Street Photography: Musings

In my ongoing photography challenge, one of the categories was ‘Street Photography’

It is a challenging subject, particularly in these  times of child protection issues, big brother and terrorism. Some photographers have in recent times had their cameras taken off them by the Police, films and/or memory cards removed in the name of National Security.

It is a little ironic that in a media driven world some people now don’t want their photograph taken or we need permission from the subject. Point a movie camera at them and say you are from X factor or Big Brother or Saturday Night Takeaway though and the response might be different.

What do you think?

Is there or should there be an issue with street photography?

Shotslot has this to say,

I’ve recently had occassion to start looking into the legal position with regard to shooting candid photographs of people in public places, both in terms of taking photographs and publishing them. It’s a bit of a minefield here in the UK, where the past ten years have seen in marked increase in the already somewhat sturdy police powers. There almost appears to be an assumption in general that anyone pointing a camera must be a deviant, a criminal or worse (unless the pointer is female, under 25 and the camera is small and pink!) and a tendency by some police officers to mis-use the laws. This is an issue which has increasingly come to the fore in photography magazines and blogs of late.

Anyway, here’s some useful links that I’ve been using to try and determine my legal situation when challenged – the issue is that I have been shooting quite a few more candid pics taken in public places and have wanted to use some of them on a non-commercial basis. I haven’t always had the opportunity to get permission from the subjects. If you find yourself in a similar position you might want to check this lot out:

  • Simon Moran has a useful piece with a printable fact-sheet compiled by a legal consultant here
  • Urban75 has an excellent set of articles and links to relevant area, including legal guidance for people who have an innocent interest in derelect buildings – sosij this means YOU!
  • Daniel Cuthbert has a printable legal card, which also has good advice like ‘be polite’ and ‘don’t be aggressive’ – a good suggestion in any circumstance!

It’s also important to remember though that a lot of ‘law’ is a matter of opinion in Court, you shouldn’t take any of this material as the absolute ‘truth’ but rather be guided by it. Also, be aware that taking photos in dangerous places (like street protests) is likely to get both you and your camera damaged. I’d also be very careful about pointing your camera at other people’s kids, there’s a lot of fear in the world and some folks don’t just like it.

If I wanted to sell the images I’d taken and the subjects, whoever they were, were identifiable in them then I would need to get permission from the subjects in order for stock companies to take the images on. Have you ever noticed how few good non-copyright images of people, especially couples, are available on-line? Presumably that’s because these types of images are aspirational and therefore pretty marketable. Anyway, I’m really enjoying the chance to take street photos with a bit more confidence in where I stand.

Here are a few of my favourite street shots (Click through images to see more of the same)

by Donato Buccella
by Alexander Magedler
by Dimitris Makrygiannakis
by Nick Turpin

The last shot is from Nick Turpin’s website. This fella has lots of street photography under his belt and also was responsible for setting up In Public ( See Below)

Here are a few of his thoughts of photography on the street.


Street Photography is an Attitude

More than anything Street Photography is an attitude, it is an openness to being amazed by what comes your way, it is unlearning the habit of categorising and dismissing the everyday as being ‘just the everyday’ and beginning to recognise that extraordinary, beautiful and subtle stories are occurring in front of you everyday of your life if you can see them. I actually think you can be a Street Photographer without a camera and without making photographs, it is really just the more insecure Street Photographers like myself that actually have to record and show off their ability to ‘see’.

How many other forms of photography essentially have ‘wonder’ at their heart? That’s what makes Street Photography almost a spiritual process for many because it is so personal and so akin to a kind of photographic enlightenment. Street Photography helps me understand the nature of my society and my place in it, I do it more for myself than I do for an external audience and like Buddhist enlightenment I do achieve a happiness through gaining that understanding. I have certainly experienced ‘Matrix’ like moments of revelation when in a public place when I see things, moments just reveal themselves because I have put myself in the right situation for it to happen.


