Street Photography Ethics: How “not” to annoy people

Street Photography Ethics: How not to annoy people

There’s an aspect of street photography that’s often overlooked, yet so apparent when you start taking pictures. Street photography ethics! How not to annoy people. How do you achieve those killer shots without invading your subjects privacy?


Of all the street photography advice presented in my blog, this one about observational street photography ethics is quite important. It’s also a question you’re faced with as soon as you begin.

When out on the streets, taking pictures of the public, there is a big challenge and responsibility you must acknowledge as a photographer. Unless the subject has given you permission to photograph them and do a quick portrait, then you must take great care not to invade that person’s privacy, or make them feel uncomfortable.

You tread a fine line between being “an enthusiastic photographer not doing any harm”, to being “an annoying stranger with a camera who’s intruding on someone’s personal space.”

“Observational street photography is thrilling when you capture that one dynamite photo of your subject acting naturally. Being themselves.”

So how do you take the shot without annoying them? Are there times when you shouldn’t raise your camera?

Street Photography Ethics, by Pixelglo Photography
Just One More Chapter, by Pixelglo Photography


Picture the scene!

You’re out with your camera walking along a busy city riverside, scouting for a photo opportunity. You see a nice couple sharing a private romantic moment on an old wooden pier. The cityscape sprawled in the background, silhouetted by a beautiful sunset The warm early evening glow casting a soft warm light upon their faces.

Now this could be a beautiful photo if you decide to raise your camera. Indeed, this particular picture could be one of your best photos ever! However moments like this,  like any moment on the street can be very personal, and mean a lot to the people involved.

So how do you proceed?

“It would not be acceptable to close in on your subject with your big noisy camera, fire off 30 shots, and ask them to “give more feeling”.

It is so important to respect an individual’s privacy when considering taking a picture of them.

Just because someone on the street is wearing a blank emotionless expression as they text away on their phone, doesn’t mean that person will be any less offended than our romantic couple if you stick your camera in their face. Be quick, be discrete, and don’t make a big deal of it. If you see the moment arise, don’t leap out into the open with your camera and draw attention to yourself!

Be quick. Be discrete. Then move on turning your focus completely away from the moment you just photographed.

Street Photography Ethics: How not to annoy people
Everything Will Be Okay, by Pixelglo Photography

“As a street photographer, I see myself as a silent observer and avoid interfering with what is going on around me. For those who know Star Trek, just think of the Prime Directive!”

If our romantic couple notice you, then chances are you have lost the opportunity to take more pictures. Simply smile and wish them a nice day. You could even go further and quickly introduce yourself, and tell them your a photographer. You could offer them your website address to invite them to download their picture at a later date?

“Remember, if you are put on the spot, talking politely with a smile can go a long way. If your subject is obviously annoyed, then apologise, defuse the situation, and walk away.”

Now before you think street photography sounds very risky. It isn’t! Taking pictures of people on the street can be so much fun, and a thrill when you get that “one photo”. However it takes practice and above all, being prepared.

“Once you have prepared yourself and your camera, then you can master the subtly of getting in position for a shot, hitting the shutter button, and moving on.”

If you’re interested as to which camera settings to use for street photography, you might want to read my post on the best street photography camera settings. It might help you be more prepared when that ideal street photo moment arises!

Street Photography Ethics: How not to annoy people
A Moment Alone, by Pixelglo Photography


To raise your camera, or not?

This is the dilemma in street photography ethics. When you are confronted with an opportunity that’s not a public show or moment of mass intrigue. Quite often, the best moments to capture are the ones that we tend not to pay any attention to. The moment when your subject is behaving naturally, which brings about the question, do you raise your camera for the shot, or not?

“Just see yourself as an observer. Make a judgment call as to whether you can take the shot, and more importantly, should take the shot.”

Sometimes it may not be physically feasible to take pictures. For example you may risk spooking your subject by getting too close. Or, perhaps the subject is visibly upset or in need of help. There are situations where you have to respect a person’s absolute privacy. If in doubt, simply move along and accept that the moment is lost, and start looking for the next one. Trust me, there will always be a “next one”.

