One of the most common questions I get from my family, friends, and stalkers about my candid street photography is this: “How do people react?” They are surprised that the people in my photos don’t seem to mind being photographed in public settings.
I’ve mostly shot people in Asia, Mexico, and Cuba, and I’d say that over 98% of the people I photograph on the street are either totally oblivious, don’t care, or enjoy being photographed. Of course sometimes people react negatively – I have had people say “no photo” or put up a hand indicating for me to stop. In general, taking photos in public is a very positive experience and that is why I keep doing it.
Having said that, people react in different ways depending on the country, city, or neighborhood. Some countries and regions with a history of oppression, mistrust of outsiders, or obnoxious tourists, can be difficult to photograph and in some places I’ve encountered people eagerly pose for me.
I have created a rating system on a scale of scale of -100 to +100, for the basic reactions to street photography, and included photos of different encounters I’ve had with people around the world to illustrate the point.
Street Photography Reaction Rating System
+/- 0 Points – Totally Unaware
Even though I use a wide-angle lens and get fairly close, many people are unaware that their photo is being taken, especially in busy places. The photo below was taken from behind, so obviously the subjects didn’t know. But sometimes if you get very close to the subject they just assume you are shooting something behind them, especially if you keep looking through the view finder and look off into the distance after making the shot.
+1 Point – The Subject Smiles
Ideally, the subject does not smile or react to me, but this behavior earns one positive point simply for the fact that it is not a negative reaction. Although I am missing out on a candid moment, the smile gives me permission to keep shooting.
+25 Points – Indifference
Most people who see me with the camera are completely indifferent, even if I aim it at them. In general I am out in the open, trying to smile and look wholesome, so they just assume there is no harm in a photo being made. I like indifference – it allows me to make photos that are candid and the subject doesn’t seem to care either way.
+50 Oblivious (And Would Likely be Okay with a Photo)
Some of my favorite street photography moments occur when the person is in a state of play or concentration. They are oblivious to my camera, but they’d likely be okay having a photo made. Photos taken during parades, festivals, or sports fall in this category. Usually I start snapping photos, and if they notice, they don’t care or are happy for the attention.
+100 Points – The Unguarded Moment
The great Steve McCurry spoke of the unguarded moment, when a person is relaxed and at their most unselfconscious, even if they know the camera is there. Often in street photography, a person will become aware of me taking photos, but relax and do what they were previously doing. Most of my best photos come from these experiences, as I have implied permission to shoot. I can get close and take multiple shots.
Now that we have taken a look at the positive reactions to street photography, let’s dive into the negative reactions.
Negative Street Photography Reactions
-5 Points – Change of Behavior
One of the unluckiest and most frustrating reactions is to simply change the behavior of the subject. Sometimes I’ll see a cool scene and as I raise my camera to shoot the person becomes aware of me and changes the behavior, thus ruining the shot. Sometimes I’ll stick around for an unguarded moment, but if the moment is lost I’ll move on.
-10 Points | Strike a Pose or Make a Silly Gesture
One of the most annoying things that can happen is for a person to strike a pose or make a silly gesture, like flashing a peace sign. This ruins the candid moment and sometimes they want to see the photo on the viewfinder to make sure they look good.
-25 Points | Visible Annoyance
Sometimes people turn away, put up a hand, or look away when they see me taking photos. This is their way of telling me they don’t want their photo taken. No problem – I move on to the next subject.
-50 Points | Freaking a Person Out, or They Move Away
Sometimes when I take a photo, the person gets freaked out and moves away. This is very rare, but it does happen. Again, no problem. If I offend a person I just move on to the next subject and ultimately they are not hurt. But these reactions do make me feel bad for a while, I must admit. “Do they think I’m a creepy sex-pervert or something,” I wonder to myself.
-75 Points | Yelling or Obscene gestures
I have very rarely experienced this, but on a few occasions I have been flipped off and one old man in a park in Hanoi yelled at me. Oh, and once I really pissed off a Japanese couple in downtown Juneau but that is worth its own blog post. Again, these reactions are very, very rare but it is always a little disconcerting.
-100 Points | Violence
I have never experienced any violence when taking photos, but it can happen. I have heard of extremely rare instances where a photographer was attacked or chased, but usually there was something beyond photography happening, like the subject was crazy, on drugs, doing something illegal or the photographer was very rude or obnoxious.
I have found that sometimes the toughest looking people smile at me after I’ve taken their photo. On a side note, I only take photos of tough looking people if I’m wearing running shoes.
What is the typical reaction you get when photographing strangers?
I’d love to hear your comments.
What a bunch of cool cats! Great photos Jeff, especially the one of the cat leaping. Incredible shot!
Mostly people don’t know I’m photographing them and that’s how I like it – so I catch them unawares. I’m not a fan of posed photos though sometimes they work out. Sometimes I use the LCD screen and hide behind Don so they can’t see me or the camera.
I like to catch them unawares like you. I want to get that candid image of daily life. I have started using my LCD screen lately too mainly because I can hold the camera up high or low or move it closer without getting my face physically closer. Thanks for the comments, and I’ll use my friends as a shield in the future. 🙂
Awesome post Jeff, kept me smiling all the way through. You are lucky to have so many subjects for your street photography!
Bangkok has a lot of people (and cats) on the street!
Jeff, hilarious post. I love how you used cats rather than humans to illustrate. ..very interesting. Getting good animal pictures is often harder. I don’t think I have the talent for street photography, I prefer to photograph landscape. I do enjoy your work, thank you for this great post
I pretty much only took landscapes until recently as well. In SE Asia most people don’t mind me taking photos of them so people photography is quite fun, plus there are no landscapes in Bangkok. Thanks for commenting.
