Street or Candid Photography in Post-911 World

Public perception of any person with a camera in their hand whether still or video in and around public landmarks, was forever changed as a result of Sept 11, 2001.

It didn’t help that the paparazzi contributed to Princess Diana’s death.

Sort of ironic, isn’t it?

The hordes of paparazzi through their dogged pursuit of their quarry, contributed to her untimely demise and in the end, they lost a source of income.

Robin Stein bows her head during a memorial service for the victims of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Friday., Sept. 14, 2001, at the Redlands Bowl in Redlands, California.

Still, if you’re a people watcher like I am, those changes in attitudes shouldn’t dissuade you from pursuing street or candid photography of people.

Psychology 101

1.To ask or not to ask.
Most folks in public places don’t mind being photographed if you ask.

But sometimes asking first, ruins the moment, especially if that something they’re doing is spur of the moment.

Shooting your pictures first and asking for forgiveness afterwards is my advice if that’s the case.

This elderly gentleman photographed in Kowloon, Hong Kong didn’t seem to mind at all when I took his picture.

He was sitting in a public park one wintry morning.

The directional light, his attire, walking stick and his proud face made him stand out from the crowd. I smiled at him, gestured that I wanted to take his picture and he obliged. Canon F-1.Canon 200 mm f 2.8 lens. Kodak Tri-X B&W film

But under no circumstances run off when discovered as if you’ve done something wrong.

My years as a newspaper photographer has taught me no 2 situations are alike.

You probably don’t want to read that, I know. But it’s true. Here’s why.

If you ask first and they say no, then you risk tipping them off.

Then they’ll either be hamming it intentionally for you, or they’ll stop and growl at you.

Another wintry day, this time in downtown Medina in Ohio where I interned at the local newspaper when I was in college. I captured these ladies laughing out loud as they waited to cross the street. Canon F-1.Canon 200 mm f 2.8 lens. Kodak Tri-X B&W film

2. Be a good sport.
Just remember if they’re not happy with your presence with the camera, be a good sport and move on.

Most times if you remain calm, smile and explain yourself, saying something like , “I took your picture because that looked like such a special moment between your wife/girlfriend and you.”

I would have asked before hand but I didn’t want to interrupt your spontaneous display of affection.

While was traveling in Hong Kong, I happened across this cobbler who repaired shoes, replacing soles and stitching leather products. He was a very cordial gentleman. He never seemed to mind. His cheerful disposition hit home because I learned it’s not how much money you make, but what you do with it to be happy. Canon F-1, 28 mm lens. Tri-X B&W film.

Bear in mind, Romeo may be spoken for and might be smooching with someone he’s not supposed to, that’s why he’s a little hot under the collar when he sees you, so respect that possibility.

Sometimes showing them the image on the back of your camera can convince them.

If they insist you erase the image, you might offer them a print of the picture. And if they like the idea, why not asked them to sign a model release?

Festivals where attendees dress up are great places for people pictures. Most people are decked up in period costumes and don’t mind being photographed.

So if you like photographing people, it’s the perfect place to practice.

In the picture above, a couple decked out in period costume smooch in front of a mural.

Place yourself in their shoes for a moment and see if you wouldn’t want a great picture of you and the love of your life smooching against a wonderful setting.

3. Take no for an answer unless you’re a paparazzi-in-training.
Never be so insistent on photographing someone to the point they consider you a stalker.

Even if the law says no one should expect privacy in a public places, that doesn’t give you any special right to literally point a camera in a person’s face.

4. Be sure to smile and appear friendly.
When you’re walking around with your camera and that long lens, acting aloof, distant and avoiding eye contact or sneaking around is bad body language.

It suggests you’re hiding what you’re doing, so that is a no-no.

You are engaging in a fun activity which is not illegal. Do I need to elaborate about your attire as well?

So if your wardrobe is just a trenchcoats, sunglasses and large hats because you’re sensitive to the sun, you might consider a different kind of photography.

With those caveats out of the way, here’s some suggestions on equipment and technique.


A telephoto lens and a wide angle.
A telephoto lens is a necessity, something in the range of 80 mm to 200 mm works well.

The lens even with the lens hood doesn’t look that imposing. Longer focal lengths like a 300 mm or longer are of course better, but you will surely stick out like a sore thumb.

Another lens of necessity is a wide angle  something like a 15 mm or 16 mm if your camera has a magnification factor and doesn’t have a full-size sensor.

When you’re in a crowd and you can’t possibly move back, this will allow you to capture scenes easier.

Wide angles also allow you to shoot from the hip without raising the camera to your eye for true clandestine work.

Digital SLRs work better than point and shoot cameras. But if a point and shoot is all you have, shoot at your longest focal length and at a quality to give you the largest file size.

Don’t use the digital zoom. You want to use your maximum optical zoom and also your quality or lowest compression giving you the largest file size.


Set your exposure for the lighting conditions beforehand.

This is all part of being ready. When shooting in the streets, you have little or no time to be fiddling with aperture and shutter speeds.

Most people think you don’t need to do this with today’s cameras because of all the automatic modes and autofocusing.

I recommend you set the exposure manually then all your camera needs to do is focus when press the shutter speeding up the process.

If you leave it to the camera on automatic, the camera has one more operation, deciding what combination of shutter speed and aperture to set while trying to focus on your subject.

Since you already know you want to emphasize your person and what they’re doing, you’re obviously going to shoot with your widest aperture to blur out the distractions in the background and foreground.

Seasoned Apples Smell Nutty to Blushing Bachelors. That stands for Set Aperture to Small Number to Blur Background.

Remember not be too pushy persisting to photograph someone who doesn’t want to.

The law says no one should expect privacy in a public places.