When I first started street photography, I would feel so much pressure to “get the shots”. I found myself paying extra attention to everything happening around me, and probably looked like a squirrel who’d drank a lot of coffee! All wide-eyed and extra observational! I found myself taking pictures all the time and I must have really “stood out”. Everyone saw me coming, and this immediately puts people on their guard and there is nothing “natural” to photograph anymore. You end up looking like a cat strolling amongst the pigeons – with a camera!

My best advice is learn to relax. Blend in with the scenery and background noise. Trust your judgement, and get used to the fact that sometimes you cannot capture every photo opportunity. Sometimes you just have to let it go. However when the moment is right, when “you know” it’s okay to take the picture, be discreet, be quick, and subtle.

“Do not force the photograph or overstay your welcome in the moment. Give yourself one press of the shutter button. Two presses is too many.”

The chances of accidentally catching your subjects attention increase as you linger, and rather than photograph the desired natural expression, you risk invading their privacy and making them feel uncomfortable.

When you are finally rewarded with that one golden photo opportunity, treat that one photograph as a gift. Be discrete, snap the shot, and try to contain your excitement as you walk away. Leave the moment behind you unspoiled, and completely unaware that you were ever there to witness it.

Street Photography Ethics: How not to annoy people
No Way Out, by Pixelglo Photography

Thank you for reading this post on street photography ethics. Please remember this is just a guide, and every photographer is different. My approach to street photography, may not be your way of doing things. Please share this page, and leave a comment below!

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My Tokyo Photography Adventure

Hidden Temple, by Pixelglo Photography
For a very long time the city of Tokyo and Tokyo photography has always appealed to me. In 2013 I was lucky enough to travel and explore this totally foreign land, and this post documents my treasured memories of this amazing city.

“If you plan to visit Tokyo soon, then my learning experiences may offer you some useful information!”

In the Spring of 2013 I traveled there with my Wife, intent on exploring this incredible city and to hopefully witness the beautiful Hanami Blossom Season in full effect. Each year for only a few precious weeks, the thousands of blossom tree’s turn Tokyo into a festival of colour and changing landscapes. It really is a sight to behold, and possibly the best time to visit.

“I recommend visiting Tokyo during the beautiful blossom season in early April.”

2013 however was a very unique year because the Hanami which is celebrated and respected so highly in Japan,  started unusually early! We were so afraid we might miss it all, but luckily when we arrived, we were fortunate to see blossom trees still “in bloom”.

Tokyo Photography of a Blossom Tree, by Pixelglo Photography
Tokyo Blossom Tree, by Pixelglo Photography

Traveling from middle England Lincolnshire down to Heathrow Airport, we endured the 12 hour flight half way around the world to the land of rising sun. We arrived in Tokyo, dazed and tired, yet full of excitement to see and explore this incredible foreign land. I couldn’t wait to try my hand at Tokyo photography! We spent the week in the cute, friendly, and welcoming B Akasaka Hotel in Minato. It was the perfect location to call home for the week, and jump onto the Metro and explore.

Tokyo Photography of the Tokyo SkyTree, by Pixelglo Photography
The Tokyo SkyTree, by Pixelglo Photography

Our first landmark to visit was the Tokyo SkyTree. An incredible sight that can be seen night and day from almost anywhere in Tokyo. After being awake for almost 24 hours, we trekked across the city heading towards the awesome spire in the distance… only to find that “trips up the SkyTree” must be book several months in advance! So if you intend to “go up” the SkyTree, book months ahead through the website. Pushing disappointment aside, we stopped at a local Japanese Hawaiian Burger restaurant which was a bizarre experience! Try and picture the scene. We arrived in Tokyo that day with severe jet-lag, and then navigated our way across to the other side of the city only to find the SkyTree was fully booked! So we decided to get some food, and enter a Japanese Hawaiian  Burger Bar. It  was decorated in awesome 1950s apparel, serving American style food, with Hawaiian music playing – but sung in Japanese!? Very surreal! We couldn’t help but smile! A very surreal experience…

“Tired. Jet-lagged. After hours of walking, we ended up in an American inspired Japanese Hawaiian Burger Bar, that played Hawaiian surf music sung in Japanese. Awesome!”