Replacing your own Head

If you must actually take a camera onto the streets then a high degree of dexterity will be required to ‘see’ things and at the same time coordinate the device to make a visual record. Simplicity is the key, keep your equipment small, quiet and uncomplicated. You need one body and one lens, you won’t have time for zooming so prime lenses are best and you are more invisible closer with a short lens than you are further away with a long lens. I advise sleeping with your camera, carry it everywhere, know it’s weight and it’s feel in your hand, know how to hold it easily and steadily with one hand, learn how far back your lens places you from a subject on the pavement, learn how much depth of field you get at each f stop, decide how much noise is acceptable to you and shoot close to its iso threshold, get a feel for its slight shutter delay, know how far the lens barrel turns from the near to the far side of the pavement. Make this camera so much part of you that even thinking of buying a new one would be akin to replacing your own head.

In the early days, don’t set out to make a certain kind of picture, just make lots of pictures for weeks or months and pull out the ones that strike you as special even if you can’t initially identify why. As time passes and you are patient, passionate and dedicated you will be able to lay these striking images out together and if you are lucky you will see your own natural vision emerge and you can call yourself a Street Photographer and perhaps an artist. The last thing you should do is to try to make pictures like Bruce Gilden (just don’t) or try to make pictures like Alex Webb or Cartier Bresson or Matt Stuart. As soon as you adopt others strategies in the street you start to blinker your own natural vision ever so slightly and that would be a shame.

Street Photography is primarily a spiritual and intellectual activity, it takes great awareness, mental presence, self confidence and faith, it’s like courting a beautiful girl or a large bull….the exposing of a photograph at the end is just the last blunt physical act that completes the process, it is a mistake to apply too much weight to that last part.

As a Street Photographer you are different, you are not like the others, you are an oddity both in society and in photography. In society you are odd because you are just standing their looking whilst everyone rushes past to their next shopping experience or intake of salty, sugary, fatty food. In photography you are odd because your motivation is not financial and you don’t go to photo trade shows unless it’s to people watch. You are really not part of either world, it can be lonely not talking about equipment and bags and not oiling the wheels of retail….if it weren’t for online street photography forums you could feel isolated like some lonely eccentric.



Stop dismissing the everyday and realise that it is your very subject.

OK, Street Photographers are not the Jedi Knights of photography but as you spend more and more time on the streets watching and shooting you do develop an instinct for what is about to happen or where you should probably be standing which can definitely lead to a higher hit rate. If the pictures aren’t coming, try just photographing non pictures, any corner that’s busy or just snapping every passer by to get you looking and tuned in a little. Look around for anything at all that doesn’t happen on that spot all day everyday, this could be a shop refurbishment, a road sweeper working his way along with a brush, scaffolding going up, a UPS delivery, anything small that could provide a background element or develop into something unexpected. Work one place for a long period so that you can see what happens there, the same bus with a travel advert that passes at 20 past the hour every hour, lights that stop the traffic with a nice reflection in the window from Advertising hoardings….you must stop dismissing the everyday and realise that it is your very subject.


Interesting words I think and his work is well worth a look to. As mentioned up top he also set up In Public a worthwhile site to visit and browse.

Personally, I still find shooting in the street a bit odd and I get very self conscious but I can see that it is an area of photography that is a metaphorical Gold mine.One for the future perhaps.

13 thoughts on “Street Photography: Musings

  1. I am sorry, but I have seen little evidence that there IS a problem with SP. I know there have been cases of police and security going nuts, but in five years on the street, I have been spoken to by police once..and that was because I happened to point the camera (stupidly on my part) at him while he chatted up a young girl. Only maybe half a dozen times have I had someone object to being photographed. Most people, if they see me, just smile, or laugh. I’ve even been thanked for taking photos of people’s kids..without permission! Turpin is quoted in a NY times (i think it is) article on SP in France..he says he had to “rescue” participants in his workshop because of angry members of the public. But, I think it is quite reasonable for people to become nervous when a pack of cameras is pointed at them all at once! I have asked on Twitter for people’s experience doing SP and the only negative so far has been “I was chased once for pushing my luck too far” and I think that sums it up. Respect for the people we photograph, not invading personal space, being sensitive to awkward moments and above all not going on and on about “rights’ and conveniently forgetting that just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean always that we SHOULD just on principle. My view is that SP has become a bit of a “macho” sport, sort of like a “hunting” safari or something. Street photography is about connecting with people even if they aren’t award of our presence. It’s about recording the so-called “ordinary moments” (of which there are none!) in people’s lives. It’s not about capturing or stealing souls; it is not about asserting “rights’ on principle; it is about a love for and an empathy with our fellow humans (and other animals LOL) and of course it should be fun. It’s not a war, a hunt, a battle or a confrontation. It is a collaboration, a partnership

    1. Thanks for sharing. Your views are most welcome. They are of course your own personal perspective and differ from other views I have heard from other photographers but I think that’s why it makes for an interesting debate. I don’t practice it much myself and have little to say from an experiential viewpoint at this stage but I did think it might make for an interesting blog topic.

