Asking Permission to Photograph People

When do you need to ask permission to take someone’s photo? I’m going to put legal issues aside as they differ from place to place, suffice to say that you need to be aware of what they are, particularly when traveling abroad. I have met photographers who will always try to seek permission from their subjects and others who swear they never will. However, from my perspective, there is no simple answer to when consent is required.

To make this question a little easier to answer, let’s look at the types of photos you may take that include people.

The Establishing Shot

I usually have an idea of where I am going to be tackling a photography session. One of the first photos I take is a wide-angle establishing shot. The establisher is often just a personal record of where I have been, although good lighting will often lead to a fantastic photo in its own right. As this picture is a wide angle of a street, there will invariably be people in the frame. I have rarely been worried about permission in these instances. There are too many people to ask, and people rarely appear to notice a photographers presence.

The Classic Portrait

I use a wide-angle lens for portraits, and appreciate the slightly exaggerated headshot these lenses create. This style of shooting means I am very up close and personal with the subject. In these instances, permission needs to be sought. Often, I will not talk to my subject at all, a nod at the camera suffices for a question, and a returning smile indicates they are happy having their image captured. While communication is minimal before capturing this style of photo, afterward I will share the image and try to find out a little more about the person.


Tattooed Face

The Environmental Portrait

The environmental portrait is fast becoming one of my favorite styles of Street Photography. For me, this is more ‘Street’ than the classic portrait. For this style of photo, the viewer has to see the face of the subject as well as the environment they are in. When shooting a classic portrait, the background is thrown off with a wide-open aperture of around 1.4. With the environmental portrait, you need to be using an aperture of 5.6 – 8, as this will ensure both the subject and their environment is in focus. Remember this means you will need to increase your ISO.

Just Jeans

An Environmental Portrait

The Action Photo

Here is the shot that I treasure the most. The action photo captures people that are busy and do not notice you. You come and go, ideally with a silent electronic shutter, leaving without the subject ever knowing you are there. However, this is not always the way an action photo is captured. Often people know I am there and I have silently asked permission, maybe with a nod, or sometimes permission is granted as everything ‘feels right,’ and there is no apparent hostility. When you are operating in like this, you feel very much ‘in the zone’.


A Very Relaxed Action Photo!

The Sneaky or Quick Photo

Ethically this is a hot potato. There are times I want to capture a photo, and I do not want the subject to know I have done it. Secretive photography is particularly salient in the rougher parts of cities and towns. In these instances, you are taking photos, fully aware that the subject would never give permission. On a personal level, I have stopped doing this so much. This risk is rarely worth the reward. More recently I find a brash and speedy approach can get me what I need, and if I am spotted a smile will often get me out of trouble. If the person is upset at having their photo taken, then I visibly show them that I will delete the photo.

Ethics and Opinions

There will be people who will argue that some of these points are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I certainly don’t believe this is a definitive guide. Instead, the aim was to raise points for thought. My belief system is fluid and this guide would have looked very different two years ago, when I would rarely back down from taking a shot. More recently I have started to think the split second of time spent making a photo should be a moment of joy for both the photographer and subject. This joy may transcend the picture, and hopefully instill a smile in the third cog of a photos journey, the viewer.

I hope this post has provided some points for thought. Feel free to share your opinions! If you have not already please check out the photos I created from Kolkata.

I had an amazing stay there and spent some time thinking about ethics of photography, so there will be more ideas to share soon!

Stay happy and keep clicking, Chris


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