Street Photography - Approaching Strangers

As a street photographer I am constantly taking pictures of strangers. As a matter of fact, I almost exclusively take pictures of strangers (although, I do like a solid landscape image now and then). Candid images define both street photography and documentary photography. Without the candid nature of some images, the photographer loses both the emotion and sense of the moment. In my opinion, loss of these things goes against the fundamental elements of street photography; which are some combination of light, composition, moment, and subject. 


Sometimes, navigating the approach to “stranger” shooting can be challenging, but the rewards are tremendous. A question I am often asked is - How do you walk up to strangers and take their picture? Do you ask their permission?


So, I will attempt to describe my process and give you my thoughts on asking permission for a photograph. 

Stranger with pipe, Fayetteville, 2019

Stranger with pipe, Fayetteville, 2019


Be familiar with the laws where you are. 


I have studied both the national and certain state’s laws that pertain to street photography. First, the question a street photographer must ask themselves is …what is the publblogs

ic’s expectation of privacy? Does putting oneself in a fully public place limit their reasonable expectation of privacy. Every state I have surveyed essentially says that persons do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public places, i.e. the street. 


Let’s say you take a selfie on a public street with your cellphone. If you capture a person walking 10 meters away in the same picture as your face; should you then delete the image? I would say no. You had every right to take the picture just as much as the stranger had the right to be walking on the public street. 


Of course, this is specific to public places. I was capturing images in a mall once and was immediately told to stop, because it wasn’t a public place. Normally, I would stand my ground in defending my right to capture images, yet this was a losing battle. Where I was (North Carolina) the law was clear, any private place can post any rule limiting photography. 


My point is that the street photographer should be as familiar as possible with the laws where they live or plan to shoot. This is extraordinarily important. 

Strangers in Yosemite National Park overlooking El Cap and Half Dome

Strangers in Yosemite National Park overlooking El Cap and Half Dome



Let’s think about it. 


How a photographer thinks is considerably more important than their gear, always. So philosophically, what is a camera? A camera is a box that collects light, and nothing more. So, in capturing a stranger in a public place, I would argue that we should consider who is “in charge” of the light that surrounds a person. Does a human have domain over the light around them? Or, if a person has an eidetic memory, do we ask that person to forget something, as their eyes and brains have captured light around strangers?


I don’t know that we as a society have hashed out what is reasonable to be deleted from our consciousness. We each carry a supercomputer in our pocket with the ability to capture light memories as often as we want. Should we regulate this?


Further, are we ethically bound to react to other’s perceived ideas about privacy?


I leave this to you to determine for yourself. 

Stranger, NYC Subway, 2019

Stranger, NYC Subway, 2019


How do I approach strangers? 


I use my own internal metrics on when to ask. If it feels right, I will ask. If it doesn’t, I will not. When I first started shooting street, I asked a lot more people’s permission than I do now. My thoughts have evolved from “do I care about how this person feels?” to am “I breaking the law?”…. because, to me, this is my professional livelihood and creative vision. This artistic expression, by definition, has strangers as a part of it. Should I limit my artistic vision for some perceived notion of privacy that doesn’t necessarily exist? I don’t think so. Of course, this is my opinion and practice, each has their own. 




I’m sure I didn’t answer the questions for you. That wasn’t my intent. I simply wanted to expand your knowledge on this subject and perhaps have you consider approaching strangers differently, either enhancing your thoughts or augmenting them.


Let me know what you think in the comments below.