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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What are the best street photography camera settings?

Theatre Photography Tips, by Pixelglo Photography

I am sometimes asked, what are the best street photography camera settings? Well the truth appears to be that there is no single ideal setting.

Modern cameras are equipped with lots of modes, settings, and adjustment dials. So just what are the best street photography camera settings? Once you know the pro’s and con’s to the various controls and built-in modes on your camera, it’s not that difficult to select the best ones for you. The key to street photography is about being ready to take that photograph at a moments notice, because that’s how fast things can happen!

“You must be comfortable with your camera, and confident the settings you have chosen will capture the moment as it happens, in the way you want to portray it.”


Ready To Shoot

If you are comfortable shooting in user friendly “Automatic” mode, then don’t be afraid of using it! Modern cameras are extremely clever devices, able to recognise and adapt to different lighting situations. Shooting in Auto mode will more than often give you crisp vibrant images, and above all else, you can be assured your camera will be “ready to shoot” when needed.

“One of the keys to success in street photography is being ready to take that shot. You never know when your next best photo will come along!”

If you are pensive about using manual controls, then stick the camera into “Auto” Mode or perhaps “Aperture” Mode and set it to F8. You need your camera out “ready” to capture whatever falls before you, so don’t be afraid to use one of the automatic modes on your camera. The best street photography camera settings are the ones you can shoot with confidently!

What are the best street photography camera settings? By Pixelglo Photography
She’s Not Interested, by Pixelglo Photography
  • Camera mode: Manual
  • ISO: 160
  • Shutter speed: 1/125
  • Aperture: F6.4


Greater Control

Whilst Automatic and Aperture are very reliable modes to shoot in, you may want a little more control over your exposure settings. A change in lighting conditions, weather, or the movement of a subject can change a lot faster than an automatic exposure can keep up with. Or, the camera may not capture the image in the way you want to portray it.

For example! You want to photograph a subject who’s stood outside. It’s a bright day, but they’re stood in a shaded corner. You want to keep the “dark moody” shadows over the subject to retain the feel of the moment, but just think for a second about what your camera wants to do.

Your camera sees a rather dark looking image, and thinks “Ok I see what you’re doing. You want this image bright enough to see everything in view!?” which is what you’ll get in an Automatic mode! You camera will assume the frame is too dark, and over-expose everything to bring out the subject and everything around them. Now granted, you will have a cracking photo of someone stood in a corner on a bright sunny day, but it won’t represent the mood you wanted to capture!


Manual Controls

If you’re using a DSLR camera or a camera with manual controls, you can take greater control of the composition by manipulating shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity.

“I usually operate in Manual Mode, or Aperture Mode if the lighting conditions are favourable.”

Even though Aperture Priority is adequate for most instances where I let the camera dictate the shutter speed, it can be limiting when photographing scenes with a lot of movement involved, or where you want to control the amount of light in the exposure without affecting depth of field.

For example! You’re in a crowded metro station and want to capture the commuters under the low light conditions. The camera will stubbornly insist on letting enough light in to make a “bright enough” scene, but the slower shutter speed required for this would make the subjects in the frame blurred. So, by flicking to Manual Mode and selecting a faster shutter speed and bumping up the ISO, I would be better suited to capture the commuters in focus!


Shoot. Check. Adjust.

When shooting manual, you constantly have to check your shots. This is important!

“The best street photography camera settings, change with the landscape and clientele in the scene. There is no one golden set of street photography camera settings.”

Lighting and weather conditions change quickly as you move around the city. A subject photographed in bright sunlight may require a high shutter speed of 1/400s. However if the same subject moves into a shaded corner, 1/400s may not let enough light in so the picture will look too dark. You’ll have to slow the shutter speed to maybe 1/125s? It’s all about gauging the light conditions, and making a quick change. There is no perfect set of street photography camera settings.

“Have a base setting, but be prepared to open your shutter to let more light in if required, or close it down to reduce the light coming into the camera.”


Use A Base ISO

I usually work between 100 – 400 ISO. A range that gives enough light sensitivity, with minimal visible image noise. You could turn your ISO sensitivity up to 1600 or beyond in low light conditions, which will allow you to continue with a higher shutter speed when required. The downfall of this might be your image may appear more “grainy”. However “grain” on a street photo can sometimes add a nice touch of “urban grit” to it 😉 Don’t be afraid to bump the ISO to a higher setting! Tip: Turning your ISO up high can work very well with Aperture Priority. The high sensitivity will mean the shutter speed remains fast and responsive in low light.


Use A Base Aperture

You might be tempted to have your lens wide open for example F2 to aid shutter speeds and nice bokeh effects, but when shooting street photos I find it best to have a larger length of focus. Why? Well there is so much “movement” on the streets! A shallow depth of field of say F2 will give you very little margin for error in capturing the subject in focus. I usually keep my aperture around F8 which is plenty of focal length to work with.


Base Street Photography Camera Settings

Camera Mode: Manual
ISO: 100 to 400
Shutter Speed: 1/125 to 1/400
Aperture: F5 to 8

These are usually the settings I “hover around” for street photography. Unless the light drops dramatically, I usually only adjust my shutter speed.

What are the best street photography camera settings? By Pixelglo Photography
Lone Walker, by Pixelglo Photography
  • Camera mode: Manual
  • ISO: 1600
  • Shutter speed: 1/15 
  • Aperture: F5

For the above photo, I stood in the same place on a very cold night in Lincoln, waiting for a suitable subject to walk through. I took several test shots to get comfortable keeping the camera still at this slow shutter speed. It was a case of “shoot, check, adjust.”


Thank you for reading this post about the best street photography camera settings! Just remember this is a guide, and every photographer is different. My settings… may not be “your settings”. Please share this page, and leave a comment below!

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