Fourteen Tips for Photographing in Public

I recently wrote a post on The Online Photographer (TOP) called Giving Us a Power We Don’t Have, about the new anti-photographer laws in the United Kingdom. The post drew a great many thoughtful comments from TOP readers, but I thought it might also be apropos to impart a few tips of a more immediately practical nature concerning photographing in public. These are just a few of the ways I know of or have heard of over the years to avoid attracting attention, and of dealing with trouble when it arises.

  1. Use either a very big camera, or a very small camera. People seldom feel threatened by a tiny camera the size of the Sigma DP-1 or Panasonic LX3, but they also don’t feel very threatened by a giant, clumsy view camera on a tripod (they are also seldom aware of “the moment it clicks” with a big view camera, since you’re not looking through the camera when you take the picture). I suspect that setting up a big camera makes you less of a threat because it immobilizes you; you can’t go sneaking about with one of those. You’re also given an opportunity to confidently pretend that you have every right to be doing what you’re doing. Of course, you’re subject to tripod restrictions in very public places such as crowded city sidewalks and tourist attractions, so do your homework ahead of time and be sure you have a permit if you need one.
  2. Have examples of your work with you. I heard that Joel Meyerowitz used to carry a copy of his book Cape Light with him when he was working on his book Redheads, as a way of explaining himself. In his case, it was mainly for the benefit of the people he was trying to photograph, not to get out of jams with rent-a-cops, but it might be useful for all sorts of people who might challenge you. By showing them what you do and what you’re after, they should be able to infer that you’re not after something else more sinister.
  3. Carry a business card and give it away freely. If you’re stopped or threatened, a card goes a long way toward explaining who you are and implies that you have nothing to hide.
  4. Have a rap and have it ready. You’ll be more prepared if you go out assuming you’ll be challenged. Be ready, don’t take it personally, and have a spiel ready to go that emphasizes that you’re a hobbyist, tourist, or shutterbug—or that most indeterminate sort of slacker, an artist!
  5. When a Dwight Schrute yells at you, approach him with your hand out, and introduce yourself. Rent-a-cops and other security types aren’t used to having bad guys come toward them; they’re used to having bad guys run away or retreat. Give ‘em a little respect and act forthrightly. A little respect doesn’t always work, but it sometimes does, and it can’t hurt. It’s cheap to you.
  6. Ask them for help. Asking someone for help changes your relationship to them. This works with potential thieves—you turn yourself from their prey into their beneficiary, and them from predators into good Samaritans—and it works with cops and guards too, whose job it often is to help people, after all. Have a question ready to go for when someone approaches you or hassles you.
  7. Be aware that many civilians who hassle you are exhibiting guilty consciences. They’re nervous about something and they’re worried you’re getting the scoop on them. Try photographing around active private construction and see if you don’t find this out lightning-fast! Ordinary citizens break all kinds of laws all the time. A snoop with a camera represents a threat to a guy who is hiding a car from the repo man or has recently burned a pile of branches and leaves in violation of village ordinances. This sort of thing, in infinite variety, is more widespread than you might think. So just try to be aware of what might be motivating the other person, and you’ll know better how to defuse them.
  8. Have an escape plan when you trespass! And be aware that you’re the one breaking the law.
  9. Use a disguise. I’m sort of kidding, but from what I hear, Elliott Erwitt often dresses rather extravagantly like the stereotype of a tourist. Your photo vest and Nikon cap and your big bag chock-full of never-used lenses might make you feel all like the big pro, but this can backfire. If you want to be taken for no threat, look the part.
  10. Use a decoy. Speaking of Erwitt, he would often pretend to photograph a family member posing in front of him while he was actually photographing past them with a telephoto lens. Also speaking of Erwitt, take a look through his books sometime and think about how many of the pictures would have to put him in a position where he really shouldn’t be taking pictures. It’s a knack, folks.
  11. Hang around. You’ll look like a threat if you stop suddenly, stare at a stranger, and take ten pictures. But if you stop and hang out in a spot for twenty minutes, everyone who’s curious will have already checked you out, and you’ll become background. Then you can take your ten pictures and nobody will pay any attention. I used to do this on boardwalks on the East Coast. It works. You could also try paying a few local loiterers to be escorts or tour-guides. I never tried this because I never had enough extra money, but I always wanted to.
  12. Lie. For years I carried a simple piece of paper in an envelope that said something like, “To Whom It May Concern, Mike Johnston has permission to photograph here. Please offer him every assistance.” You’d be amazed. I also once convinced a citizen that I was an official from Washington by holding up my open wallet at him, police-style, as I approached, putting it away before he had a chance to see what it was. This might not seem very ethical, but look, a lot of the people who are hassling you have utterly no right or authority to hassle you. It’s not the worst sin in the world to return the favor. You could also consider trying to get real credentials from some official or quasi-official organization.
  13. Work on your camera skills with online photography courses! Good shooters work fast. Cartier-Bresson could reportedly get his Leica to his eye and back almost literally faster than people could notice. If you want to avoid attracting attention, don’t stand there like a big dork futzing endlessly with your camera controls and staring through the viewfinder for minutes on end. Waist-level finders help with this too, because when you look through an eye-level finder, people feel like you’re looking at them, whereas when you look down at some device you’re apparently fiddling with, people assume you’re looking at the device and not at them.
  14. Adjust the camera while looking in a different direction. Then take the picture you want to take as though it were an afterthought, and do it quickly. A bored bouncer at a bar doesn’t have an excuse to stride across the street and hassle you if you’re pointing the camera down the street and not at his bar; and if you take one shot in his direction and then turn and leave, you remove his opportunity to challenge you.