After refueling, we headed to one of our favourite stops of the trip – the Tokyo Tower! Slightly smaller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Tokyo Tower boasts fantastic views within a confined viewing platform, and the staff are so helpful and happy to see you enjoying their attraction. It was a delight to attend this classic Tokyo landmark. If you want a great view of Tokyo, head to the Tokyo Tower.

Many Things At Once, by Pixelglo Photography
Many Things At Once, by Pixelglo Photography

Busy Busy Busy! As with any busy metropolis, there are lots of people in Tokyo. Yet in Tokyo, we were never pushed or “shoved”. The queues were so orderly, and the inner-city traveling so “seamless”, you couldn’t help but be impressed. Tokyo is the safest I have ever felt, in any city in the world. At one point, we saw small children who must have been around 6 years old, navigating the underground Metros alone to make their way to school. It is that safe!

Busy Tokyo Commuters, by Pixelglo Photography
Busy Tokyo Commuters, by Pixelglo Photography

On several occasions we stopped for food at this really cool fast food chain called “Yoshinoya”. Some of these restaurants are tiny, and you literally have to “squeeze” your way in to find a seat. Everyone who entered, “ate fast”, and so did we. Places like Yoshinoya, especially the little restaurant in Shinjuku that we visited, are not designed for luxury dining. The food is awesome, wholesome, and merely “fuel” to keep you moving. Well worth the experience!

“Travel to Shibuya, and walk over the famous Shibuya Street Crossing. We did, several times! Thousands of people make the journey across the road at every green light, yet everything is orderly and calm. There is a nice Starbucks next to the crossing overlooking everything which is a great place to grab a coffee, and watch from above.”

Shibuya Crossing, by Pixelglo Photography
Shibuya Crossing, by Pixelglo Photography

Also, Japan is a “cash culture” country. It’s rare to pay for items and groceries with card, so we took plenty of cash! And with it being so safe, we didn’t worry about the usual “big city” crime fears. I felt quite happy and safe to walk around with my camera “in hand” whilst being immersed in Tokyo photography.

Tokyo Metro Commuters, by Pixelglo Photography
Tokyo Metro Commuters, by Pixelglo Photography

Trains and Metro Trains run like clockwork. But be prepared for the “information overload” awaiting you inside the stations! There are a lot of signs everywhere, but once you know what to look for they’re very logical and useful. For example, the moment you step off a Metro train, you will be confronted with a large sign board with an pointing left, and an arrow pointing right. Underneath these arrows is a list of nearby landmarks and places of interest (in English), with an accompanying “exit number”. Take a minute to read over the sign and locate the best exit. Some trains will give you exit information before you get to the platform using LCD screen in the carriages. The best advice I can give when tackling one of the big “super stations” like Shinjuku, is to simply find any exit – and use it! If you become even remotely unsure of where your exit is, just find any exit and get outside. Shinjuku Station has about 300 exits and 32 platforms, and so it’s easy to get totally lost inside these huge super train stations. We spent 45 minutes lost in Tokyo Station when we first arrived!

Attack On The Senses, by Pixelglo Photography
Attack On The Senses, by Pixelglo Photography

Many Parks. One Panda. We took a trip to Ueno Zoo which is nestled within Ueno Park. Both are well worth a visit. We saw the much loved and adored Panda. I don’t know what was cuter? The cuddly easy-going Panda as he sat down and helped himself to more bamboo, or the masses of onlookers going “oooOOoooohhhhh” in delight, as he helped himself to his lunch.

Tokyo Photography of the Ueno Zoo Panda, by Pixelglo Photography
Ueno Zoo Panda, by Pixelglo Photography

We explored many of  Tokyo’s “inner-city” gardens and shrines. If you visit Tokyo, you must visit some of these incredible gardens. They are so peaceful, and a great way to “process” everything you have seen that day.

