Street Photography: The two schools of thought

street photography

Street photography: Because the best subjects don't walk into a studio - by rynde

Street photography is one of the most difficult and demanding exercises in all of photography.  Why do it? Because the people who make the best character studies, who are the most unique looking people, will frequently be the ones least likely to walk into a portrait studio.

For the most interesting people, you sometimes have to head out on the street and find them.  Street photography is a hobby for some, a business for a few, and right of passage for any serious photographer.

Know Your Rights

Before heading out, it’s always a good idea to review your rights as a photographer.  There is a lot of confusion about what is legal and not legal among the general public, and sometimes law enforcement and security guards will try to make up the rules on the spot or count on people not understanding their rights.  Knowing your rights before you set out can diffuse a lot of situations.

Probably the most basic guideline covering photographers is that there is no expectation of privacy in a public place.  Anyone outside in an urban setting is being watched by thousands of security cameras every day and no one gives it much thought because the cameras are discretely out of sight.  Perhaps the fact they can see you is what triggers an irrational response in some people.

Before you head out you might also want to think through whether it’s worth pushing a difficult situation.  Sometimes it is, sometimes better just to move along and shoot somewhere else.  Personally, I’m not inclined to argue with the police.  If they tell me to move or move along, generally I’ll do that on the scene and file a complaint later if I think the request was out of line.  Surprisingly, that approach has been very productive.  More than once I’ve had a local sheriff call and apologize for a deputy running me off a scene and then had no further trouble covering that area.

If it’s assignment coverage, there are generally many other photographers and news people around and I observe whatever rules and barriers the police set for them.  I’ve seen photographers climbing on street lights, cars, vans, steps, and fire escapes trying to get an angle.  I’ve seen them walk across people’s lawns and step in bushes.  Don’t do that.  Behaviors like that give the rest of us a bad name.

Two Schools

When it comes to street photography, there are basically two schools of thought:  One I call the “paparazzi” model and the other is the “ask permission” model.  Each model is different in how it approaches the subject, gets very different results, and leaves a very different impression with the subjects of your photographs.

The Paparazzi Model

The paparazzi model, typified by photographers like Eric Kim, basically involves walking up to a complete stranger and taking their picture.  It may seem bold, some people are put out, but it does save a lot of conversation.

I employ this style of photography if I’m on assignment and the individual in question is a public figure.  If I’m covering the Casey Anthony trial, I’m not going to try to fight through the crowd of other reporters and photographers to ask for a picture.

I don’t normally shoot like this.  It can startle people to have a camera suddenly shoved in their face and many people resent having an unwanted photo taken, even though it happens hundreds of times a day when they walk past security and surveillance cameras or use an ATM machine.  They can see you, and having their picture taken without permission can gnaw at people, though it does depend on the situation.

But Eric Kim is in L.A., a place where paparazzi are part of the landscape and culture.  So in the shadow of Hollywood, this may raise less hackles than other places.

The Permission Model

The permission model is typified by Clay Enos and is my preferred style of street photography.  It’s more difficult, takes longer, and you deal with more rejection, but to me this is the right way to shoot street portraits.

If you were the subject, how would you rather be approached?  He has such a great attitude and positive energy, I doubt very many people walk away feeling somehow invaded after an encounter like that.

Okay, maybe you don’t have that much charm and you’re not a smooth talker.  It just takes practice.  Do it for a whole day and you’ll be a pro asking complete strangers if you can take their picture.

Even on assignment I’ll ask, if there are other subjects available.  It’s usually as simple as, “Guys, can I get a picture for XYZ magazine?”  And always thank them.  No, I don’t have to do that, but if it makes people feel a little bit better, if it gives someone having a bad hair day the option of saying “no thanks”, isn’t everyone feeling a little better when they walk away?

Some assignment locations and venues will insist you ask permission of individually identifiable subjects because they don’t want their customers complaining or not coming back because someone was waiving a camera at them.  You’ll always have to ask if one of the subjects is a minor and I prefer signed parental releases for any subject under 18.  It’s not always necessary in the context of news gathering, but not many big shops will touch kid shots without a release.

So, in some situations, you’ll have to ask, even if you’re on assignment.  Might as well get used to it.

