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perdendosi Dec 13, 2004 10:53 AM

After viewing Mike's beautiful series "Faces of Goa"

I was reminded of a question that's been lingering in the back burner of my mind for quite some time now.

What is the accepted etiquette for taking candid portrait photos? I read somewhere that one photographer always asks for permission to take someone's picture unless the circumstances absolutely forbid it. But I would think that would be difficult, since, when one normally asks to take a picture of a person, the person poses and smiles. That kind of ruins the candid nature of the photo. And presuming you get the person's permission, it's very hard to say "Okay, but what I really want is that sadly pensive look you had on your face thirty seconds ago... and no... you need to turn your head... yeah..."

On the other hand, it seems strange to go up to a person with a dSLR and maybe a large lens and just start snapping. That would make me paranoid if I were the subject.

I have not yet ventured into this area of photography, mostly because I don't know the "rules." Is it-- Ask, or if it would ruin the mood, just make sure you use a long lens so you won't be caught? And if it's most appropriate to ask, how does one do that? I mean, if I worked for National Geographic, I could say "I work for national geographic, and I think you'd make a great subject for the magazine..." But I'm just Joe Schmo amateur photographer (who's a lawyer by day). Do you just say "I'm a freelance photographer....?"

What about the candids I've seen where, for example, an impoverished Somali kid is staring sadly into the lens? The photog doesn't ask permission there, does he? Can you just go up to a kid (in America) and snap when you see something interesting?

Or, does one just use the long lens and hope the subject doesn't hear the mirror slap?

If you don't want to write a long answer, I'll add a poll as well.

Thanks in advance,


martinbishop Dec 13, 2004 11:05 AM

There are many variables. What if there were many people just in the background of a shot, half of them with their back to you? Do you need to catch each one and ask? No. If the person is in some way unidentifiable then IMO, no.

If the picture is really 'about' the person, and shows them clearly, in close-up, I would always want to ask permission.

But what's required by etiquette may not be required by law, and I think we need to understand both if for example we are accused of breaking the law when we're not.

If you wanted a candid, unposed photograph, but would only use it with permission (maybe in this case you legally NEED permission), you could take the candid first, then approach and ask if you could use their photograph. If they agree, ask them to do roughly what they were before, take a second picture, then use the first!

Dec 13, 2004 11:24 AM

Normally (in the USA), you don't need to ask permission if you are photographing someone in a public place (but that doesn't mean the person might not like it). You also don't need to ask permission if they are involved in some activity that would be considered newsworthy (i.e. impoverished children, etc).

But, if you were to photograph someone in a public place & then publish the photograph (magazine, internet, brochure, etc.), you would need to have the subject sign a model release that allows you to use their image.

PeterP Dec 13, 2004 11:41 AM

Approach the subjectafter the fact, to ask if they mindedbeing photographed and to signa model release. If they refuse destroy/delete the image unless this is strictly for personal use. For personal use most things in a public place are fair game.

Note that a lot of places most people assume to be public areas are not, like shopping malls.

marokero Dec 13, 2004 12:02 PM

In my line of work, people expect to be photographed - weddings. So I can take all the candids I want, all day long and nobody complains! :lol:

But I've been told by some store owners they did not like their store front photographed when I'm posing a couple on the sidewalk. I'm usually a nice guy, but sometimes I just want to snap back at them and tell them they don't own the sidewalk. They don't like free publicity? Or are they doing shady business behind the counter that they don't want photographed? :P:roll:

perdendosi Dec 13, 2004 12:36 PM

I understand the law (as a lawyer who enjoys First Amendment, communication, and related law), but the question is really what is expected / what is ethical.

Are most of you saying that when taking a candid, if used for public display, you always get permission (either ex post or ex ante) along with a signed model release?

P.S. I'm quite confident that, at least as long as the people are in public, such a requirement is not legally necessary unless you use the person's image to sell a product (the tort of appropriation of likeness). I would also disagree with the previous post that says that shopping malls are not "public" spaces. True, a shopping mall owner may forbid you from taking photographs (because, except in california, one does not have a first amendment right to expression in a shopping mall) but I don't know that one has reasonable expectation of privacy in a shopping mall (the way one does in one's home....). If you shoot with a 1000mm lens into someone's window to get a picture, you'll probably be slapped with a suit for the tort of intrusion, but I if you take a picture of the person in a shopping mall, so long as there isn't any sort of "false light" cast (person walking by sex toy store looks like she's going into it) I don't know that there is any civil liability for such behavior.

The idea of commercial appropriation is more complex, from Jay and Silent Bob getting their "mutha f-in movie check" to people's faces being squared out on The Real World. However, I do not believe that newsworthiness changes the analysis. For example, if I were to take a picture of a homeless person because I wanted to expose the plight of poverty in my town, and I published the picture, the person would be no less entitled to money than if I were to take the picture of the homeless person and display it as an art piece that shows a face of pain, despair, and being discarded. Now, if I were to use his image to make "Homeless guy records," that's a different story.

After that long diversion, my question still remains: How do you ask someone for permission? If I'm just a stupid amateur (who might want to do something with the picture besides just look at it myself, like enter it in a competition or POTD online) I'd feel quite weird about walking up to a person and say "wow, you've got a great face. I'm just a schmo (freelance photograher)-- may I take your picture?"

** P.P.S. none of the opinions I've expressed here should be considered legal advice--it's just my random ramblings. Please do not contact me personally regarding legal opinions (I cannot engage in the practice of law outside my position). I'm also probably not licensed to pratice law in your jurisdiction anyway.

PeterP Dec 13, 2004 2:08 PM

You are correct, for personal use model releases are not required (that I am aware of, yet).

I suspect the whole idea of a candid image is that the subject is not aware the image is being taken, as most likely they would alter their behavior if they were pre warned.

Maybe just use the same methods as when shooting abroad, indicate to your subject you want to take theirimage and if they accept do so, but you will get posed images, not candids.

And again things like photographing in shopping malls may be country specific (or even mall security specific).

KENNETHD Dec 13, 2004 3:09 PM

I would love to be able to use my camera anytime I'm in public, because I do see a lot of great pontential photos when I'm out and about.I can usually guage the mood of people quite acurately, and if I sense a negative vibe, I don't bother. It's always up for grabs though, never get a consistent aye or nay. Sometimes people are thrilled to be photographed, other times they just want to be left alone.The great majority of times I do ask. Best regards,


perdendosi Dec 13, 2004 4:09 PM

Sorry that I didn't specify my understanding of American law... here in the Midwest, it's often easy to forget that the Internet doesn't stop at the American borders.

As kenneth said:


I can usually guage the mood of people quite acurately, and if I sense a negative vibe, I don't bother. It's always up for grabs though, never get a consistent aye or nay. Sometimes people are thrilled to be photographed, other times they just want to be left alone.
But I suppose, it's when people want to be left alone that you can sometimes get the best images. I imagine that it's just a matter of whether the photographer is willing to live with the possibility of angering others in persuit of "their art."

atlantagreg Dec 14, 2004 10:42 AM

Depends. For instance, in this photo I took:

Even though you can recognize several people upon close inspection, it's a public park filled with people using a public fountain. It would be impossible for me to go to each person and ask ahead of time if it's ok for them to appear in the photo. For personal or display use then, I see no need. Most stock agencies however, would still not accept the image for sale due to the fact you can recognize people.

If however, I were taking a photo of just one or two people, or one family sitting around the fountain, then I would approach them and ask permission first.


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