Japanese Lantern, by Pixelglo Photography
Japanese Lantern, by Pixelglo Photography

Most inner-city gardens are maintained daily by professional groundsmen, so you can be assured your visit will be delightful and peaceful. You will have to pay a few Yen to enter the gardens, but we are talking the equivalent of a couple of British Pounds, or a couple of US dollars. It is totally worth paying to enter.

Japanese Torii Gates, by Pixelglo Photography
Japanese Torii Gates, by Pixelglo Photography


Japanese Lanterns, by Pixelglo Photography
Japanese Lanterns, by Pixelglo Photography

We especially loved Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. So vast and “open”, with numerous blossom trees with admiring visitors in awe of them. It was humbling to see local Japanese, celebrating the beauty of the blossom trees, and treat them with so much respect and admiration. At times, I felt like a welcomed visitor in someones home.

Grand Japanese Fern Tree, by Pixelglo Photography
Grand Japanese Fern Tree, by Pixelglo Photography

Tokyo Photography Gear One of the questions I always get asked, especially when travelling, is “what photography gear do you take with you?” Well, as I only had my trusted Nikon D80 to hand, I had to settle for carrying that around to handle my Tokyo photography. It was a little heavy at times, and perhaps a smaller compact would have been more preferable, but at least I finally understood why we often see our Japanese friends visiting the West, and so enthusiastically “taking pictures of everything”. Over in Japan… everything is so different, and as a photographer, I found myself photographing almost everything. You can’t help but document everything, as it’s such a different world. Back to the gear, I wore a record style “shoulder bag”, which tends to be my choice for carrying photographic gear during city shooting, and used a combination of a 18-135mm (F3.5) and a 50mm (F1.8) lens. I also carried a small “expandable” travel tripod for the long exposure stuff. After the trip and realising a smaller camera may have made life a little easier, I looked into buying a well equipped smaller compact camera and bought the Fuji X20. This little thing could have easily done the same job as my D80, and been a darn sight lighter and easier to carry about! Lost In Translation Being fans of the film Lost In Translation we had to visit the Park Hyatt Tokyo Hotel, the main setting for the blossoming on screen friendship of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. The hotel itself is located in the upper-story of the tallest of the three skyscrapers in Shinjuku, with the lower floors being dedicated to businesses and shops.

In the Park Hyatt Tokyo, by Pixelglo Photography
In the Park Hyatt Tokyo, by Pixelglo Photography

Taking 2 elevators to reach the New York Bar at the top, we sat in the same “bar” as in the movie. It was quite surreal. The service there (as with everywhere else in the city) was exceptional, and the views across Tokyo were breathtaking. We went for early evening drinks, and stayed there for hours watching the sunset. Watching the night sky as plans crisscross the sky, and the ensemble of red-glowing lights appears on top of the city skyscrapers. If you want to have a luxurious drink and enjoy the city views, then visit the Park Hyatt Tokyo. It’s the perfect evening to conclude your stay there. Yes we did spend most of the days budget on drinks, and had to eat out of vending machines for the rest of the evening, but it didn’t matter! Our trip to Tokyo was the perfect city exploration holiday. We visited knowing “some” Japanese language, and educated ourselves on local customs and behaviors. My theory is, if you can learn some basic greetings including the all important “please” and “thank you”, it will go a long way to show respect to your hosts. In turn, they will greet you with smiles, and make you feel so welcome. If you have doubts about visiting Tokyo, push them aside. Sometimes you have to jump in with both feet and leave your comfort zone behind you. This was one trip we’ll never forget, and I recommend visiting this amazing city and country, to anyone.

“Love Tokyo. Love Japan.”

More Photos You can view more of Tokyo Photography at the following links: My Flickr Tokyo Photography Flickr The Pixelglo Photography Website Thank you for reading =) Please share this page, and leave a comment below!