The Ethics of Photographing Random Strangers on the Street


Street photography is a genre that every photographer will try at least once in his or her career. Its broad appeal stems from the fact that you can do it anywhere; there’s a human element to the images that captivate the viewer, and if done well, can make for some extremely arresting images.

However, it also requires balls. You have to get close enough to your subjects; and with people, invading personal space is uncomfortable (and possibly hazardous to health) for both photographer and subject.

There’s a slight snobbishness about shooting with a longer lens, too – it isn’t seen as being hardcore enough. In fact, these days, it seems if you’re not at f/8, hyperfocal distance and sticking your camera and flash right up to somebody’s nose, then you’re not really doing street photography.


There’s another approach, though. I think it’s much, much harder to shoot wide open with a relatively wide lens – say nothing longer than 35mm – and shoot without your subject knowing you’re there. This is what I like to call the stealth method – you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, and better yet, shoot without even bringing the camera to your eye.

It takes a huge amount of skill and practice to nail shots this way, because you must be able to both guess focus correctly (if manually focusing) or know where your AF box is going to go – and at the same time know your lens well enough to visualize the field of view.

You also have to be incredibly fast about it, because moments are fleeting and not repeatable. I’m not going to name names, but there are a number of popular ‘street photographers’ who don’t and can’t do this because it’s extremely difficult to do, and the yield rate is quite low for ‘perfect’ shots.


However, the biggest benefit to this approach is the fact that you don’t intimidate or scare your subjects. If you don’t make somebody angry, they’re far less likely to be unhappy or actively object to you taking a photograph. And if people do notice, don’t stare back or give a stern look – though it’s usually human nature – wave and smile, and you’ll be surprised how many people wave and smile back at you. They may even strike up a conversation and let you get a few more interesting images.


There’s also the more subtle issue of “quantum mechanics”.

Basically, you as the observer won’t interfere with the scene – if you become a participant in the image, then the reaction you provoke from your subjects will necessarily disrupt whatever it was you initially wanted to capture.


Bottom line: be anonymous, unmemorable, and blend in. If you’re in a touristy area, this might mean pretending to take random photos of everything and anything, whilst actually being very specific about what you’re looking for. Or it may mean using a compact and holding it in your hand, always being aware, and getting a grab frame in whenever you can.

It means having to be both anticipative and reactive; you’ve got to be a bit of a psychologist to figure out who’s going to do what when, so you can visualize the scene in advance and be ready to capture it.


This brings me to the real meat of this article: what are the rights and wrongs of street photography? Yes, I do shoot a lot of random strangers, especially when traveling, and there are often shots I see but may not take for various reasons.

I don’t think it’s so much lack of chutzpah as the feeling that it may not be socially acceptable or ethically appropriate in various situations; photographing beggars and cripples is one of those things. Using people to portray contrasts or as anonymous human-scale elements in a frame is fine, but the one golden rule I stick to is that I’ll never take a shot that’s demeaning or potentially defamatory. You wouldn’t want the somebody to do the same to you, would you?


Then there’s the issue of where and when – in most countries, you’re allowed to photograph in public effectively without restriction. There may be certain rules on tripod use because of obstruction or perceived ‘commerciality’ of the images, but that varies from place to place; in any case, most of the time I don’t use a tripod because of the weight and inconvenience.


However, private property is exactly that: private. So if you’re told not to photograph, then you probably shouldn’t. And never use images for commercial or stock use if you don’t have the agreement of any identifiable individuals in the image. (Editorial use is different; you don’t need releases for people in news stories, but you also can’t really sell the images for anything else other than news.)

I would be careful in politically sensitive countries or around police or other law enforcement agencies – they may have good reason for you not to photograph something, and ignorance isn’t a defense in court.


Finally, remember that in an increasingly connected world, we aren’t anonymous. It’s entirely possible for somebody to see themselves on another site somewhere; in fact, it’s happened to me a few times. It may be because I just look at more images than the average person and thus have a higher chance of seeing myself somewhere, but I’ve also had people message or email and say they were the person in the shot.

I usually just send the person a copy of the image by way of thank you; in any case, you can’t do anything commercially with it, so there’s no harm in releasing a copy.


I think if you stick to what your gut tells you about common sense and public etiquette, then you should be safe. Unless you’re a photojournalist, it isn’t worth getting the shot and then getting in trouble for it – there are exceptions, but they’re far and few between.