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25 Responses to “Street Photography: The two schools of thought”

  1. Greg R August 30, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    I think it depends on two things:

    1 – what kind of image do you want to capture? raw, authentic, and guttural? then don’t ask and just shoot. nicely calm and maybe even posed? then ask.

    2 – make sure it’s actually a PUBLIC place, and not a “private location that most presume is public” like a shopping mall. those are private properties, so rules are gonna be vastly different.

    my view is that public = no privacy. suck it up, pumpkin! i refuse to be turned into a sheep or coward and ‘bend’ (pretend that there’s a law when there isn’t) when i don’t have to.

    • Paul August 30, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

      I always shoot raw 😉

      • Greg R August 31, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

        Fro Knows Photo!!!

        (i hate his shirt)

  2. Michael Thomason August 30, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    This piece got me thinking about the broad ethics of photography. See my thoughts here:

  3. Darryl Brooks August 30, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    As part of asking permission, do you usually get a model release? I’ve seen some amazing street shots on G+ but don’t know if they are/need to be, released.

    • Melo August 31, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

      You do not need a release if you shoot someone in public space for personal/artistic use. If you ever intend to sell the image commercially or license it in anyway, you will need a Model Release.

  4. Melo August 30, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    I’m of the ‘permission’ school of thought. It’s simply a point of manners and professionalism. I don’t expect to change anyone’s minds either. People like Eric and his minions that staunchly defend their right to annoy and shove cameras in stranger’s faces don’t get it.

    I have met and shot thousands on interesting people. I, on occasion will shoot someone in a candid moment, but I still approach them after the shot, if appropriate, give them my card and introduce myself

    These idiots who randomly walk the streets and quickly raise their camera’s to snap awkward photos of disgruntled or surprised strangers are rarely shooting anything worth sharing.

    They can defend it all they like, regardless of legality, it’s obnoxious and un-welcomed by most.

    I have a good reputation as a photographer because I interact with my subjects on a cordial and friendly level. What do their subjects think of them? What reputation are these types of street paparazzis building for themselves?

    Maybe they don’t care… or more likely, are too caught up to understand.

    • Adrian Boliston October 6, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

      I think I’d be more annoyed by having some photographer approach me asking for permission that one that simply took a shot and moved on.

      I really do not like people “approaching” me on the streets!

      • Melo October 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

        Given your apparent disdain for strangers, I doubt you would seem approachable.

        I’ve built relationships with people I’ve met and photographed and as a photographer… my career is better for it.

        Keep on keeping to yourself.

  5. patrick August 30, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    Since February of this year, I have practiced a third style of street photography, of sorts, in which I am approached by strangers on the street who are curious about my Rolleicord twin lens reflex. I tell them the history of the camera… that it was a gift to me from a photoblogger I’d never met* who thought the camera might be better off in my hands. Many have remarked how their father once had a camera like it; some are surprised that film is still available.

    The conversations usually go beyond the camera as I ask them a few questions about themselves and they, in turn, ask me about me. Before parting, I tell them that I’ve made it a rule to photograph anyone who asks about the camera, and until just a few days ago, I’d not had one refusal, that by someone who works at a medical marijuana dispensary. He was working at the time, checking IDs at the door, and was concerned that his boss would see him and have a problem. He offered, “Another time,” however. So… not a complete rejection.

    Since February, I have probably photographed close to sixty strangers, with a couple that didn’t turn out due to using outdated film, and one in which I accidentally double-exposed the film, most of which I’ve posted at flickr. I’ve also included a few relatives and friends in the set. I prefer to use black-and-white film over colour.

    *I recently met Peter when he passed through San Francisco.

  6. Nour El Refai August 30, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    I document life on the street, I seek reality, and I can never reach reality by asking permissions, I tried it manytimes before, everytime I ask for a permission I see fake expression/pose/look/etc. atleast to me and my conscience

    • Melo August 30, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

      I understand shooting a candid street scene with multiple subjects in frame… but the discussion here is about shooting individuals. Why can’t you 1. ask permission then ask them to go back to the moment if appropriate and shoot. or 2. Shoot the moment, then approach and introduce yourself.

