Conflicting Thoughts On Candid Street Photography

As I left a shop yesterday a man put his camera to his eye and was going to take a photo of me. I turned away and put my hand to my face. If he had approached me and asked to take the shot I would have obliged. It wouldn’t have been candid but I would have agreed to walk back into the shop and come out again. He would still have got a good photo.

On Friday I watched Masters of Photography. Series 1 episode 1 which was shown on Sky Arts HD on 16th May. A few of the contests followed individuals around Rome, taking their photos. Several of the people told them to stop and leave them alone.

One of the better photos of the day was a candidate street shot. I attended a photography society last year and two of the best presentations were by candid street photographers.

My attitude has been that if I am aiming to take a photo where one individual is the main subject then I seek their consent first. The photos for my homelessness project were taken with consent and information about how I would use the photos.

When I attended Northern Pride it was apparent that seeking consent would not be possible during the march. I shot on the presumption of informed consent. I remained visible as a photographer and only used photos where people were engaged with the camera. If people looked uncomfortable or turned away I deleted their photo. At the event following the march I again gained verbal consent for portraits.

Whilst in York shooting for assignment one I took several photos of individuals or small groups where they were the subject of the photo. I included one of these in my final cut. This photo was taken when I was obviously in view as a photographer. However there was no engagement between the camera and subject.

I also took one photo where I was almost hidden from view. I got a great photo. It didn’t make the final cut, however that was because it didn’t fit in with the series. Would I have included it if it had have fit the theme?

I feel that I’m on an ethically sound footing with informed consent, and I am comfortable with implied consent. I’m less comfortable with being visible but without informed/implied consent. I feel very uncertain about candid street photography where I catch people by surprise or where I’m partially/fully concealed.

This is an area that we all have to be true to ourselves. What other photographers choose to do is their choice, and what I shoot is my responsibility. I certainly appreciate the art of candid street photography and have seen some incredible photos of this genre.

I can see that my ethics and boundaries are evolving as I watch more photography and read books and others blogs, and I will continue to evaluate my personal morals in this regard.

22 Replies to “Conflicting Thoughts On Candid Street Photography”

  1. I think this is a tough one. I think you capture the dilemmas well. I think one of the key questions revolves around intention and use of the images. I am not yet certain whether repeating any exercise really enables capture of the expressions present in the first place. A further question for me relates to staging. When is there a crossover from candid to staged?

    My understanding is that taking photographs in a public place is permissible. However I absolutely agree that it raises moral concerns.
    Another thought refers to taking photographs that avoid facial recognition. And finally, and for me the most important issue relates to safeguarding, whether children or vulnerable adults, and this brings me back to. Intention and use of images.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are a lot of questions arent there sarah. Safeguarding is an important consideration. And as for permissable – permission doesnt always leave me feeling comfortable. I think thats why the question comes up for me.


  2. Hi Richard

    You have wrestled with an ethical dilemma that I think many of us have experienced. It takes a character with real ‘brass neck’ to shove a camera in someone’s face and press the shutter. A few months ago this was on BBC4

    In the series “What do Artists do All Day” it followed street photographer Dougie Wallace as he took unflattering images of the filthy rich outside of Harrods. He is certainly a bold character who is intent on getting his images but I smiled with a certain irony when he was challenged by a group of women whose photo he was trying to take.

    I’m not sure I’ve resolved the ethic issue in Wallace’s work. On the one hand he gives us a caricatured insight into the world of these impossibly rich folk. As an unreconstructed ‘leftie’ I feel this is a good thing (i.e. no one needs to be that wealthy) but I feel uncomfortable at the level of intrusion his modus operandi requires. I for one, would not have the ‘brass neck’ that Dougie has!

    Dave C

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve just watched that and wow! I couldn’t do it, but I do think he paints the characters in the appropriate light. I’m not a leftie (well not economically, but morally perhaps) , but am still disappointed in the arrogance that comes with the money. In a much quieter way I am probably experiencing the same as he does in that I am finding most people either like having their photo taken or are pretty agnostic about it. Thanks for posting this up. Worth 30 minutes of any photography students time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A really important point you raise Richard and as my current favourite genre is street photography something I too have been trying to square off in my own mind.

    In the U.K. and most places across the world (France being a significant and local exception) it is not illegal to photograph anyone in a public place. Image ownership rights are slightly different but again in the U.K. the photographer is also the owner of the image rights.

    As others have rightly pointed out the issue is primarily one of ethics and morality. How images are taken and how they are used is also important in my view.

    For what it’s worth here’s my view:

    1. Society is hyper-sensitive (understandable in these dangerous times) but perhaps there’s also a risk of moral panic, which can be equally as debilitating. Those old enough may remember Punk Rock being discussed in parliament as a constitutional crisis. How pathetic that now appears, and I for one feel a better person for a little teenage rebellion and edginess.