Practice being fast and stealthy, but also courteous and friendly; and you’ll find that street photography isn’t so difficult after all.

If you enjoyed this post, you can support the author by using this Amazon affiliate link to purchase your gear.

About the author: Ming Thein is a Malaysia-based photographer whose career has spanned fine watches, wildlife, photojournalism, travel, concerts and food. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

  • Naveen

    Brilliant article on street photography! And even more brilliant photos. Having myself tried most or all of what you mention, gotta admit it requires a lot of balls to click random strangers on street and get perfect shots! Only a lot of practice thrown in with a pinch of charm and humility can make one good in this captivating genre of photography. Though with the advent of mobile photography, and its great quality as well, street photography seems to have become more ‘accessible’ and less intimidating.

  • Albert Zablit

    Is there any official literature on the “can’t sell” subject that the author is basing himself on?

    In Dan Heller’s Model Release book, Heller actually stipulates, and I quote, that “you can *sell* photos of anything or anyone, regardless of whether or not you have releases. Whether the licensee can *publish* them is a different question.”


  • TomS

    It’s too bad there is not a good digital equivalent of a Rolleiflex. Much easier to take photos when you are not raising a camera up to your eye.

  • Scott in MT

    Interesting thought. A digital twin lens reflex. Maybe a Hasselblad with a waste level finder and digital back, if cost isn’t an issue!

  • Scott M

    It occured to me that the live view function would be great for stealth. My D800 can easily be shot handheld with the right shutter speed. It would look like you were just chimping.

  • Ripley

    Just shoot analogue. It’s more fun anyway. Or if you’re using digital, just shoot from the hip

  • quickpick

    problem solved: use a wide angle lense (about 30mm or equivalent) and shoot from the hip. it takes some learning to point your camera without the viewfinder (or chimney), but i’ve done it with success with a phase method focusing DSLR many times! keep your camera settings at shutter speed bias, choose an aperture comfortable for you to get stareted. hit the streets, spot a scene or subject, look at where your camera is pointing in your lowered hand, trust your instinct and press the shutter, voilà! with digital you only need to worry about the capacity of your battery and size of the memcard for how many pictures you need to take to learn your angles and distances to get things right! ;)

  • Nathan Blaney

    Much of it depends on the end use of the image. If its an editorial and not commercial context, you can license a very, very wide range of unreleased imagery.

  • Mike Gatiss

    Rather than going high end why not just use a compact with a swivel and tilt LCD? The Canon Gnn series like the G12 are great for this kind of work

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    Good post. but it’s a shame you didn’t touch on the colour vs. black and white aspect of street photography – going by your image examples I assume you prefer the latter?

  • Hector Sanchez

    this guy is all processing, and he doesnt have the hand holding technique to shoot a d800, so be blames the camera like a high schooler with a cheap point and shoot!

  • beautox

    That’s BS. You should re-read what he says before you talk rubbish

  • Richard Ford

    Not bringing the camera to eye will result in crap. No different to other styles. Composition and framing are key. Also, balls? It’s a photo not dropping your daks or punching someone. Are people really that feeble? Noone I know thinks that it needs “balls”.

  • Richard Ford

    Also out of all the snapshots – not a single juxtaposition or attempt to tell a story? Random – this is the death of street shooting. Every random person shooting random stuff with random thoughts and not context or discipline. :-S

  • Trevor Coultart

    Curious ad to how you define “commercial” use. You seem to refer to whether or not you’ll ‘sell’ the images. Someone’s comment refers to ‘publishing’ the images.

    Where does this leave people like, for example, Martin Parr? His books are full of random strangers, yet he never gets any form of model release. Surely publishing books if images like his is a ‘commercial’ venture?

  • Joanie Granola

    It’s insulting to call these snapshots. Use of shadow and light is also key to making interesting photographs. Garry Winogrand and other street photographers of his time took plenty of photographs that looked similar to these and some even say they shot from the hip (albeit with a lot of practice). Everyone sees things differently – what is it about some photographers who have to put everyone else’s work down?

  • Ralph Hightower

    The article makes common sense: don’t use public photos for commercial gain.

    Although I led a local part of Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photo Walk, I haven’t done street photography because I am an INTP (google Meyers-Briggs). Also, I won’t use flash since my flash is a big “potato masher”, a Sunpak 522.

