Travel photography and shooting people with (or without) permission

The following is a post I made to the Flickr group Travel Photography in a discussion about the best country for street photography. One of the members of the group raised the question of when you seek permission to take a stranger’s photograph. Clicking on the thumbnail pictures will take you to larger versions in my Flickr stream.

The permission thing is tricky. Often, if you ask beforehand, people pose rigidly, and it’s difficult to get a natural looking shot. On the other hand, just walking up and snapping a photo of someone can be very rude, and can get you in trouble.

I vary my strategy depending on the culture and situation. If people are engaged in an activity, and if I speak the language, I may ask permission, but tell them to continue doing what they’re doing. They act stiff at first, but I keep shooting, and after a while they ignore me. That’s the strategy I used for this shot of men playing checkers on a street in Havana, Cuba:

Street checkers, Centro Habana

If people are in a public place doing what they are normally doing, I sometimes don’t ask permission, but make my presence known, and refrain from shooting if anyone clearly objects. That’s what I did for this shot in Havana of men in a park arguing about baseball. I wasn’t about to interrupt their heated argument to ask permission, but I didn’t hide the fact that I was taking pictures.

Heated argument

If people are at a bit of a distance and not clearly recognizable, I have no problem sneaking a picture with a long lens as in this shot of construction workers in Havana:

Workmen and shadows

If people are engaged in a fun event like a festival, I have no problem shooting fairly close shots with a long lens and not asking permission, as in this shot at Toronto’s Caribana festival:

Caribana Parade, Toronto (8)

Sometimes I’ll simply ask people to pose and tell them what to do. If they’re engaged in an activity, and not just standing rigidly, it can work, as in this shot of a grape seller in Guatemala:

Grape seller, market, Cobán, Guatemala

If you don’t speak the language, or if you’re at a bit of a distance and there’s noise, “permission” can simply be raising your camera part way, pointing to it, and smiling at the person. If you get a nod, or at least the person doesn’t raise their hand to object, you have permission. That’s how I got this picture of a holy man in India a number of years ago:

Sadhu circuit

I was shooting film then, but today you have an advantage. Showing off the picture to your subject on the LCD screen can often invite further pictures, and even shots of others around who see it!

About Richard McGuire
Richard McGuire is a part-time photographer and photography enthusiast based on Ottawa, Canada.

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