Of course, the most important thing is to be comfortable with how you decide to work. Personally, I don’t practice any of the “tricks” named above; I’ve discovered I work best when I have permission, either explicit or implicit, to photograph. It simply makes me more comfortable and helps me do better work. So now I just get permission, and if I don’t have it, I don’t take pictures. Simple and clean. Similarly, I’d urge you to stay within your own “comfort zone”—once you find out what that is.

In any event, good luck. And to quote the Sarge on the great old cop show Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”

About the Author

Mike Johnston has written more than 250 magazine articles and many columns for He now edits the popular blog The Online Photographer.

About the Intro Image

“Intimate, intense, and imperfect,” one writer said of this photo, the first big break for André Friedman, in 1932. No cameras were allowed in the hall where Leon Trotsky spoke, so Friedman smuggled a tiny Leica in under his coat (people weren’t so accustomed to small cameras in those days). The imperative has stayed the same for photojournalists ever since: First, get the shot. Friedman later changed his name to “Capa,” Hungarian for “shark.”

Text and photos ©2009 Mike Johnston.

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    • Another reason a waist-level finder works, I think, is that it doesn't hide your face. What people most dislike is to be photographed on the sly in some manner, so being slow and deliberate and upfront is a big part in getting their implicit approval (or indifference if nothing else). Showing your face rather than "hiding" behind a camera is a part of that.
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    • Shooting from the hip takes on a literal meaning when you're on the streets and don't want to get noticed taking photographs. Mike, any particular Elliott Erwitt book you would recommend?
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    • Getting noticed(or not) and affecting(or not) your environment is part of being a photographer. Shooting from the waist doesn't result in the same kind of pictures as eye level. All is a question of choice. If you want your presence to be felt as a normal pair of eyes, the eye level is the closest thing you can get even if it transforms your gaze into a camera. It points directly and confronts directly. The choice should depend on the results you want and not comfort. Photographing with your stomach or head changes the way you place yourself in the space and what it creates.
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    • This is a very good list of suggestions. Another one might be to become familiar with the laws of the country you are in. Here in the US, you have the right to photo pretty much anything in the public view, but I would never use this as a rule of thumb for anywhere else in the world. I think the last suggestion is best - just ask for permission.
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    • Agreed, a very good article, and I know from personal experience that the idea of using a big camera is a good one. I haven't done much street shooting in a while, partly because I always feel somehow guilty as I skulk around with a 35mm or small digital camera in my hands. That's the point -- I FEEL like I'm skulking, and I'd guess that I give off that vibe. The result is discomfort on both sides of the camera and I usually quit before I've accomplished much. But when I stick a biggish twin-lens Mamiya C330 on a tripod and simply plant myself, the situation is transformed totally. People on the street take me seriously, or else they're curious in a kindly way, and I feel legitimized, confident in what I'm doing. I'm not talking about random shooting but with specific subject matter in mind. Agreed again, permission works best.
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    • If asked or confronted, or if asking permission to take someone's photo, I usually say that I am a student of a local adult school doing a homework assignment. That used to be true, but I don't take classes much anymore. I have been startled at how many people smile and become very helpful, even guards and security folk.
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    • Thanks for this article and the tips, I usually dont take my camera out in crowded public places and I always feel like I am missing so many shots.
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    • IMO, Erwitt's best collection of pix is 'Personal Best'. But then what would you expect from a book with that title? :D
