Through the Gadling Lens: taking photographs of strangers

Yesterday afternoon, I received a message from my friend, Jennifer:

“Okay, this may be way off base, but what about the etiquette of photographing interesting looking strangers while traveling? Do you ask permission first? (What if you don’t speak the language?) Do you take stealth photos? Only shoot strangers from behind?”

I have to say that this is quite possibly one of the most common questions I get as a photographer — usually from people who are planning their own vacations, and are concerned about stranger-portrait-taking protocol. So this week, I thought we would talk about some of the issues to take into consideration when taking photographs of total strangers (however, when it comes to taking photographs of uncooperative travel companions, you’re on your own).

1. Consider privacy laws

Usually, the primary concern when taking photographs of strangers is whether consent is required in order to take the photograph. If you’re in the United States, the current laws are generally simple: if you’re in public, and the subject of your photograph doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, then you can legally shoot away without getting their consent.

In other words, say you’re at a park. Or at the beach. Or the farmer’s market. Or just on a busy street. In these cases, the people that you encounter (and who end up getting captured by your camera) have no reasonable expectation of privacy, and there is therefore no legal reason you need to get their consent to take their picture.

If, however, you’re in the restroom of a public park, all bets are off: even though it might be argued that a public restroom in a public park is public property, the fact is that people who are going to the bathroom have a reasonable expectation of privacy — therefore, you need to put your camera away.

Keep in mind, of course, there are certain public places where you are expressly prohibited from taking photographs — some museums, for example, request that you do not take photographs; similarly, military establishments may ask, for the purpose of security, that you do not take photographs. In these cases, it’s always a good idea to go ahead and stow your camera.

For a great quick summary of the rules when taking photographs in public places in America, check out this article printed last year on It’s a pretty good cheat sheet of the general rules on public photography as they exist today — however, keep in mind that laws are liable to change at any time.

And finally, a word of caution on taking photographs outside of the United States: please note that privacy laws vary from country to country; furthermore, new laws are being enacted all the time. For example, in the United Kingdom, a new law was recently enacted which prohibits the taking of any photographs of police officers or military personnel, even accidentally. Therefore, before going overseas, it’s a good idea to research the laws affecting the taking of public photographs, lest you find yourself in more trouble than you bargained for.

All of this said, say, however, you’ve found yourself on vacation, and you’ve forgotten to do any research on the local laws regarding photography. How do you make sure that you get proper consent to take any photographs?

2. You can feel relatively comfortable taking photographs of street performers.

Since street performers or buskers are, after all, performing their craft ostensibly for the tourist trade, you can feel pretty comfortable that you have their implied consent to take their photographs. Even so, it is always a good idea to have some spare change to tip them for the privilege of taking their photographs. Often, busking is a large percentage of the performer’s income, and so if you’ve enjoyed his performance, it’s polite to offer him a bit of cash.

Even if they clearly posed for your photograph.

3. Smile, and ask politely for consent

Of course, the safest thing to do is to simply ask the person if you can take his or her picture. I’ve found saying something like the following works best for me:

“Hi, I’m Karen, and I’m on vacation from Houston/Texas/America. Would you mind if I took your photograph? I’m a photographer, and you have a great face. I hope that would be okay?”

In my experience, if I’m warm, sincere, and I pay a compliment (generally made to avoid the misconception that I’m asking for a photograph because I think the subject is a freak show), people are more than happy to allow you to take their photograph.

The trick is, however (a) to be friendly and sincere, and (b) don’t leer, no matter how completely hot you think the person is. In addition, I generally show the person the image I’ve taken on the screen on the back of my camera — it’s a simple gesture that generally allows them to see that the photograph doesn’t look weird or inappropriate. If the person seems to really like the photograph, I will sometimes offer to email the image to them (because really, how often do we get a photograph we’re happy with taken of us?), but I’ll only do so if I don’t think the person will be weirded out by the offer (I recently took a photograph of a man with his infant son on a deserted beach one early morning, and he was thrilled to have a copy of the photo e-mailed to him. We never spoke again.) And then I thank the person again for allowing me to take the photograph.

Furthermore, if you’re visiting a country where you don’t speak the language (but you know that you’re going to want to take photographs of the locals), I would strongly recommend that you at least learn the phrase, “Would mind if I take your photograph?” in the local language. It is my experience that any attempt to connect through learning the local language is always greatly appreciated — and while smiling and pointing to your camera may convey what you’re trying to accomplish, any additional (and sincere) attempt to connect is a good thing.

Finally, it should be noted that in some cultures, it will be expected that you pay for the privilege of snapping a photograph, regardless of whether the subject of your photo is a street performer, busker, or not. For this reason, it’s never a bad idea to have the equivalent of a couple of dollars in your pocket, if asked.

I’m sure there are lots of other tips and tricks to taking photographs of strangers, and I’d love if you’d share them in the comments, below. In the meantime, happy snapping.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.