I don’t appreciate my picture being taken . . .” but we as photographers know that she really could care less. Of course, it is possible she belongs to some activist group that is trying to stop all images of humans being recorded but we all know that’s highly unlikely. It’s likely she allows herself to be photographed dozens of times per day and never says a word to anyone about it.

    We (planet earth) has already made the decision, it will just take a long time for that already made decision to filter through all the various scenarios. This topic is similar to such topics as racism, homosexuality, etc. Society has already decided on the answer to those issues but it will take many many generations to breed out the people who still insist on sitting on the wrong side of the fence.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What a thoughtful comment. I’m not sure people are fully aware of how often they’re being photographed. And if they are, they may not like it but there’s nobody there to complain to. So when I come along with even a little point and shoot to photograph the street, I’m someone to complain to!

  13. Doug Anderson Avatar

    Photographic surveillance by the state is one thing, and this is probably not the right forum to discuss the related issues. Photographing people with the express purpose of posting their images on the Internet without their knowledge or permission is quite another.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Right or wrong, in the US we have the right to photograph people in public places, and nothing prevents us from posting those images on the Internet for noncommercial purposes. It would be interesting to explore the ethics of both.

      1. Doug Anderson Avatar

        I agree entirely. They are completely separate issues. It just seemed that we might be confusing the issue by using the former to rationalize the latter.

  14. Sam Avatar

    Hi Jim I agree with you on all points here. Sometimes I’m just taking a photo of a place or building and someone walks by. I don’t feel bad about it but if they look disturbed I’ll wait till they’re out of the pic. A great post on an ever controversial topic! Thanks for this.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes! Just wait. Others will come along who won’t notice or won’t care.

      1. Sam Avatar

        I guess im lucky in the NYC area they don’t care all that much! :-)

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