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.
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.
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.
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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