Street photography is a tricky game. It’s difficult enough trying to capture candid scenes with interesting backgrounds. But you also need to think about street photography laws, ethics and rights. Every nation has a different idea of what is allowed and what isn’t.
Not to mention that in the United States, there are different photography laws by state.
But the rights don’t just cover what you can and can’t photograph. You as a street photographer also have rights. Countries recognize that there needs to be a freedom to photograph and be creative.
But they also need to protect people in public places.
What Rights Do You Have as a Photographer?
Model Releases Are Not Needed
Model releases are contracts between the photographer and the photographed. They designate the purpose of the photography shoot. It is important to show the limitations of usage and what happens if the conditions are not met.
Many people believe that when photographing a person, you need a model release. Anytime. Every time. Everywhere.
Not only would this be an incredible waste of time, it is impractical and impossible.
Think about photographing a busy street in New York. You can’t run after each recognisable person captured in your frame. Sure, it would be great, so if you have the chance to grab that one person in a background shot, do it.
It will also give you peace of mind. Knowing that person isn’t filing a lawsuit and cease-and-desist letter is a destresser.
But photographing people – even policemen and children – does not need a model release or expressed consent.
There are exceptions, but they relate to a person’s ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’. Photographing from the street into someone’s apartment breaks an ethical line. It may even be illegal.
In Texas, there is an ‘improper photography’ statute. This makes it illegal to photograph a subject without their consent ‘…with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person’.
If someone tries to ‘shoo you off’ when photographing in a public place, you are in your right to shoot the scene. Yet, it may affect your confidence, especially if it becomes a verbal or physical altercation. Above all, be respectful and considerate.
Talk to people and show them your images. It will build up your rapport, allowing you to photograph more.
Public places are for the public. We pay for them with our taxes, so they are a shared and common ground. As long as your feet are on public property, you are within your rights to photograph what you wish.
This even allows you to photograph private spaces, property and people, as long as you can see them from the public forum.
Yet, not all spaces we think of as public are in fact ‘public’. Shopping malls, amusement parks, theatres and aeroplanes are all private.
They may be subject to restrictions imposed by owners once you enter their property. In this case, you are legally obligated to follow their requests. These requests may come from agents connected to the property (guards, employees).
Military bases, airports and museums are all paid for by taxpayers money. Yet, these areas are off-limits, both physically and photographically.
If you are in doubt, do your homework. Ask for permission or shoot them an email. They may appreciate it more and may even help you find better locations.
There may also be restrictions placed in public areas. Some spaces may allow you to photograph, but without the use of a tripod or flash. These seem to constitute a more professional photograph.
They worry you are capturing images for advertising or commercial reasons.
If your photography interrupts the daily ebb and flow of traffic or people, you will find you need a permit. This is also true for situations that may cause a safety hazard.
Check for policies and regulations covering high traffic areas, protected and historical sites.
For example, in Budapest, you need special permission from any person to be able to photograph them. This includes the police.
Right to Approach
If you are photographing people on the streets, be aware that people will approach you. They may ask what you are doing, and even ask you to remove their image.
Please remember, even if this person is a citizen or law enforcement officer, that their request comes from a place of fear and concern.
If this does happen (it will), just explain, in a confident and honest manner, that you are a photographer . You may be taking part in a photo walk, or you might be a student practising their skills.
Tell them your intentions, what you plan to do with the images and hand them business cards.
Talking to the people you come across is enough to defuse this from happening. In a situation where someone advises you to stop as your photography is prohibited, feel free to ask for clarification. Either the specific policy or regulation.
Private citizens may not detain people unless witnessing a felony. Police officers can only detain you if they have a serious suspicion.
Neither of these groups of people can ask you to delete images or hand over equipment. That is unless in response to a court order or in cases of arrest.
Displaying and Selling
The other aspect is that you are allowed to display and sell those images you have captured. If you had the right to photograph, then the image is yours to do with as you wish.
Well, almost. It becomes complicated when you want to use the images for commercial or ‘advertising purposes’. Here, you will need a model release for any identifiable person.
If you are in business, this will be relevant to you, as you collect images for promotional purposes. Here, you will need to judge if the image of the person suggests endorsement or sponsorship, or if it is in fact just art.
What Do You Need to Consider?
You need to remember that every country, state and even city will have different laws. These will focus on regulations and guidelines for photographing public spaces.
Street photography is on a medium ground when it comes to rights and model releases. Fashion or portrait photography needs model releases for just about everything. Landscape photographers have the least amount of trouble.
In street photography, you also have the problem with ‘Freedom of Panorama‘. This makes it illegal to photograph and share images of specific structures and buildings.
The Eiffel Tower is illegal to photograph at night time, as the light show is protected.
Carry information around with you. If you have documentation on the rules and regulations, use it to show those people advising you to stop photographing. Answer people in a friendly, yet confident manner.
Anger or frustration imply illegal intent, and will cause more problems.
If you are repeatedly advised to stop photographing a person or area, it may be better for you to stop.