      There seems to be a purveying fear of interaction for the sake of some fabricated sense of purist photography.

      The issue is intrusion and respect, not purist authenticity.

  7. Henning August 30, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    If you ask their permission it’s no longer a street photograph, it’s street portraiture.
    Theres no if’s, and’s or but’s.

    • Paul April 17, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

      If you don`t ask permission and just take the picture or take the picture candidly you can still call this street photography but you can`t call yourself a street photographer.

      Street photographers were photographers that took street portraits.

      🙂 🙂

  8. Marco August 30, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    imho nor of them is street photography…much more of a street portraiture genre here!

    • Dan August 31, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

      I mostly agree with this- however i would say that street portraiture is a sub-set of street photography. The two main schools of thought mentioned in this article really get you different results, and that is that. Sure, the pap school might be a bit obnoxious and annoying, but it can make for some great shots. Obviously not a guarantee though, given the hit-and-miss nature of going about things this way (literally point almost blind and shoot).

      It takes an equal amount of balls, if not more, to actually talk to someone and ask if they would mind their picture being taken. Danny Santos is an excellent example of the permissions method going extremely well.

      Neither is easy, and neither is better. They just bring about different styles of portraits.

  9. Kim August 30, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    I’m sorry,but, paparazzi has such a negative overtone to it. Erik is NOT a paparazzi. He is a good guy, very approachable, helps other photographers, and is value added to our photographic community. He is nothing resembling the “p” word. Its insulting. He doesn’t take peoples images by putting them in danger, or stalking them, or selling for huge financial gain to asshats like TMZ. Taking shots straight on is only a super small percentage of street photography. And he doesn’t exploit people when he does. There is a huge difference…… Neither approach is wrong, its a matter of comfortablity, sometimes balls.

    • Dan August 31, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

      Hmmmm. The way Eric shoots is EXACTLY like how a pap would go about their business though, so regardless of the negative connotations, Eric is widely regarded to use the paparazzi style.

      It’s not insulting at all, nor is it meant to be in this article. Or this comment for that matter.

  10. MichaelRpdx August 31, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    Third approach: stealth, no permissions sought, but don’t get in people’s faces. If you’re fast, quiet and don’t stick a camera in any face (including your own) you get candid scenes and no upset.

    Of course, using a flash at night doesn’t work out as I accidentally found out in Barcelona…

  11. Ted September 2, 2011 at 3:12 am #

    Glad to see Eric in your article. He’s a good guy. I even won one of his pics in a Facebook contest of his!

  12. Danny888 February 17, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    guys i’ve recently scored a job as a freelance photographer for a men’s fashion website.
    They want me to be the ‘permission’ type of photographer.
    The only thing is, i have no idea what to say to a stranger when i approach them for a picture.
    someone help?

    • Mike June 21, 2012 at 6:28 am #

      Err, “Hi, I’m taking photos for X magazine and thought your style might be of interest to our readers. Do you think I could take your picture?” Am I missing something?

  13. Tom June 21, 2012 at 1:28 am #

    I cringe when I think that Eric Kim is being used as some kind of reference point for street photography. New photographers could do a lot better. It is entirely possible to get up close and intimate shots of people without disturbing their day. My favourite philosophy is Jay Maisel’s…did you leave them worse off than before you took their photo? If you did, you didn’t do the subject justice. Think about how you would feel about having a camera shoved in your face while you are out enjoying you day off. Imagine the photographer explained that it was because he “is a street photographer” and then mumbled something about his “art?” Many of the most famous street photographs were taken without the subject being disturbed, bothered, etc. I personally think it is a matter of time before Eric Kim is beaten badly for his manner of working. He tries to work in the style of Bruce Gilden, but it comes off as rushed and insincere. More of a “look at me, I can do it too” method. No integrity, no passion, no respect for the subject.

    • patrick June 21, 2012 at 1:39 am #

      Frankly, when I saw the above video, my first thought was, “self-promotion.” To me, there is something antithetical about promoting oneself as a street photographer. It’s one thing to become well-known for the work that you do (or have done), but to actively attempt to create a name for yourself doesn’t quite sit right with me.


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