7 Tips and Etiquette for Taking Portraits in Public

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Facial expressions, skin and hair, and sad or sparkly faces have attracted the artist’s eye since the first caveman recorded his first story on rock. Facial features have the power to convey stories. A single image says more than a thousand words. If you are a photographer who shares this joy in the human form, you would recognize that each person is unique and beautiful in his or her own way. If you are a portrait photographer, you know how humbling it is when you are given the privilege of taking a photo.

Storytelling through portraits requires a code of conduct that should be observed. Through my experience, I have developed some rules that I follow, and I would like to share some tips and etiquette of taking portraits in public with you.

Calligrapher  China Town Bangkok

You can not only admire the beauty of the person, but also his work and workplace.

#1 – Show Your Presence

Smartphone holders, tourists, and casual snappers with DSLRs have made the jobs of serious portrait photographers a bit difficult. Photography overload has contributed toward a sort of over saturation in the population – perhaps the subjects have become weary. You are never sure of the reaction when you point your camera toward a person. If you see someone you would like to take a photo of, try to stand around for a while and become part of the scene. Observe the movements and dynamics, even try to catch their eye, but do not make the person feel uncomfortable.

#2 – Engage

If you don’t know the language, at least learn the local words to greet people. Remember, every culture has its signs of respect and ways to start a conversation, so keep those in mind. Show interest in whatever he or she is busy doing, selling, or offering. Engaging in such a manner normally makes people comfortable, and often less skeptical, of to your forbidding-looking, long lens. You come across first as an individual with a personality. Try to engage with something that you believe will be appreciated, be it about their children or their surroundings – sound them out, gauge a response. Of course, lack of response is answer enough that you do not proceed to take their picture.

Freek, the fisherman. I said hello to him as I passed by his caravan. We chatted for a while before I opened my camera bag and requested a photo.

Freek, the fisherman. I said hello to him as I passed by his caravan. We chatted for a while before I opened my camera bag and requested a photo.

#3 – Ask Permission

You are allowed to take photos in public spots, even without permission. Portraits need all of what we have discussed so far. However, this is not an hour long process; you need to get to the bottom line soon. Ask permission. If it is given, help the person posing as per your preference. Do not feel bad if they refuse, accept it politely and pleasantly, and remember especially then, to be respectful. A few things I learned along the way:

  • A guard asked me to gain permission from the shop owner first (cool guard!).
  • I was once told by a religious person that his faith doesn’t allow taking photos.
  • A tribesman allowed me to take photos of men and children only, and not of the women.
  • A young girl allowed me to take her photo on condition that I would never upload it; it was for my eyes only as she was comfortable with me but not the general public.

#4 Remember People

You cannot do justice to a portrait if you do not include at the very least the name and background of the person, and preferably also age. You need to know who they were, and what their life was like. It is first and foremost a sign of respect to the person whose image you have used for your own purpose, but secondly you will realize how powerful your portraits become when contextualized. I currently use my smartphone to note down these details, but am considering carrying a dictaphone. A simple notebook will do.

Notes

Capture their names, ages and origin.

#5 Show the results and make people feel good about themselves

If your camera allows previews, show it immediately, and get feedback. Sometime the best ideas come from the person in front of the lens. Make your new friend smile and even chat while you are taking photos. I often ask questions while I am busy taking photos. I believe it is a great technique which helps people calm down. When they are animated about something important to them, it reflects in the photo. If you have a companion with you, sometimes having them strike a conversation allows for the opportunity of candid shots of your subject with spontaneous expressions.

“Wow, you are in grade 2. This is so cool buddy, I wish I was in grade 2 again”.

“Were you a solider before Mr. Sadeeq? I feel that strength in your eyes”.

“Enrique, you remind me of my cousin… he has a beautiful mustache like you”.

Umbrella Lady Serious to smiling

After I showed the first shot to this umbrella-making lady, and told her she looked beautiful, she felt shy and even gave me a big smile.

#6 Respect their possessions

I have not followed this rule strictly, and I have regretted it several times in retrospect, after the moment passed. Once, after taking photo of a guard, I proudly showed it to him, and he asked, “Where is my gun? It is not in the photo”. His voice echoed in my mind for many days, I had missed an important aspect of what made him a guard! Not only was it integral to his identity, but what an important prop I had omitted in error. Take two.

Take a photo of the people with their surroundings to remember what they were doing. It will help you in your story telling one day!

Sadeeq Guard Without Gun

Take #1 – first photo.

Sadeeq Guard With Gun

Take #2 – photo with guard’s belongings, i.e. his gun.

#7 Say Goodbye and inform them of the use of their photo (legal)

Greet properly. Ask if they would mind if it was published or uploaded. Some photographers even carry model releases on their person, for use as required. If this is not feasible, as far as language allows, at the least make your subject aware that you may use the images. Later, if you were to personally or commercially use the images, depending on the laws of your country which are variously lax and stringent, you may either need to submit a model release and/or affidavit along with the photo to make its use legal.

Remember to be informed and aware of not only the etiquette of taking portraits, but also of the legal requirements which will vary from country to country, and are a topic of their own. Be particularly cautious when photographing the faces of minors without formal consent of their parents. I still have inadequate knowledge in this area myself.

I hope these tips would help you in your portrait photography. I look forward to seeing your feedback and learning from you all.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mujahid Urrehman is a Software Architect, landscape photographer, and a YouTuber based in Cape Town, South Africa. Natural landscapes and people around him are the inspirations for his work. He believes in learning via knowledge sharing. He can also be found on his YouTube channel here.

  • This is wonderful – so many amateurs running around with their smartphones, who don’t realize there’s even any etiquette involved at all. FYI, @RuhaniRabin shared this on Twitter, which is how I discovered your helpful site.