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    • Good pointers. I've found btw that people are pretty tolerant at public events-- parades, festivals and the like. I just play the part of photg on assignment (for the sponsor, the local community rag, the Office of Tourism Development.) An event like that has a zone of implicit permission but the boundaries are vague and, once in the groove, you can stretch it.
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    • Interesting article, thanks. I'd like to know how you get round the issue of model releases. I have many great candid pix but can't enter them in comps because they ask for this piece of paper - crazy!!
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    • You don't practice any of the "tricks" you listed and you don't take photos if you don't get "permission". So, why did you write the article? And if you stop taking pictures everytime you don't have "permission", what kind of photographer are you? Do you crumble every time your right to free speech is challanged? If an intruder forced his way into your home at 3:00 am with a machete would you ask his permission before shooting him? Does the word "backbone" mean anything to you?
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    • " If an intruder forced his way into your home at 3:00 am with a machete would you ask his permission before shooting him?"

      Walter, what on earth does that have to do with photographing in public?

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    • IN THE CONTEXT IN WHICH IT WAS WRITTEN it has to do with a man who advises the rest of us to use a list of 14 "tricks" to shoot in public which he then admits he himself does not use. He then goes on to say that he never shoots without "permission". Its a question about the extent of his timidity.
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    • Walter, why so angry? Your point is valid but please don't act so mean. I don't think that name calling is appropriate for Photo Net. I'll give you a great method to ensure that you never behave like that again. Try this...........pretend that the person that you are writing to is sitting right next to you. I don't think that you would say those mean things to Mike if he was in your company. Thanks Walter.
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    • Walter, why so angry? Your point is valid but please don't act so mean. I don't think that name calling is appropriate for Photo Net. I'll give you a great method to ensure that you never behave like that again. Try this...........pretend that the person that you are writing to is sitting right next to you. I don't think that you would say those mean things to Mike if he was in your company. Thanks Walter.
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    • One method I've always liked the sounds of (but have never used) is to nod confidently and say the name of the local paper when challenged. Not that you work there, just the name of the paper.
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    • Damon, THERE'S an idea I like, thanks for offering!
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    • I wore a suit and jumped the fence at the finish line of the boston marathon with a speed graphic and a huge flashgun. I couldn't look more out of place to people who know what proffesional photographers look like these days, but most people have an idea of the press photographer they've seen in period films and I fit it. I said I photographed for the Daily Bugle and no one bothered me for a good hour. I finally got caught without a press pass (I said I lost it) and got kicked out but I had already shot 36 sheets, and it wasn't like I got arrested, just a dirty look and a escort to the otherside of the fence.
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    • Find what you're comfortable with. I shoot BW on Tri-x. Started shooting public events and street scenes with an SLR about 30years ago and never had a problem. I've used the same gear in European cities until a couple of years past where there seems to be a more relaxed attitude. But in the past decade partly due to age (73), wishing to travel light, and aware of the soul numbing UK restrictions I've increasingly used my Minox 35ML. At f5.6or f8 and hyperfocal distance focusing I've done some of my best photography. It is now my preferred camera away from home. The Minox is discrete and fast to use allowing you to get close to the subject if you need to. Lawson Wild, Berkshire UK
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    • A little respect doesn’t always work, but it sometimes does ...

      a little respect almost ALWAYS works.