Hilarious. Thanks for a laugh to start my day, especially the cat with the big butt.
Thank you. She was a beautiful cat in a beautiful setting.
Haha – very amusing (and in its own way, quite informative). As you know, I am a reluctant street photographer, but perhaps that’s because I thought I should be taking photos of humans! As it happens, I seem to have discovered street animal photography in Bhutan (yet to be published) by accident, so now I will have to go back and apply the Jeff Bell reaction rating system. I’ve always loved the cat-with-monks photo; glad to see it again here!
I was reluctant at first, but I get braver and more comfortable every time I do it. I’ll be interested in seeing your Bhutan animal street photo series for sure.
I can’t go so far as to say it’s a real series, but those strays may end up in a random post someday soon!
This is hilarious, Jeff. 🤣 A much needed smile this morning. You’ve chosen the perfect kitties to illustrate your excellent points.
Do you remember when I tried to snap some shots of the probably five year old girl being given beer by her parents at Oktoberfest?
I do! You had photographic proof that drinking beer makes things more fun. The sober 5-year-old wasn’t dancing at all.
Oh my God, this is hilarious! Your subjects are wonderful and I particularly like the unguarded moment. I got a lot of practice taking people photos on our recent trip to Sri Lanka, with most of them falling into the totally unaware, indifferent or striking a pose categories (does this include subjects who then want you to pose with them for selfies?). I still find I rush things and the composition turns out kind of wonky…having fun though!
Sri Lanka is a people photography paradise. The people are not only friendly but they are beautiful and wear colorful and varied clothes. In places like Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh where the people want selfies I started doing it too. I have some great juxtapositions of me with the locals.
I rush things too but I’m getting more patient as I get more confident. Happy people shooting!
Very interesting. Thankfully I’ve not encountered violence or obscene gestures, but every other response I’ve encountered. I loved photographing in Cuba.
I don’t mind the pose and silly gesture. It can be fun and breaks the ice, which then leads to better more candid shots.
True, often when you get the silly pose you have permission to keep shooting when everything goes back to normal. People here in SE Asia really love to flash the peace sign in photos so it can be hard. Ah Cuba, I want to go back again. Such a great place.
Love the cats. 555+
One of my blogger friends had her camera taken away. It was in the Middle East somewhere. She was very careful to ask for permission, but this one time at the market, a woman thought she was being photographed w/out her consent and made a big deal out of it. My friend even had to go to the police station, even after she deleted the photo. It all worked out, in the end, she got her camera back, but yeah, not the best experience by far.
But I’d agree, overall most don’t seem to care, but when I’m trying to get a person in particular, I ask. As a result, I don’t take many head shots very often. Have you noticed a difference if you are using your phone vs a fancy camera?
In most countries it is perfectly legal to take someone’s photo and post it on the front page of a newspaper or on Facebook without their consent. I wonder what the situation was? That sounds pretty extreme.
I only use a camera and although it is somewhat fancy, it is small. I use a Fuji X100T most of the time but sometimes use a Fuji XT-20. I only shoot with wide-angle lenses and I almost always get fairly close to people. I almost always do it in the open and I’m rarely sneaky about it. People can see what I’m doing and hopefully see that I’m not being creepy, rude or intrusive. If anyone asks me to stop, I stop and move on – there are 7 billion other people I can shoot!
I do ask sometimes, usually if I see a really photogenic person.
Thanks for your comments!
Jeff, this is a fabulous and entertaining series – I didn’t actually realize it was all about cats until I got to the second and third photos! On the whole, I’m still a bit wary of taking people shots unless I happen to be shooting in a crowded place. I realized in Lebanon that people were reacting very differently to Bama’s compact, mirrorless camera and my big, intrusive DSLR, even if they were not actually the subject and were standing some distance away.
I think shooting with a mirrorless can be easier. The DSLR makes you look like a professional and maybe they think you can zoom right in on them. That is an interesting observation. Lebanon of course has a tragic recent history and people may be weary of surveillance and spying in general and that can make it harder.
I also feel more comfortable taking photos in crowded places but I get my best shots on quieter side streets, markets and temples so I have to push myself and be extra charming in those situations.
Maybe I’ll make a companion post and include some photos of humans next time!
This is hilarious! And it’s even better because it’s street photography, feline version. I also take a lot of photos of cats whenever I travel, but most of them are either yawning or sleeping. Jakarta has so many cats on its streets, but unfortunately most of them are skinny. I, on the other hand, always carry cat food in my backpack because of the cats near my apartment who always beg for food from passers by in the afternoon.
You are a good man for bringing along cat food! We have dozens of strays in the neighborhood and one lady in particular feeds many of them. We bring her bags of cat food from time to time to help out.
How are you liking your new camera?
I LOVE my new camera! I still have to get used to its different settings, but I really love that it’s light and doesn’t attract too much attention.
That is interesting 🙂
You’ve chosen perfect models ~ they seem to take your cues very well 🙂 Awesome post, humor and also wisdom along with beautiful photography.
Parents are the worst. THey stop their child from playing to say look at the camera and smile, when I am looking for candids. I love that smiling cat.
Ah, parents! It is funny because in some cultures parents freak out if a person photos a child, and in others they pose them.
Nice captures jeff. I love your shots
Thank you, I appreciate it.
You are welcome
Love this post! I have started with street photography few months back and have only positive reactions so far. Hope it stays this way. The only negative comments come from peer photographers who call this kind of photos an exploitation. Well, call it as you want, it is still amazing. And I love cats 🙂
I am sure negative reactions will happen from time to time, but as long as you are respectful and polite there should be no problem. Happy shooting!