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks for the tips – its always nice to engage with the subject, and ask permission to use the image, and of course be polite.

    It’s like anything, the more you relax, the more your subject will relax and be open to your direction, if needed, and will result in a more natural shot at the end of the day!

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    Thanks for the feedback Sharon 🙂

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    Yes, the more you relax and communicate, the more is your new friend going to relax to give you a natural “in the moment” kind of a shot 🙂

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Very great tips… wow,,, i should learn

  • Alex

    Never ask for a permission! It is very natural for people to say no. And even if they say yes, you will loose the moment.

  • Thank you very much for your tips!

  • Okoji

    Very great one. I have learnt alot from this.

  • katansi

    Thank you so much for including asking for permission. I recently did photos for a school event and one of the little girls wasn’t allowed to have her photo taken. I was alerted about it and respected it. I hate having my photo taken and so respect all requests not to or not to use in certain circumstances, like online. So many street photographers seem to forget that their subjects are people too, not just something to go into an image.

  • I totally agree with all your points in this post, Mujahid. I regularly walk the streets of the city where I’ve been living for a while now, Bangkok, and besides urbanscapes and architectures, people is what most interests me (and any street photographer, I guess), so it’s crucial to follow some courtesy guidelines to ensure that your walk is successful and you don’t get into any trouble by ignoring some basic, civilized manners.

    My recommendation? Just be friendly, humble, and always straightforward. It doesn’t cease to amaze me how many doors a simple smile opens!

    You can see the latest examples of my street captures at my blog here:

    http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2014/12/more-thoughts-and-images-with-nocticron.html

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    Hi Gonzalo Broto,
    Thank you for the feedback and sharing your experience. After seeing your blog, and I am beginning to miss my short stay in Bangkok. Lovely work.

    You are spot on about “being friendly”, this is truly the key to success.

    regards
    Muji

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    Hi Katansi,
    I once met a photographer, he said to me, “take the photo, and run” “pretend you didn’t take photo”. I was a newbie then, and I did follow his advice. I felt I was like a “thief”, and this was purely because the respect part was missing.

    One more point, and this is a personal opinion, not a criticism. When I was writing this article, I tried my best not to use the word “subject”. In reality, the people are your “subject”, but then I also thought, “how would a person feel if he or she heard me calling them The Subject?”. I do refer to them as subject from time to time, but I have also tried to avoid it lately. I try to remember them by their name and their background, which is a more prominent and strong reference point.

    cheers, and thanks for the appreciation.

    Regards
    Muji

  • katansi

    I’m glad you stopped following his advice. That is also a good point on the word subject.

  • Tommy5677

    The greatest street photographers do not ask permission but they get the greatest shots. I’m sure Vivian Maier did not ask permission.

  • Traveler

    Great points! I always follow this rules, Happy shooting. capture the moments.

  • AshaMahi

    Simply superbbbb for the way you expressed your views and hats off to your explanation…after reading,,i can feel a spark within me to start with public portrait photography…all the very best for your next ventures.

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    thank you AshaMahi 🙂

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    Hi Tommy,
    I respect your opinion. I partially agree with not asking permission if you want to capture “in the moment” kind of photos.

    What I normally love doing is taking photos of people by asking them to look at the camera, so my perspective is totally different, and that is why I need permission.

    The other thing is that once you have taken the “head shots” of people with them looking at the camera, you can always ask them to resume their work (or whatever they are doing), and you can sit on the side and take in the moment shots….
    regards
    Muji

  • oldrider

    A very good and informative article. However, I would like to add a small comment – maybe classed as a rider to the seven hints. It is that in today’s litigious society, not to say scared society, the camera and photographer can be sometimes associated with a bad side of today’s life. This can be particularly evident when photographing children. To save embarrassment at best and police involvement at worst I feel that any person attempting to involve a young person as a subject should be absolutely certain to have gained the guardian or parents permission and preferably to have that person in attendance during any photo shoot and included in one or more of the photographs.

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    Hi oldrider,
    I agree 100%. If not litigation, bad repute would ruin your business image. I fully support that.

    regards
    Muji

  • Brett Ossman

    and wait for the lawyer to call you, especially in the US.

  • Muhammad Farooqi

    Nice ideas Mujahid.. mashaALLAH

  • Bhaskar Parashar

    Thanks for the tips, I clicked this pic of the farmers taking rest in the afternoon while passing by through a rural area of Haryana, India.

  • Bhaskar Parashar

    Before I captured this pic, I asked this sculptor who was enjoying his puff after day’s hard work just to be continue to his act and so I could took this natural pic with his kind permission and I thanked him a lot for giving me a chance to experiment the tip. I hope all will like the same. Thanks

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    🙂 nice work.

  • Bhaskar Parashar

    Thanks for appreciating the work Muji. Tips from experts like you always turns an amateur into a good photographer. I will keep sharing and seek your comments. I used to hesitate capturing the people but when I tried to interact with a smile with the person I like to portrait, it became easier for me, sometimes you have to answer some questions too from the subject but I think it is very less price for a good shot. Just keep it up.

  • Thanks for these tips. One thing you didn’t mention – I’m surprised by how often I am approached by people asking me to take their photograph when I’m on a street photo shoot (in the US). I would add one more:

    8. Offer to email them the photograph

    I have done this a few times and they have taken me up on the offer and greatly appreciated getting the shot.

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    Very good point Susan. I agree. I have done it a once or twice, the thing that discouraged me from doing it again was the recipients never replied back to me. Nevertheless, you have a very good and valid point and it should be tip number 8 🙂

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    thank you 🙂

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