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    • always let the model do the asking......
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    • "Walter, why so angry? Your point is valid but please don't act so mean. I don't think that name calling is appropriate for Photo Net. I'll give you a great method to ensure that you never behave like that again. Try this...........pretend that the person that you are writing to is sitting right next to you. I don't think that you would say those mean things to Mike if he was in your company." I can flat out guarantee you that if he were sitting right next to me he'd get a first rate earful!
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    • I just tell anybody who ask's that I'm a "semi-pro freelance photographer" and I sell my photos to various magazines and newspapers.. and/or, I sell my photos to to a group of travel magazines in Europe..( I live in South Africa). Depending on what I'm shooting, I'll say I'm trying to sell photos to a publication in a pre pre worked out "exotic place"..where they cannott easily check out. To a South African, London is an exotic place, as is Hong Kong or Europe. So are Yugoslavia and even America I always claim and emphasise "freelance"..and the fact that I'm HOPING to sell the photo's ( but it's really hard to make a living like this sir ! it really is.).Get them to feel sorry for you, working so hard !!! Dont ever say or hint that it's easy or fun, otherwise they might want you to pay them. You need to come across as an honest person, in a very difficult and uncertain business, trying to keep your head above the water..sometimes I even make out I've been retrenched. When you get their sympathy, you'll be amazed how kind and helpful people can be.. It works so well, one of these days I'm expecting get get a tip, or be offered a meal by someone....and you will mostly get your shot, and then some.
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    • to david c i dont think that walter sounds angry . he is just being blunt in my opinion . stating the facts. i think that honesty does have its place on i dont think he was attacking anyone . we are all adults arent we
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    • samme typed: "we are all adults arent we" Hmmm, I wouldn't want to assume too much . . . ;)
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    • Over the last 6 months I have been stopped numerous times by police, security and even a gallery curator all asking what I was doing. I have found the easiest way out is to tell them straght out that I am taking shots as part of my hobby and if they keep challenging me I offer to show then the pictures I have take, I also offer to delete any they find sensitive. Most of the hassle is usually backed up with the phrase "anti terrorist" which to me is a load of bull when you can go on google earth and not just get a birds eye view but the long & lat of the exact location.
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    • Very constructive tips , full of valuable insight. It seems true that the UK has slipped insiduously into a police state with photographers becoming increasingly under suspicion.

      My tips , use a film camera with the lens set at the hyperfocal distance. Then everything in the viewfinder is sharply in focus. Be patient , I stood for ten hours , in the freezing snow to get just one good shot.

      In Singapore recently I was approached by two heavies as I was shooting a tall building with its top in the clouds. Maybe they thought it could be the target for another 7/11 attack?

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    • Pack heat thats not conceled.

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    • I suppose this is an interesting article but I disagree with the author on a few points.  Unless you are ready to be really inconvenienced, I wouldn't suggest lying, wearing a disguise, deceiving, providing false information, or trespassing.  If you are on a paid assignment and the rewards outweigh the risks, fine, that's your choice but don't whine when things don't work out for you.  If you're just a hobbiest then you should simply stand by your rights and make sure you stay within them.  Deception makes you look guilty.

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    • First the criticism, then the praise. It seems a bit disingenuous to offer tips that the author doesn't actually use. How does he know that any of these tactics work if he hasn't field tested them repeatedly? Have an escape plan when you trespass? How about a good lawyer and a bullet proof vest? Encouraging people to put themselves in danger is not very responsible. Likewise suggesting that people make false statements, which can really backfire when dealing with law enforcement personnel. Honesty is the best policy. That said, the author's actual approach of getting permission in advance is a sound one. I always get better photos when I clear it first, because the person who might have objected now becomes a collaborator. And you have taken steps to remove the potential for danger and angry reactions from the situation. To those who feel that asking pemission is cowardly, I counter that NOT asking for permission is even more cowardly. It takes guts to walk up to someone and ask to take a picture of them or their property. The coward avoids this interaction and snipes photos secretly. That's not to imply that there's anything wrong with taking candid shots of people in certain situations. Just don't bash the author for practicing a direct and honest way of working jwith subjects if you don't have the self-confidence to do it yourself.
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    • Let's face it; photographers get more interference from non-professionals than most other professions, with the exception, perhaps, of referees.

