Taking and Sharing Your Shots of People

by Chris Edwards and Laurie Brice

Let's face it, people are fascinating photographic subjects, so are the things in which we participate: construction, food prep, sports, education, transportation, the arts, city and rural life, etc. But it's one thing to photograph family and friends engaged in life's activities and quite another to venture into the unexpected and photograph those we don't know. For many of us, our shyness keeps us from exploring a world of interesting subjects. Suppose we take the plunge to overcome our shyness. How might we approach strangers as photographic subjects? Well, it depends on our personal style (courage?) and how we intend to use our photographs. Let's discuss approach styles first. We'll cover use requirements later.

Some photographers take "stealth" shots, capturing subjects unaware in the course of life's events. Anyone in a public place is fair game but not always welcoming of photographers. For example, if your objective is to photograph children at play, hanging around the playground taking photographs of children who don't know you is an invitation for trouble even if your intentions are completely above board. Others shoot away, exerting their right to photograph in public places. The paparazzi are the extreme example of this case.

Another approach is to shoot quickly, unobserved and then engage our subjects (or their parents). Explain who you are and what you do. Ask if you can email the shots you've taken. Show the images on you LCD, give assurance that you are not looking for money. Offer to delete the image if you face substantial objection. Some photographers hand out cards with email information leaving the subject in control of future contact. This is an easy means of contact but has a low rate of return. Others ask for the subject's email address, insuring the photographer is in control of contact. This has a higher rate of second contact but can be challenging to execute. Would you give a stranger your email address? Which method you use depends on your ability to communicate with your subject. Although you may have mixed success getting the green light from parents of young children, pet owners are usually thrilled to get some shots of their furry pals. Teens and adults with vibrant tattoos or attention-getting dress tend to love the chance to be the focus of your attention. 

Of course we can always use a third approach, ask first.  This is certainly the most polite approach but we run the risk of missing that spontaneous interaction and of immediate rejection.

Here are some tips for successful interaction with your subjects:

  • Engage your subject by explaining who you are and what you are doing.
  • Again, assure your subject that you are not attempting some kind of sale but find them an interesting subject.
  • Approach with confidence. Be open, be friendly and don't be offended by the word "No.
  • Make it a point to provide images you promise promptly and in your email, remind them where and when you took the shot. You can send the photo in low resolution first and offer to provide a high resolution copy, should they want to make a print of it. Offering some shots is a nice way for you to repay  your subjects graciousness in allowing you to shoot them.

Now that we've discussed approaches to photographing strangers, let's talk about how we intend to use the photographs. When we take photographs of people, specific places and pets, many uses of these images require a "release". A release is a legal document signed by the photographic subject or owner of the photographic subject that gives legal rights to the photographer to use the image for specified purposes.

So when must you obtain a release? We are not lawyers but we'll tell you what we've read. Keep in mind that there is often a difference between what you have a legal right to photograph and those photographs an organization will accept without a release.  In general, if your photograph will be used for commercial gain like selling prints, mugs, tee-shirts, posters, advertising, etc. you need to get a model release from your subject(s). Most contests require model releases. Stock photo agencies definitely require releases. Photographs used in editorial content -- newspapers, magazines, etc. usually do not require releases. It's worth pointing out that there are releases for "property" as well. Buildings taken in street scenes including other properties usually don't require releases but images that isolate a specific building may. Not only does the need for a property release apply to buildings, lands, gardens and personal possessions but to pets. Yup, Fido and Furball's owners need to sign too. 

When don't you need a release? For editorial content as discussed above and if you aren't trying to make money from the image. If the subject was in a public place, a release is not needed. Confusing, isn't it? Your best course is to evaluate the use you intend now and in the future. When in doubt, get a release. Keep a history of the releases you acquire and make sure you know which release goes with what photograph.

Here are some tips for getting those releases while you are shooting.     

  • Keep a small notebook and pen in your camera bag for jotting down your subjects' email address. If you're not getting a release when you shoot, you may want to ask for one later.
  • Research releases on the web. Print some and keep them with you while you shoot.
  • There are smartphone and tablet apps for generating and keeping releases. It is often productive to take the subjects photograph to add to the release. These apps make the process more palatable than approaching your subject with pen and paper to sign.
  • If you are serious about photographing strangers and making money from those shots, educate yourself and consult a lawyer to get your releases air-tight but approachable so you can shoot with a peaceful mind.

We've included a few sites for further reading. Some of them include sample releases. Again, we are not lawyers. We can't recommend a specific releases but they may help you get up to speed on the issues. These don't even begin to represent volume of material available.

See your out there shooting!
Chris and Laurie

#LearnPhotography #photoworkshop #Annapolis


Lauren Brice

Laurie grew up in the Annapolis area enjoying all that its rivers, woods, historic setting and strong community provide. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biology, she returned home to the banks of the Severn River. An early career as a biologist for The Johns Hopkins University soon transitioned to positions in the emerging field of Information Technology. Laurie designed and taught countless computer application courses and developed strong programming, data analysis and management skills. Through it all, Laurie captured her love of nature, landscape and animal portraiture - especially birds in photography. Her photographs are featured in Field Guide on Insects of the Cloud Forest, author Paul Beck, Illustrator Ryan Hobson; the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas, TX; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website All About Birds; and the travel website Schmap.com. Her awards include Best in Show and several category prizes in the 2011 Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Friends of the 500th Annual Annual Competition; Honorable Mention in the Nature Conservancy's 5th Annual Photography contest and several exhibition awards from the Digital Photography Club of Annapolis.