10 tips and etiquette for taking portraits in public Street photography and other outside shooting tips


Photography etiquette

As a photographer, it is exciting to get stuck in and start snapping without much thought to what’s going around us, but we should consider photography etiquette in public. When we are taking portraits in public, we have to consider the law, as well as the opinions of the people that we are photographing.  

Photography etiquette meaning

The meaning of photography etiquette is what is considered polite and acceptable behaviour when taking photos, and can be extended to video-camera etiquette too.

Street photography etiquette can be quite confusing with regards to the lines between legality and manners being blurred, so in this guide we will go through our 10 tips for public photography etiquette. 

1. Get permission to take images on private property

In the UK, there is no law that prohibits you from taking photographs of anybody or anything in a public place. However, the caveat to this is that many places you might consider to be public are actually private properties. For instance, although Canary Wharf is a very busy area of London, much of it is actually private property, making it illegal to photograph there without the permission of the property owners. The same goes for shopping centres; although they are accessible to the public, it’s technically private property, and there is the possibility that you will get challenged by security guards if they see you taking photographs. 

Another example is the very popular Embankment riverside walkway in London, which appears to be a public space, but the private property of the owners extends further than you would think, making it illegal to photograph there without the permission of the business owners.

2. Get clearance to photograph by trademarked buildings

Some buildings are trademarked, so if you want to take portraits there you will need clearance from the trademark owner. For example, the Gherkin is a trademarked building. However, copyrighted buildings are allowed to be photographed by the public; the copyright legislation makes allowances for this, as part of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 allows people to photography buildings without infringing the copyright. If in doubt, check.

Outdoor photo etiquette


3. Be subtle

You are allowed to photograph any member of the public in a public space, but according to the Association of Photographers, you cannot distribute your portraits for commercial use. Commercial use means using these photographs to promote a product, service or brand. However, generally speaking, it is fine to use these images when promoting yourself as a professional photographer or as part of an exhibition. To use these images for stock photography, for example, would be illegal without the consent of the subject.  

Many photographers shoot from the hip when it comes to taking portraits. It makes sense given that many photographers prefer a candid photography style, and alerting the subject to your presence can render the photograph unnatural. If you are taking candid portraits, be subtle and blend into the background.

4. Respect people’s boundaries

When taking portraits, it is generally acceptable and legally sound to take photos of people without their consent. However, respect their boundaries and take photos from a distance rather than getting up in their personal space and making them uncomfortable.

Generally, be discreet and don’t cause an obstruction in a public place by setting up a tripod and equipment without any consideration for other people.

5. Be approachable

While many photographers like to take candid portraits, it can also be a refreshing change of pace to ask a subject to take their portrait more intimately, rather than from a distance. Be approachable and disarming when asking people if you can take their portrait, and respect their boundaries if they decline. While it can be disheartening for a photographer when people aren’t interested, many people will agree, or even be flattered to have their portrait taken by a photographer.

6. Be respectful

As taking photographs of people in a public space is perfectly legal, if someone confronts you for taking a photograph of them, you have no legal obligation to delete your photograph. Remember, there is no on-camera etiquette for the public, but you should behave responsibly as a photographer. In a confrontational situation don’t meet someone’s confrontational manner with aggression. Be kind and respectful while explaining your photography practice to them, and reassure them that the image is being taken for artistic purposes. 

While you have no obligation to delete your photographs, if someone is very upset about you using their image, be respectful and consider whether keeping this photograph is worth the subject’s peace of mind.

7. Get a model release

Don’t rely on a consent form if you need to use your portraits commercially. A consent form is essentially a non-binding form indicating that the model is giving their consent for you to use their image commercially. Although the form offers their consent in writing, it is not legally binding and is only a soft agreement. 

Because of current  GDPR legislation, the model could revoke their consent and file a claim against you for distributing their images unlawfully. However, if you intend to use these images for artistic purposes, it’s fine to use a consent form as opposed to a model release, legally speaking, even if the model revokes their consent.

Outdoor portrait photos


8. Offer your model prints

If you intend on using these portraits commercially you will need a contractual model release so you have your subject’s permission in writing. A contractual model release comprises a binding legal contract between you, as the photographer, and the model, allowing for the commercial use of the portraits. For the contract to be effective, you need to offer your model something of value, to then use these images commercially. You could offer them prints from the shoot, or alternatively, offer them money.

9. Don’t exploit people

While every photographer has their own ethical code, we would suggest avoiding taking portraits of people in a vulnerable state without permission. Taking a portrait of a homeless person, or someone who is inebriated feels like you are taking advantage of their situation. While it is not necessarily wrong to tell these sorts of stories with photography, taking photographs of vulnerable people without their permission, or taking photographs of them when they are not in a state to give consent is exploitative. 

10. Be sensitive to other cultures

While laws in the UK and the US are very liberal when it comes to photography, the culture is different around the world. In Japan, for example, several sites have banned photography due to the insensitivity of photographers. Before planning a portrait shoot in an unfamiliar environment, research whether it is acceptable to photograph there to respect the local culture and laws. 

Be aware that some people also do not want to have their photos taken for cultural reasons, and will be offended by you photographing them. For example, some Orthodox Jews prohibit photography according to their religion.


We hope you found our photography etiquette tips useful!

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