Do I need to get permission from the people in my photos? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Do I need to get permission from the people in my photos?

by David Peterson 8 comments

There is something fundamentally weird about being a street photographer. Your job, whether you like it or not, is to stick your nose in other peoples’ business. It goes without saying that you can create a much more candid looking image when people don't know you're photographing them. But is this legal? More importantly, is it ethical? Here's how I approach street photography.

Photo By Flickr User: Thomas Leuthard

Legality only scratches the surface

Unless you are selling your images, you do not legally need anyone's explicit permission to take a picture in a public space, I personally think it is somewhat ethically dubious to share photos of people you do not know without asking. That's why I'll take the photo to get the candid look, but I won't share it unless I get the person’s permission.

I find that if I ask nicely, and show them the image, most people will allow me to use their picture and share it on the web, especially if it's a particularly interesting or good-looking photograph.

If you are going to use your photos for commercial purposes, you do need to get permission, and it's also worthwhile getting them to sign a Model Release to make sure you're clear legally. There's a very good sample model release available online.

Photo By Flickr User: particlem

Some candid street photography techniques

So, for me, the goal is to remain concealed but eventually give myself away later on. There are a few techniques for doing that. One of them is to shoot all of your street photos from the hip. Get your digital SLR camera, and keep the lens cap off while you walk around the streets with the camera lowered to your hip. Make sure you tilt the lens slightly upward once you see something that catches your eye.

You can also shoot with a telephoto lens when you are concealed by something nearby. Sometimes if I am shooting from above, and I happen to catch some action down below me, I'll pop on the telephoto lens. If it's hard to see my subject's face, I'm usually free to use this image commercially. Just as long as they can't be recognisable from the photo.

Some photographers figure that as long as they make a concerted effort to contact the people I photograph out in public, they are absolved from ethical dubiety. That's not true and there are some clearly defined legal boundaries.

To see where you stand legally, the website from Bert P. Krages has some fantastic information for photographers. I recommend you checkout his website and download his "The Photographer's Right" PDF file.

Photo by Flickr User mariabowskill

Do yourself a favor and avoid confrontations

I suppose it goes without saying that you should always trust your instincts. If photographing for your own use (not commercial), you are within your rights. There will be people you photograph who will notice what you're up to, and some of them will not be happy about it. Don't start a confrontation with someone who is unhappy. Instead, apologise and delete the photos in front of them so they can see oyu mean no harm.

It is a bit of a risk to go out in public and take photos of people you don't know. I dare you to try it. You will automatically feel very out of place, and perhaps a little queasy about it. This is normal. It is your human reaction to possibly crossing an ethical/legal boundary. Pay good attention to that. It is more important than the law.

Note: I am not a lawyer. None of this should be construed as legal advice. If you have a legal issue, get in touch with a lawyer.

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  1. Alisa says:

    If a photographer uses someone in a photograph they intend to sell, do they need to ask permission to edit your appearance or can they do this without informing you?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Alisa,

      It depends on where the photo was taken. If it was in a public place, they normally won't need your permission to use a photo with you in it commercially. However, laws vary from country to country, so please consult a lawyer.


  2. Susan J. Ragusa says:

    Creating a short video about my business and including photos. Two photos in question have a picture of me and one other person. Both pictures were taken at a public event - by another photographer and subsequently posted on an organization's website and an organization's newsletter. Do I need to get permission to use from the individuals in my photos? Thanks

    • David Peterson says:

      Did you take the photo? If not, then you'll need permission from the original photographer. Regardless of if you were in the image or not. They should also know the other legal issues (including if you need to get permission from the other individual in the photo). But I'm not a lawyer, so get independent verification.


  3. Rene Garcia says:

    I'm trying to do a fund raising event to help an organization for the homeless, do I need a consent from the homeless that I'm taking pictures, I am not a professional photographer, doing this to help the homelss. Please advice.,thank you

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Rene,

      Even though they are likely in a public place (so you wouldn't legally need to ask their permission) I would absolutely ask them. If you explain why you're taking the photo they'll probably be more receptive and willing to pose for you too.

      Good luck!


  4. Andrew says:

    Hi David, my girlfriend was at an event in LA and a photo'g took pictures of her and posted them on getty images for sale. It was at a film event but he could only post those for a blog/online news/etc not for sale on getty right? There are three separate photo'gs that took pics over two events and posted on getty images. Please let me know as soon as you can and what I should do. I feel she should receive compensation for each sale.


  5. Roberta says:

    I looked at the 'Bert P. Krages' website; it only gives USA info.

    What are Photographer's Rights in Australia when it comes to Street Photography?

  6. Graham "Gabby" McDonald says:

    G'day David,

    From the other side of the coin, as a 'subject'. I'm currently living in Tombstone, AZ. Several days a week my wife and I are in town, in 1880's dress, for the express purpose of answering questions, and being photographed by and with visitors to the "Town too tough to die".

    In a historic town or location, if there's folk in period dress, go for it. This is not the time to stand across the street and use telephoto, with the risk of camera shake. I can't speak for other locations, but no-one 'dressed' in Tombstone has City permits to charge for, or even accept tips for, being photographed.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.