      Reading the comments here, I see that it's easy for people to sit in their armchairs and make various pronouncements on the topic, but being in the midst of a real-life situation is quite different. Let's be honest, sometimes we're just not in the mood to have someone wholly unconnected to our work - or even to the property or event involved - start demanding of us that we produce ID, or otherwise demonstrate our right to practice our craft. It's tedious at best, and downright infuriating in some circumstances.

      Case in point: Recently I was having my car worked on, and I knew I'd have a few hours to kill. So I brought my camera along, and decided to do a bit of street shooting. In the course of simply walking around the block, I was interfered with no less than four times - one of which ended with the words, "You'd better hope I never see you around town!", as his biker-chick girlfriend pulled him away. (He apparently owned the local auto wrecking yard, which had a very cool display of chrome rims all along the fence, for hundreds of feet.)

      This same walk ended with an old Marine spotting me shooting a manhole cover in an empty lot next to the Post office, and literally cutting me off with his truck to demand, "What are the pictures for?"

      And from this and numerous other incidents, I have come to conclude that, to many, many people, the camera is perceived as a weapon. Although the device itself rarely hurts anyone, (when was the last time you whacked someone in the head with one?), people regard their end product as being every bit as dangerous as the natives who once thought a camera could steal your soul.

      So, the question becomes - how does one defuse this paranoia in people? And secondarily, is a photographer, (in America, at least), justified in being irritated at having to produce ID when shooting something in public... which is clearly legal most of the time?

      The Bible says, "A soft answer turns away wrath", and it's true. The advice above about asking for help, or appearing to be a hopeful amateur actually does bring out the innate desire for people to want to help other people.

      Also, the advice about using a small point-and-shoot is great, too. Grinning like a tourist as you point a tiny camera works wonders - even if the resolution of that tiny camera is every bit as high as your present Nikon or Canon DSLR. - And it can even lessen the paranoia of fellow shooters, too. (Try shooting a friend's wedding with your pro-level camera, and the designated photographer will see you as a threat. But pull out that tiny point-and-shoot from your shirt pocket, and you're just Uncle Joe catching a few amateur pictures.)

      Creating your own press credentials works, too. (Especially when they are laminated and dangling from your neck.) And before you purists cry foul, remember that the Internet has leveled the playing field, and your own personal blog is no less worthy a "news organization" than The Drudge Report, which Matt Drudge runs from his bedroom... to an audience of many millions. (He may have expanded to his living room, I'm not sure.) So calling yourself a stringer for a popular Internet blog is perfectly justified - even if that blog is your own.

      Also, carrying an actual copy of the laws regarding shooting in public never hurts. (A recent photographer who was interrogated about a cell phone video she made of a TSA agent here in America could have used such an item - as the laws clearly state that there is no prohibition against recording physical searches in airports.)

      The point is, there is an art to knowing when using Sweetness & Light is the best approach, and when an official look or intimidating response, (legally intimidating, that is... although having a big and scary-looking escort for "crowd control" works wonders, too.) But claiming that people are unethical for implying something, (such as dropping the name of a major or local newspaper), when they aren't breaking any laws to begin with, is really just shorthand for trying to get back to work.

      Utter strangers are rude and intrusive to interrupt the work of a professional on duty, and I consider it an act of grace to respond patiently to those who ignorantly infringe upon both our rights and our livelihoods. It may also be a smart thing to do to answer them with patience, but let's face it, if any other law-abiding profession was interrupted and questioned as often as photographers, they'd have a right to be annoyed.