But when a worried mother flags down a cop because you’re taking pictures of her and her child in the public park, it is more than likely you’ll be asked to stop or leave.

The First Amendment protects free speech, which means that no law enforcement official can prevent the photography or filming on the street or anywhere else that is considered public property.

In practice we all know some cops can get overzealous and heavy-handed just because they are the ones with the guns and handcuffs.

This video shows exactly what I mean. Denver police and Boulder County deputies manhandle a credentialled journalist who was working on the sidewalk during the Democratic National Convention recently.

And just in case you think this is becoming a phenomenon on this side of the Atlantic, watch this video produced by Rajesh Thind.

12 thoughts on “Street or Candid Photography in Post-911 World”

  1. Mary,
    Thanks for visiting and commenting. My advice about taking pictures inside malls is to be “low key.” That usually means not using a flash.

    Most security guards and rent-a-cops have orders not to allow any photography. But to enforce that would be difficult, so they usually don’t bother if you don’t appear like a professional and are usually a point and shoot.

    In case you haven’t noticed, just about every portable device has a digital camera in it now especially phones, so they’re fighting a losing battle there.

    If you use a digital SLR, I would suggest no long zoom lenses, that will usually “tip them off.”

    If you get stopped, just say you didn’t know and move on and don’t argue, it’s not worth it. I doubt they’ll ask you to erase your images.

    A little trick you can do on some digital SLRs is use the “protect image” feature. If you’re asked to erase the images, show them the menu where you choose erase all images.

    Those images you protected will be safe. Of course if you want to be tricky, you can swap the memory card too.

    Merry Christmas, be safe and take lots of pictures!

  2. This was very informative. Thank you for clearing up a few questions about where to and not to take photos. I’m very new at photos in “public” places. I didnt know that about malls. Although I have not yet shot any pictures there its good to know.

  3. Jason,
    Very nice of you to stop by and comment. I’m afraid I’m not the producer of The Mac Observer’s Mac Geek Gab. I”m going to have to check that out though.

    Because you’ve taken the time to comment, I now consider you a friend just as the others who have done so on my blog.

    I wrote about street photography because many people exploring photography are not unlike you and I. We are social creatures and like to observe our fellow human beings.

    Unfortunately there are weirdos out there with cameras, hence we get the stereotypes that men with cameras are some sort of fiend.

    That’s why I advise that when discovered taking pictures in public, it is best to “come clean.”

    You are lucky to be in Japan where photography is very widely accepted.

    If you’ve been in Japan a while, depending on where you live, you must have heard of Sundays at Harajuku

    It might not be what you’re after since the kids that dress up and hang out are hamming it up. They’re there to be seen.

  4. Thank you for writing about the ethics and mechanics of street photography. I just started to do street photography in the past few months. I’m an American living in Tokyo and there is a natural distance between me and the general population at large which makes me very un-shy about taking street photography shots. Japanese are very non-confrontational people, so I have had no problems or awkward moments yet.

    However, I am moving back to the U.S. early next year and wonder if I will be bold enough to continue street photography?

    Reading the above post I feel I learned what a photographer’s rights are, and what ethics and manners he/she should practice.

    I shoot with an 80-200m f/2.8 lens mostly for street photography.

    I just realized, Pixel Pete, are you a friend or producer of The Mac Observer’s Mac Geek Gab?

  5. Shirley,
    I’m bummed that NYC police made you wipe your video footage. It seems to be a trend which is not encouraging.

    The Olympics situation is mostly fueled by greed. I can’t imagine how they could try and enforce this. If you were were on a public street photographing say one of those long distance 10K races, which often take the runners through the city streets, I can’t imagine them trying to fight you for the rights to those pictures.

    If you were in a stadium, it might be a different story. Security would want to see credentials if you showed up with a long lens and professional-looking camera. Maybe I’m naive, but life used to be a whole lot simpler for making photographs in public places whether you’re a tourist or someone who makes a living from photography. It’s a travesty for artists/photographers.

    I’m saddened that it’s the same in Australia these days. Thank you for the insight!

  6. We have a similar problem with security guards and the police. If your camera is large and black, you will be challenged.
    It started before 911 though. It started with the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But it was for two reasons; one was security, and the other was the ‘right’ to own Olympic images and use them for profit.
    Nowadays its a money thing. We have to have a permit to photograph anywhere in Sydney for commercial purposes. So security guards will challenge you and ask to see your permit.
    But that said, it was in New York in 2003, when I was stopped by a policeman and told I had to wipe my video footage of bridges. They had been watching me video the trip from the airport, and I was in the middle back seat on a shuttle bus.. And I was a genuine tourist.

  7. Scott, thank you again for commenting. I generally ask parents before I photograph their kids these days. It’s just easier for everyone. Parents can say no and I will gladly move on. My college photo instructor used to hate it whenever we turned in pictures of cute kids. Good ol’ Charlie Brill used to scoff and say, “Cute pictures of kids are a dime a dozen.”

    And in just in case anyone thinks it’s okay to take pictures inside any mall, it’s not. That is not public property. It’s just tough for their security to enforce that “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” policy when there’s so many people about.

    When I worked at the newspaper whenever there was some sort of scuffle or breaking news inside a mall, I used to lose my SLR and just strolled inside with a high-end point and shoot camera to keep a low profile to evade the security guards.

    If I showed up with all my gear hanging around my neck, they’ll ask me to cool my heels and wait in the mall office while their public relations people sort things out with the cops.

  8. great article, nice points about photographing in public… you are right, no 2 situations are the same. I don’t really like to ask first because to me it does ruin the moment, but I will generally talk to them afterwards. Still, I was at a football game yesterday and took several of a very cute little girl about 3-4 years old with her parents nearby and talked to them after the fact… another 5 year old asleep on her mothers lap, I asked.

    Nice post

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