    I bought a used 28mm f2.8 for my Canon A-1 and I love it! I use it more than the 50mm f1.8 kit lens that came with the camera.
    And I absolutely flubbed it yesterday. I went to a boat landing to see what photos I could get and there was this motorcylist who was also there. He looked like John Stringfellow Hawk (think AirWolf) in his gear and helmet. Darn it! I didn’t ask for a photo!

  • Hector Sanchez

    This guy is a joke and widely mocked all over the internet. Read his d800 self-mockery that no one agrees with anywhere, and its only quoted by trolls. This guy shoots macro shots of watches, then he wonders aimlessly taking pics of random stuff. He is 100% processing and he oversharpens like it’s 2001.

  • F200

    A bit late in publishing it here, this post was written in July I think. Anyway, great photos!!

  • Bryan

    This article is the biggest joke of a definition, street photography.. “It also requires balls. You have to get close enough to your subjects;
    and with people, invading personal space is uncomfortable (and possibly
    hazardous to health) for both photographer and subject.” Give me a break, up close in your face photos with a flash isn’t street photography so lets fall out of the Gilden trend here shall we. Street has never been about being up close and in peoples faces, so needing balls to be out and taking photo’s is a little redundant. The photo’s portrayed here are nothing but photo’s taken out in the street, there’s no decisive moment, interesting subjects or anything rather interesting to look at in any of these images.. Do yourself a favor PetaPixel and not embarrass yourself by posting silly articles such as this and if so have a photographer who is actually a decent and knows what the hell they are talking about. This is a disgrace to street photographers, it really is..

  • beautox

    Haters gonna hate. Actually his processing is fairly minimal and his sharpening nothing special. When you can say something intelligent I will listen to you.

  • Bob Rogers

    This is one of the reasons I use a Nikon D5000 or my Canon G11. They both have articulating displays so you can shoot from the waist! Hardly anyone notices you are photographing. I wish more of the high-end cameras had this feature.

    When approaching strangers to photograph them: smile and ask them if they would help you out with what is something you are trying to do. Respect their comfort level and if they say “No”, remember that there are a lot of others on the street.

  • mensansteve

    Riding the “tube” in London once, I had my camera grabbed by a screaming man. A brit recovered my camera and said the guy was a Sikh and that he believed I had stolen his soul.

  • Nathan Blaney

    The balls thing totally depends on where you are I think, PLUS context. Here in NYC, if you throw a camera up in someone’s face in Times Square that’s almost expected. Other places? The response could vary from obscenities to a punch in the head, etc. Knowing your subject and context is the key, I think. Blending in is necessary if you want to make those photos.

  • Duke Shin

    I’ve been chased by a guy with a bottle in Santa Monica
    he looked like the demoman but he was arabic

  • privacy guy

    In the US you are legally allowed to take any picture that you are able to take without trespassing. Pictures without a release can be published, but unless it’s news, the
    subject can sue for damages. You may be entitled to take recognizable pictures without permission, but the subject may feel that he has the right to jam your lens down your throat, perhaps with some small justification.

  • Jens Stachowitz

    These are brilliant photographs!

  • olafs_osh

    While I would disagree on Richard’s take on these pictures right here – some of them are quite nice, I could agree with overall statement about randomness. To often we see nicely made pictures, but they are lacking any idea or purpose. A lot of people think, that street photography is just about shooting on the street. They don’t even thought about putting their mind into it, do not try question, judge and look for answers, see connections in this breathing organism we call City.

  • This.

    This article. Petapixel needs more articles like this.

  • Marc Tobolski

    If you are selecting these people to photograph then they are not ‘random’. Haphazardly shooting and hoping you get just the right shot with just the right person would be random.

  • ennuipoet

    There is this endless pretense with all things related to “Street Photography”. OH! You can’t use a telephoto! OH! People can’t know you’re there! OH! It has to be in Black and White. Back in the 80’s Eddie Murphy’s movie Raw had a bit about Bill Cosby scolding Eddie for profanity, and Eddie was told (in the bit, I’ve no idea if it actually happened) by Richard Prior that if people laughed and he go paid forget what ANYONE said about his comedy. So, if your photography makes YOU happy and it makes other people happy, stop worrying about the “rules”. If anyone takes me task because my photo wasn’t done they way THEY would do it, I tell them to have Coke and a smile and shut the f**k up!