      And finally, yes, I agree with Walter Strong that the Author seriously undermines his article by saying that HE never practiced any of the points he offers. Especially, as one reader noted, that some of his advice could literally prove to be dangerous.

      I'd prefer reading an article by a guy like Brian F. Peterson, who is a master at getting complete strangers to not only let him shot them, but to also sign his Model Release form. Now THERE'S a guy who would never end an article with the words, "I, however, never practice any of the advice I have just given to you." On the contrary, he's a guy down in the trenches with the rest of us, and he understands loads about the psychology of defusing the fears of average people. [I have never met Bryan Peterson, by the way.... and the closest relationship I have with him is the fact that we both live in the giant state of California.]

      I think this topic is a very worthy one, because we really do live in a time when photographers are so easily lumped in with terrorists and Bad Guys... and yet, simultaneously, virtually every person out there is toting a camera around with them most of the time. So it's a strange duality, and the topic deserves even more coverage.

      But next time, I hope the author doesn't make me cringe at the end by informing me that everything he just said has no bearing on his reality.

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    • Justin Thyme sayeth: "A soft answer turns away wrath", and it's true.

      Indeed it can.

      I consider Garry Winogrand a master of street/public photography.  Check out some of the YouTube vids of him at work.  He's usually smiling and makes his shots quickly, almost casually, often not even using the viewfinder. 

      The exchange at 03:08 of this vid:

      occurs on a street in L.A.  A woman asks him, "What's happening?"  Garry (I find it easy to use his first name because he seems so approachable) shrugs his shoulders, chortles and says, "I'm surviving, y'know?" laughs some more and continues working.

      In another encounter (that I can't find anymore) a woman challenges him, demanding, "What are you doing?" after he takes her pic while she crosses the street.  Again, a big smile, the chortle and "I'm just takin' a picture, y'know?  It's just a picture . . . "  chuckle, chuckle.

      Maybe the contrast between what Garry was able to do and what is possible now tells us a lot about the magnitude of the changes in street photography.  He was out pretty much every day making pix of absolute strangers as they walked down the street.  I don't know if he was ever arrested for doing so but have little doubt that he would be now.

      As a side note, the contrast between the shooting styles of Garry and Henri Cartier-Bresson is intriguing.  The elegant HC-B was stealthy and I bet a lot of his subjects never knew they were photographed.   See:

      00:47 - 01:15

      Whereas the rumpled looking Gary waded right in and went face-to-face with his subjects.  And yes, I know that some of HC-B's subjects were aware of and cooperated with him but a lot of his images are completely candid.

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    • And speaking of "stealthy", Scott... technology now allows us to shoot more unobstrusively than ever before.

      I mentioned previously the small point-and-shoots, and how much less threatening they are to most people. I should also mention that a respected British photo magazine, (Digital Photographer, I think), recently ran an article where the author reveiwed a feature-packed P&S, and concluded that this little $300 marvel had many features that were equal to or greater than his $5000 Canon camera - including pixel count, a zoom lens, face detection, ISO, 10 frames per second,  auto panorama stitching, HD video, and the ability to shoot two photos nearly simultaneously and then merge the results in-camera so as to give an HDR-like effect, and blur the background as if he were shooting with an expensive zoom lens!

      He started asking himself, "Do I REALLY need to spend another small fortune next time I upgrade cameras? Or can a small camera like this meet many of my needs? Even though it's heresy to say so, I'm starting to think it just might fit the bill perfectly."

      The point is, small cameras today don't mean sacrificing as much as you'd think it might. Gone are the days of my Mom's Insta-Matic of the 70's; today's point-and-shoots are actually SMALLER than that, and about 10,000 times more capable.

      But, on top of that, we now have the ability to actually WEAR a high quality camera, with no one being the wiser.

      There are two very popular HD video cameras - the Flip Mino and the GoPRO Hero - which you could hide in plain sight, record in High Definition, and simply pull screen-grabs from later.

      The Flip Mino hangs around your neck from a strap, and can be recording continuously as you stroll through a crowd. And the GoPRO Hero could be mounted just about anywhere on your body, or carried on a monopod like a walking stick.

