Getting Permission

Unless you are using a point-and-shoot camera just for family and vacation photos, photography has many aspects, some obvious, some not so obvious. The technical and artistic components are complex, but so can the business of photography be multifaceted.

I attended a great workshop put on by Craig Tanner ( at which the consensus was to always get permission to take someone’s photo when street shooting; “it is the right thing to do.” From a legal standpoint in the United States, you do not have to have permission to take someone’s photo in a public place. Whether you must have permission to take someone’s photo depends on the use of the photo. If you are shooting for a magazine or advertisement, written permission will be mandatory. This is true in many cases even if the person(s) is not recognizable (such as a back shot).

Another consideration is posed versus spontaneous. Some poses are great and some poses look posed. One approach to spontaneous photos is to get permission after the fact, a tact I frequently use. After taking a photo, I will frequently go up to the person, introduce myself, and say “I could not resist taking such a great photo,” show them the photo, and then say “I hope you do not mind.” If they do object, I will confirm that they object and then delete the photo. This happens rarely.

To ask permission ahead of time takes practice for most of us because we are frequently dealing with total strangers. As Craig pointed out, one of three approaches work best. The first is just ask by saying “I would love to take your photo.” When beginning street photography, another technique is to tell the person the truth, which in many cases that you are nervous asking a stranger if you can take their photo. The third approach is the visual one; get someone’s attention, point to your camera, and nod your head with a smile. No matter what technique(s) you use, always respect a verbal or non-verbal indication when someone does not want their picture taken.

Another beneficial technique is to “sit down” and chat with your potential subject; get to know them and help them get to know you. This helps the photographer, and the viewer of photograph, see much more than the superficial appearance of the person.

Cultural beliefs may come into play when photographing people. A good example are the Gullah People along the coast of lower South Carolina and upper Georgia who believe that a photograph takes away their soul. Their is a sign at the Bluffton Oyster Company prohibiting photography of the oyster shuckers for this reason. So, if traveling to a foreign country or even certain areas of this country, it is important to research the culture and laws about photography ahead of time.

Whether doing a shoot or just posting your favorite photos on the internet, you are not going to be judged by your best photograph but by your worst. If it is not at least a good photograph, my advice is to get rid of it – digital makes it easier to shoot thousands of photos and keep a few good ones. Early in my professional career, I got permission to shoot a friend’s wedding, just to see what I could do (no charge). They had already hired a photographer for the wedding. The pro put over 700 photos on his website the day after the wedding. There were some good shots, but many bad ones. No thanks.
I have attached a few of my recent street photos from a photo workshop with Jay Maisel ( in Manhattan. That was an awesome experience! I will write more about the workshop in a later post. Have a great day, and very importantly, make sure you are having fun.

All photos copyright  Dan Biggerstaff Photography. All rights reserved © 2011.