Photography is starting to cause a problem. Photographers—both of the DSLR and smartphone variety—are causing havoc at favorite photo locations and tourist sites. Museums and the like are introducing rules to curb bad behavior but really, it’s on photographers to be respectful—especially if we don’t want stricter rules coming in.

Now, we’re not going to talk much about photography and the law. In general, you’re allowed take photos in public places with very few caveats—but check out the specifics of your state or country. Instead, we’re going to talk about being respectful of the location, other people, and the subjects of your photos. Plenty of lawful behavior is awful behavior.

Make Sure You’re Actually in a Public Place

A public place isn’t just a place where the public can go. Malls, airports, parks, museums, concerts, and the like might be publicly accessible, but they’re often private venues. This means whatever constitutional rights you have to take photos in public places don’t apply.

A mall is entitled to ban people from taking photos or using “professional” cameras. It’s a private location. If their security tells you to stop and you don’t, they can kick you out. Because again, it’s a private location, even if the public is there.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t take photos at malls or museums. Most are happy to let you as long as you don’t annoy other patrons or start setting up full on professional shoots. You also might need the location’s permission if you plan to sell your images.

You just need to go about it in the right way. And you can’t get annoyed and start going on about your constitutional rights; you’re on private property.

Don’t Bring an Obnoxious Amount of Gear

Pretty much all photographers love gear. It’s a huge part of the hobby. I love it as much as the next photographer, but it’s important to remember that photography gear is big, heavy, and can get in the way.

If you’re going to be taking photos in public places—or private places where the public have access—then you should try and limit yourself to your camera, one lens, and a normal backpack-sized bag. If you need a tripod, flashes, or a telephoto lens to get the shot you want and you’ll be able to carry and use them without interfering too much with everyone else, then go ahead, but you shouldn’t be carrying them with you everywhere.

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Not only does carrying lots of gear annoy your fellow guests, but it also puts your gear at risk. Dropping lenses gets expensive fast.

Obey the Rules and Listen to People

Always obey the rules of the location in which you’re photographing. If a museum bans flash photography and tripods, then don’t start taking flash photos or using a tripod. Not only is it disrespectful to the museum and other patrons, but it means that other photographers will have a harder time, even if they are respectful and obey the rules.

Similarly, treat security guards as walking rulebooks. If they say you’re not allowed to do something, don’t argue. You’re not allowed to do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re technically allowed to do whatever that thing is, disobeying security guards is probably against the rules, and getting combative will end with you kicked out.

Even if you are in a public location where you are entitled to take photos, there is a good chance you will be approached by security guards, police, or even concerned members of the public. React calmly and don’t get defensive. If someone expresses genuine concern about what you’re doing, listen to them. This doesn’t mean you have to do what they request—so long as your behavior is lawful—but you should consider it. Calmly explaining that you’re a hobbyist photographer taking some street photos will go a long way towards putting people at ease.

Be Careful Taking Photos of Other People

The laws around taking photos of other people in public vary by country and state but, in general, it’s allowed even if publishing or selling the photos might not be. Again, check your specific legal situation and also that of any new location to which you’re traveling. Just because you’re allowed do something in New York, it doesn’t mean you can do it in New Delhi.

Even if taking photos of other people is legal you should still be careful and respectful. You can just add the suffix “—unless you have a very good reason to” at the end of every bit of advice. Journalistic or artistic reasons are good enough, but you shouldn’t just be snapping photos of strangers for the thrill of it.

Also, even if street photography is legal, harassment almost certainly isn’t. If you start following one person, continuing to photograph them after they ask you to stop, or getting up in their face, you’re going to start running afoul of other laws. The number one rule of taking photos of other people is don’t act like a creep or stalker; everything else is just a sub-clause.

So, on to the advice:

  • Don’t take photos of other people’s children without permission. Even if it’s legal—and it often is—it can get you beaten up by an angry mob.
  • Where possible, ask for permission and acknowledge the other person if they notice you. Eye-contact, a smile, and a nod are usually enough. It’s also okay to ask for permission after the shot if you don’t want to spoil a natural moment.
  • Take no as no. If someone says no, shakes their head, turns their face away, covers their face, or does anything else to indicate they don’t want their photo taken, don’t take their photo. And if you already have, delete it or at least don’t publish it online.
  • Don’t use telephoto lenses to get close-ups of people farther down the street. It’s just creepy.

Don’t Hog Good Viewing Spots

I bet you’ve been there; you’ve reached the top of [insert incredible tourist destination here] and as you’re about to take in the view, a photographer pushes in front of you and starts setting up a tripod in the very best spot. Ten minutes later, they’re still there, and they can’t understand why everyone is super annoyed.

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The socially clueless photographer is almost cliché at this point for the simple reason that there are so many of them. Don’t be one of them, especially when it comes to small viewing spots or tourist locations. Not only is this behavior selfish and annoying to everyone else, but you’re also not going to get an original photo from any busy tourist spot. Someone’s done it before and probably done it better.

Just Think

The biggest takeaway to all this is simple: think about what you’re doing and consider how it affects other people. Just because you’re legally allowed do something, doesn’t mean you’re not a dick if you do it.

Image Credits: Veronica Benavides, Kevin Laminto, and Markus Spiske.

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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