      Again, the quality is VERY high. So high, in fact, that the technology blog Gizmodo raved, "This is the best sports cam I've ever used." The New York Times said " packs more power than most professional cameras on the market today." and the people at Lucasfilm said, When I saw the footage from the GoPro on our big screens at Skywalker Ranch, I was amazed..."

      And guess what? These units are selling for less than $200 for the Flip Mino and $300 for the GoPRO Hero.

      An article in HD Video Pro last year said that many wedding photographers are being trained to shoot VIDEO rather than to take still shots, so that they have are continuously shooting 30 frames per second, rather than one or two (or ten) frames per second. They later review the video, and grab HD stills.

      Oddly enough, people are often less threatened by a video camera than by professional still camera. (Even though the video captures vastly more information.)

      This probably stems from from the fact that the video camera is held away from your face, and like an old twins-lens reflex, you're looking at a screen, and not at them directly. But with a Flip-Mino, of course, it can be entirely hands-free, and no one has any idea that you're shooting. (And yes, this has potential for evil, too. But since when is the perversion of a good technology something new? It's been around ever since some dude used a club to whack his buddy over the head.)

      But for those who hate to give up their DSLRs, keep in mind that newer models have LCDs which flip out, and allow you to shoot from your waist, without ever holding the viewfinder to your eye. To all observers, you're just some guy with a camera around his neck who's adjusting the settings... but who never actually seems to take any pictures.

      So, while all of this technology is helpful, it doesn't address the larger issue of why anyone is allowed to interfere with your right to take photos in public. In America, once you step out your front door, you give up your reasonable expectation of privacy. And as a photographer, you have the perfect right to shoot anyone and anything in public without being hassled. (With very few exceptions.)

      Having said that, however, it's still a useful skill to know how to calm that brief flash of, "Who do you think you are, taking my picture??"... which seems to spring up almost instinctively.

      I find that NOT being sneaky, but, instead, holding eye contact with the person after I've shot, and smiling at them, is a great diffuser. Because what the smile and the purposeful eye-contact is telling them is, "Wow, you look great! I think I just got an awesome shot of you!" And without exchanging any words, I give a slight little nod of gratitude before I turn and move on, as a way of saying, "Thank you!"

      The whole ritual takes less than 2 seconds, but I try to do it with just about everyone, to show that I'm not a threat.

      In fact, if anyone DOES challenge me directly, I simply show them the photo and beam with pride saying, "Isn't that a great shot? You look awesome... if you want to try a few more, we can... it would be fun, because you have such a great look!"

      I won't deny that getting permission beforehand can be a real stress-reliever, but it can also cause one of life's most unfortunate principles of human psychology to kick in; namely, anytime someone is presented with a choice of YES or NO, choosing no is always safer. So then, once they've said NO, you're really screwed, because if you start shooting THEN, you look like far more of an idiot than if you just play dumb and apologize after the fact.

      And let's face it - the REAL question here that's not being addressed is, are we as photographers REALLY doing any harm? Does clicking a shutter and freezing a moment visually hurt a single soul? If not, then what's all the fuss about?

      It's that fear of the unknown that scares people. "Where is this photo going to end up???" If you look like a Government agent who snaps photos and runs away, (like some sneaky bastard I saw at a Tea Party event last year, who was OBVIOUSLY a sour-faced Government worker), then people have cause to be suspicious.

      But, come on... the same people who demand that you can't take their pictures are the same ones posting their photos on Facebook for the entire world to see.

      Last night my wife and I went to a small Mexican restaurant to catch a bite after the movies. It was 10 pm, and was the only thing open that late. Two young Latino guys came in, and one of them was obviously very drunk as he came through the door literally shouting. I recognized that he could be trouble, so I instantly befriended him by asking for his help in ordering. I figured if trouble started, he'd be less likely to lash out at a couple he helped, than complete strangers.

