Taking Street Portraits: To ask or not to ask?

Photo by Emilien ETIENNE

We’ve said it before and we will say it again, at Foto Ruta we love everything street and especially street photography. One of the gists of this type of photography is the spontaneity and surprise. However, when it comes to people, a few issues including privacy matters need to be considered. On one hand we want to capture the moment in all its raw and unsuspecting power, on the other we want to be respectful and avoid problems. So, what’s the deal when taking street portraits, should you ask or not? Let’s see how some of the pros handle it.

To Ask and How to Ask:

Photo by Jan Truter

Photo by Jan Truter

Eric Kim is well known in the street photography scene, plus he has a great blog with very useful tips. What does he suggest for approaching strangers to ask for permission to photograph them? Confidence, a clear explanation of your purpose, and telling them why you find them fascinating! Read more on this blog post which includes great video examples of how to do it! 

Lee Jeffries is a famous British street photographer well known for his amazing portraits of homeless people. When asked in an interview about the privacy dilemma he replied that to get intimate and up-close pictures he asks, offers something and engages in some sort of bond with his subjects.

Tip: Have something to give your subjects as a token of gratitude, for example, a wallet-sized copy of an inspiring photograph!

Not to Ask and How to go Unnoticed:

Photo by Michael Summers

The aim of course, might not be to get up close and personal with a stranger, but to capture what Henri Cartier Bresson called “the decisive moment”, a few tips on how to here

Photo by Christophe LEUNG

Steve McCurry who is remembered for his stunning portrait of the Afghan Girl for National Geographic has two techniques to capture spontaneous pictures and they include either being very quick about taking pictures on arriving at a new location, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, sticking around for long enough that curious onlookers get bored of his presence. He does of course ask for permission to show pictures after he shoots them.  More tips from Steve McCurry here.

In order to be quick, it helps to really have your technique and lighting/lens preferences down pat. And also, if you want to be inconspicuous, consider that small cameras, smart phones, and reduced equipment will call less attention to you. This in turn might mean you will have to find exposure variables that respect your aesthetic preference while at the same time conforming to the limitations of the situation.

Legal Considerations

Photo by Aurimas

Photo by Aurimas

Keep in mind that in the UK there are yet no privacy regulations that prevent you from shooting subjects in public areas, however consider that tripods might create problems if they are considered to be an obstruction, and you will need permission to take photographs in privately owned locations. Even though the law doesn’t prohibit taking pictures of strangers in public settings, there are still ethical considerations to take into account, and of course the very important issue of respect. More information on your photographer rights here