    2. From an artistic perspective, for me there’s no doubt candid represents real life much better than staged. I’m certainly no expert but I reckon in a Pepsi challenge I’d correctly identify staged vs candid images 90% of the time. Staged has its uses though.

    3. I agree that a key aspect is the image’s intended use. I’d be very aware of children and vulnerable people and in the vast majority of instances would not take photos with them in them (at least identifiably). In a way that’s a shame because some photos, say of children playing in squalid conditions in 1950s Glasgow slums, should remind us that society must strive to never allow people to live like that. It keeps society “honest”. But I accept a small minority of people use images for wrong reasons, as they probably always have done, and that’s a difficult dilemma.

    4. For the most part though, people who travel to work (and also at work) should remember they are probably being photographed hundred of times a day in the U.K. It’s just somehow society seems to have become accepting of ubiquitous CCTV cameras. Personally I don’t see too much of a moral difference how images are captured.

    6. There is a difference in the sense of intrusion a camera in a face can have though. Street photographers learn how to be “invisible”, shooting (literally) from the hip with unique camera settings and lightweight cameras. For me this mitigates the issue of intrusion, although of course much harder to get a decent shot. The first rule of street photography is to not look like a photographer. Others do things differently, and I suspect the Harrod’s photographer though he could be more provocative and make a name for himself with his style.

    7. Personally I find street photography very challenging (David is spot on about needing a brass neck) but also rewarding. I’ve never been challenged by anyone but then I’ve never gone out and out in someone’s face, preferring the “invisibility” route. If challenged, and I expect to be at some point, I’d try to explain what I was doing, show them my OCA student card, and offer to delete the image.

    Thanks for raising this Richard!

    Cheers, Andy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some really good points there, the reminder that the average person is on cctv repeatedly throughout the day. However most cctv is not displayed publicly, whereas street photography is.

      I also agree that some of the best street shots I have seen have been candid shots. One photographer I met would walk right up to people and photograph them, and his shots were amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love trying to get candid shots. Permission is often given as a slight nod to the camera – I like the idea of ‘implied permission’ that you refer to here. One technique I find helps is to take a photo where you have permission, then quickly take a second picture, when the subject is relaxed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey.
      Thankyou for sharing your technique about the second photo and the nod. It’s appreciated. I do from time to time take a candid shot and then go and explain that I’ve taken it and ask if they are happy for me to keep the photo.


  5. Really good debate here, and very pertinent to where some of are in developing our skills and confidence. I have been pleased at just how open and responsive most people are to having their photos taken. My recent assignment included children (in a football game and at a skatepark) and having in one case been given permission, and in another asked if I would like to photograph, I haven’t had a problem. I was challenged at the skatepark, but as soon as I explained what I was doing the individual who challenged me couldn’t have been more helpful.

    I personally don’t think getting permission, implied or expressed, is the best way to get those candid shots. I’m not that confident yet, but in discussing techniques with my friends on our 365 project we are developing the confidence and coming up with a couple of tricks. Have you tried holding the camera close, pointing at a subject but looking the other way so it doesn’t look like you are taking a photo? Or what about setting the camera on a timer and looking away? I also find holding the camera low with the screen tilted so you can still frame works well. I guess there are loads of ways of getting those candid shots.

    I’ve only had a problem once and it was with a lad in his late teens on a bike. He stormed off and left me with a feeling that he had stolen the bike, so I didn’t feel bad!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a fab debate. And I do take your point that consent doesn’t equate with candid street photography, but it doesn’t mean photos with consent aren’t as good. Different yes, but they have their merit.

      I am aware that on the degree course there are exercise that include taking candid photos, so it will be part of the process. One of my favourite photographers is Marcus from although he photographs many genres, some of his best photos are candid street photography.


      1. Yet…time and practice.
        Just thinking that I have made two candid street photos that I like. One of them I was sitting on a bench for a while, taking photos of shops for a project on capitalism. Two women walked past and their movement made the photo. The other I sat on the ground for about twenty minutes waiting for the right moment. I felt more comfortable because I was clearly visible.

        Perhaps when I try more street photography that’s the way forward. Sitting visibly with my camera for a while so that people know that I’m there.

        The other idea is using my tripod and setting my timer to take a photo every 15 seconds.

        Although I’m not personally comfortable with taking candid street photography, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t explore it at a later date.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a complex issue, I certainly admire the approach you take. Everyone has their own method. My thought would be that it’s in the mind of the photographer to make the final decision on how it makes that person feel when it is all said and done.

    Liked by 1 person

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