      However, thinking about it now, even though this guy was clearly out of control, and he continued to have bursts of profanity, (to which management did nothing), if I had stood up in the restaurant and started taking pictures of the people in there, I'm sure that I would have been considered a greater threat or intrusion!

      The drunk guy, while obnoxious, was a known quantity; people figured they knew what to expect from a drunk. But a guy taking pictures is an UNKNOWN quantity. -- "What's that guy doing? Why is he taking our picture? Hey! Buddy... what the hell do you plan to do with those pictures???"

      So, you see... even though we are not hurting a soul, people have an innate fear of the unknown. And that's where a simple smile and a nod can go a long way.

      One last thing: I highly recommend reading Robert Cialdini's book, "Yes! - 50 Scientifically Proven Ways To Be Persuasive".

      In this book, he points out all the many documented ways that melt people's resistance, such as using the word "because" in your appeal to shoot. Oddly enough, people respond to the word "because" in a very favorable way - even when the reason that follows bears no logical relation to the request being made.

      94% of people standing in line to make copies at the copy store were willing to allow someone to cut in front of them if they said, "Can I go to the front of the line, because I'm in a rush?" but amazingly, the rate of compliance was almost equally as high, (93%) when the person gave a lame reason like "Can I go in front of you because I have to make copies?"

      When challenged, you could literally say something like, "I'm taking these pictures because it's almost the end of the month" or "...because my Mom's still in the hospital", and you'll probably find that people say, "Well, ok... that's fine" more often than not.

      Here's a link to the book, if you want to read some reviews:

      By the way, reading reviews is another great persuader, called "Social Proof". So that's one reason why dropping names of prestigious news outlets, (as one person suggested above), or even making your OWN domain name, (such as, suddenly gives you a legitimate reason to be there shooting.

      In the end, it all depends on both the situation and how you feel at the moment. To be honest, sometimes I just don't have it in me to respond politely when I get challenged by some know-it-all. You just have to play it by ear, and have an arsenal of persuasion tactics at your disposal.

      The way you persuade an aggressive security person, (perhaps pulling out several sheets of arcane Homeland Security documents which "state explicitly my right to be shooting here", (along with vague threats about having your rights abridged, and a separate article about how a company paid a huge fine for doing so), is going to be different than how you handle the Mom who wants to know if you're a weirdo because she thinks you took pictures of her children, or the business owner who thinks you're from OSHA and you're trying to document workplace safety violations. Each person has a variety of fears, and distinct motivations for challenging you.

      Understanding those motivations, and knowing how to defuse the fear it stirs up, might make a great article here. What do you think?

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    • I've been taking photos for a long time, and have not really had any issues or confrontations. 

      A few simple suggestions:

      Use common sense.  Consider what and who you may be photographing, and what their emotional state. Personally, unless I know the people, or have official status, I do not photograph small children. I wouldn't shoot a couple having an argument, or close up on a bunch of drunks.

      Do not intrude -- that doesn't mean don't take the shot, but do it from a distance with a long lens or seeming to shoot past with a wide angle lens.

      As previously mentioned, set to hyperfocal distance and shoot from the hip.  Looking down and fumbling with a DSLR and shooting as you fumble also works.

      Have your camera set, bring it to your eye, shoot quickly and move along.

      Carry just your camera in your hand close to your body, or flip side, carry the big pro bag with a couple of cameras suspended on straps.  Method depends on where and when and what you want to do.

      If you are in a place for a few days, scout the area with just the camera at a couple of different times of day.  Take a quick "must have" shot or two, but plan positions and subjects to blitz another time.

      Ask first, then tell them where they can find the photos for their own use.  This works well with the business card idea.

      I have taken photos at several places, and taken the trouble to send DVDs of the photos to bands and businesses for their use.  Suspect I'll get a good reception next time. Inexpensive courtesy.

      Guess I'm old fashioned, but don't break the law. If signs say No Photos, No Trespassing, etc. obey.

      Be polite, be pleasant, be friendly, smile -- at all cost, be non threatening.

      Dress to blend, or to be non threatening, or obviously a tourist.

      I have not shot overseas for several decades -- so take this as a USA methodology.

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