  2. As you say Paul people are getting more savvy about photography in the sense that they don’t want their photograph taken, not unless there is something in it for them. I was in Paris a couple of years back trying to take photographs on a warm summers evening in Montmartre. People were openly abusive with me and I put it down to typical Parisien attitude. About a year later I found out that there is a law in France protecting privacy, which the French people strongly enforce. I could have been easily prosecuted if someone had complained.

    I think we are going that way here in the UK, life is getting harder for photographers, especially in built up areas. The more professional you camera looks the harder it is becoming. ….and don’t get out a tripod. If I were to tackle this task again I would do it but only with my little P+S.

    1. I have not experienced any abuse personally but have done very little in the way of Street photography. I am not sure that permission must be asked for here though I have been in situations where model release forms were required in a public space…. perhaps we are heading more towards the protection of personal privacy.

  3. Thank you, Pilgrim242. Before reading your comments I had considered that all SP ‘artists’ were predatory arrogants. It has little to do with the law and all to do with respect and courtesy. In my own humble opinion they are all paparazzo scum with, I know now, at least one exception. I can appreciate the art but that can never compensate for the intrusion.

    1. Thanks for jumping into the debate Andy. It seems like the audience is split down the middle on this one. Reading around on the subject, certainly here in the UK, it would seem to me to make sense to be at the least aware of the Laws that can and sometimes do kick in. I agree with both you and Pilgrim242 about building relationship, collaboration and the like but I also think there is room for in the moment spontaneity that can produce at times, memorable images and it would be nice to think that there was room in the world for such freedom to shoot.From what I can tell, sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t and I don’t always think it’s about the photographers approach…not always. Thanks again for chipping in.

    2. I understand what Andy says about intrusion. If ever I have felt like i was intruding I hven’t made the picture. This is different than some I think. I am very grateful for not being any longer scum LOL. Yes we all should know the laws. After all laws are a reflection of a society’s values and we all are a part of that.
      Paul, my idea of collaboration and partnership is a bit more esoteric I guess. My photos are almost always made without “asking” for permission…can’t think the last time I asked actually…What I mean is it’s kind of an intuitive thing, unspoken. Hope that makes sense! LOL. As a last word, I will say I agree with Andy. SP has become such a booming “hobby” or activity and so many people are now involved, that it seems anything goes. That’s what will pee the public more than anything, and that aggressive “I can do it so I am going to” attitude that will force law changes in more and more places. But hopefully the few of us (and there are quite a few in fact Andy) that have a different attitude can turn the tide. With a bit of luck the hobbyists and “hunters’ will get bored and move on. thanks for a great discussion Paul..more please hahaha

      1. Pilgrim…your avatar links to nowhere…is there anywhere we can see your photography??…thanks for the input…it’s always good to get a balance of perspectives…I get the intuitve thing and hopefully if you are spotted by the recipient, they get it too…lol….your approach reminds me a little perhaps of Gary Winogrand. Anyways, thanks for the contribution…Debate is always productive…I’ll have to scratch my noggin to come up with more fodder.

  4. oops should have mentioned In the UK the Police or I think the Home Office has said that there is no law against taking photographs in public places and of people in those places. Of course we have to be careful of what is and what isn’t a public place. For example someone told me the other day that they were stopped by security in a bus depot in the UK…they had assumed it to be public space but it was a local council space..which, weirdly is not public. Also it was his tripod they were really worried concerns I imagine

    1. One of the links in the article links to a card you can print and carry as a photographer that covers all your basic rights…Nifty.

      1. really??? thanks Paul. Despite my big mouth, I am not all that confident, so to hear someone like my site, well you’ve made my day! thank you!

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