  • ProtoWhalePig

    Well, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to note that, while this sort of photography may appeal to some, it doesn’t appeal to the poster. For me, these are dull. Sure, they’re technically well done, but I find them boring.

    Of course, in fifty years I might think differently.

  • Otrojo ZH

    Muy bueno el articulo! Salud!

  • Nicholas Brewer

    Thank you

  • Charlie Kirk

    Petapixel – pls – never let this fool talk about street photography again. He should stick to taking pictures of fine watches, wildlife and food.

  • rflex

    With a Sony Nex you can tilt the display upward, set the display to “bright sunlight” and enjoy a somewhat similar experience to stealth shooting with a Rollei TLR.

  • Scocheezy

    Was it for taking a photo?

  • DafOwen

    I think they’re probably referring to “commercial” in terms of what an image library would call it, as opposed to Editorial.
    In this sense it’s use of the image to advertise/sell/etc a product or company.
    E.g. a drinks company using an image of someone in it is drinking their drink.
    AFAIK The photographer selling prints would not be considered commercial use in this case but closer to editorial.

  • DafOwen

    Was expecting more of a discussion on ethics.

    Also – comments such as “I’m not going to name names, but there are a number of popular ‘street photographers’ who don’t and can’t do this because it’s extremely difficult to do”
    Either name names, or don’t say such things.

  • Roy

    One person’s randomness is another person’s story. How can you claim that no attempt was made? Perhaps your perceived lack of a narrative or context shows an absence of imagination on your part?

  • Roy

    “Give me a break, up close in your face photos with a flash isn’t street photography so lets fall out of the Gilden trend here shall we.”

    The third paragraph of the article went straight over your head, didn’t it?

    So we have an editorial from someone who puts up his work for critique, and a dime a dozen armchair expert with nothing to show for himself but a moniker and your typical acidic, derogatory flame fest. Let’s see, who shall I lend credence to…

  • olafs_osh

    Attempt is one thing, achievement is another. Thing is, that a lot of people decide to show off attempts.

  • Roy

    Attempt is implied, achievement (or rather the perceived accomplishment thereof) is subjective by definition.

  • Tony Martin

    Brilliant article, thank you. I love street photography, the stories you can read from each photo is fascinating. I currently use a Canon 40d but find it cumbersome and am looking for a smaller camera. I feel drawn to the Fuji X-E1 but am concerned that it will be too slow. Can anybody please shed some light on which camera they prefer.

  • Me

    I happen to live in a country that is conservative and women’s privacy is an issue. One day I happened to need a photo of women from the city where my husband comes from. I put into Flickr the name of the city plus the word “women” and the women in one of the photos looked immediately familiar, and it struck me, they were my sisters-in-law out shopping! The photographer had just uploaded the photo 3 days before and there were already a number of remarks on the photo, like, “The woman on the right has a haunting look in her eyes.” Haunting look???? Their father was in the hospital for an operation for cancer at the time and they were obviously under a lot of stress. It was just so demeaning. Anyway, I told my husband about the photo as soon as he came home and he was FURIOUS. He was ready to sue the photographer (who was on a different continent) if the photo was not removed. I sent the photographer a polite message and asked him to remove it and he did, but do not assume that even if you act stealthily, that you can get away with what you are doing and that the person in the photo will not find out or be recognized by someone.

  • df

    Beautiful shots – all beautifully processed. Great article.

  • nilsinela boray

    I can’t get all serious about photography, but if you want fun pics try this – It’s a game called “Twin Day” – you get a few of your friends – no more than four no less than two of you, and you each equip yourself with a camera – the better the camera the more fun I guess, but you can get away with a phone. You each wear a very similar top – it works best with something low key – say a grey sweatshirt with dark red stripes – something you’d get from Top Shop or Gap or somewhere, and it works best if they are not absolutely identical.

    Then you hit the town – shopping malls are good, or holiday locations, and you walk around and try and spot someone else wearing a similar top. Then you sidle up to them and try and photograph as many of the group with the total stranger wearing the same top all at the same time. The end result is some amazing street photography. The aim is to make it look like they are part of your flash mob – which of course they aren’t.

    Much more fun than f stops and exposure times and stuff.

  • Voodoo

    You take a photo…on the street. At the scrutiny of everything around you. That’s street photography.

  • kjb

    Really? These are excellent photos and the author is clearly qualified. Compared to many other articles on this site, this one is informative, helpful, and shows off excellent work. Why the hating?