photograph © 2017 by David B. Thomas

Street photography: How I take pictures of people

Photographers new to street photography often want to know how to take pictures of people who might not necessarily want their pictures taken. Do you ask permission? What if they get mad? I’m not getting into the legal issues; there are plenty of places online you can read about those. I wrote this in reply to a few friends who asked how I go about it.

I used to be a newspaper photographer, and I mostly shoot the same way now. But I don’t do this for a living anymore, and in general the type of photography I like to do doesn’t often put me in a confrontational situation. I’m more interested in capturing what’s going on around me, not inserting myself into the scene.

Public places are public

That being said, I believe I have a right to take photos of people in public. If you disagree I respect that, and we could argue it over a beer. Without sounding grandiose, I feel I am documenting life, or my own life at least. But I don’t take that as a license to be rude or disrespectful.

People are people

I decided when I started doing street photography that I would never take someone’s photo if I couldn’t look the person in the eye and explain why I took it. “I love your hat” or “Your red jacket looks cool against that white wall” or “You had a really intense look on your face.” If the answer would be, “Because you’re short and you’re standing next to a really tall person,” I won’t take the picture. It probably wouldn’t be much of a photo, anyway.

The main hazard of my approach is hesitation, which is the enemy of street photography. Sometimes I regret not shooting a photo, which always looks ten times better in my mind than it probably would in actuality.

Your assumptions are probably wrong

photograph © 2017 by David B. Thomas

I’ve taken street portraits with the subject’s knowledge (like the one above), some of them in the two street photography workshops I’ve taken with Eric Kim in San Francisco. He uses the “Ten ‘No’ Challenge,” where you have to ask people permission to take their picture until you get ten refusals. It was way harder to get a “no” than I thought it would be, even when we purposefully approached the scariest looking people we saw. (Except for the one guy who shouted, “Hell no, I ain’t no f*cking dinosaur!”)

Keep moving

photograph @ 2017 by David B. Thomas

But mostly I take pictures of people who probably don’t realize it. Nine times out of ten, I shoot and keep walking. I carry my camera around my neck most of the time when I’m outside. Not only is it right there when I need it, but it shows I’m making no secret of being a photographer. If I wanted to be surreptitious, I’d use my phone.

Before I come off sounding all noble, I’m not above subterfuge. If I take a picture and get a gut feeling the subject might object, I take the camera down and look at something else beyond or above them, as though that’s what I was shooting. Sneaky? Yes, but I do it to avoid a possible confrontation if I’m confident in the reasons why I took the photo. If the person asks, I’ll explain, but it’s not my responsibility to initiate the conversation.

The secret may surprise you!

In more than 25 years, only a handful of people have questioned me. What I’ve found, overwhelmingly, is that if I smile after I take someone’s photo and say thanks if I can, that’s all the reassurance most people need. A little human contact goes a long way, even if it’s only eye contact.

If you’re getting the impression that my philosophy of street photography is based on treating people with respect and having a clear understanding of my own motivations, that’s probably a good summary.

If you want more

photograph © 2017 by David B. Thomas
Eric Kim, looking unthreatening

Eric Kim has written extensively on this topic, both how to be invisible and how to go right up to people. I’ve watched him shoot, and his approach is so open and friendly that people respond well to him right away.

Matt Stuart is one of my favorite contemporary photographers. His approach seems more like mine (and that is the only comparison I would dare draw between my work and his).

Gareth Bragdon has a very different approach, and while I don’t think I’d feel comfortable shooting the way he does, there’s no denying he captures amazing images.


All images by me