Street Photography: To ask or not to ask?

Purists may shun asking permission to take street shots.  But others seem to recognise that it’s a good place to start for the nervous beginner.

More recently blogs like ‘Humans of New York’ (, and its many derivatives, have made a point of asking permission. While some photographers have little or no interaction with subjects, many now include biographical detail with the image.

Of course it may be argued that this isn’t ‘real’ street photography. The argument seems to be that to ask or interact is to affect the raw reality of the shot.

However, other disciplines have questioned the possibility of such objectivity. For example, a scientist friend tells me that in quantum physics to observe something is to change it (or something like that). So perhaps it’s impossible not to interfere with a scene even if you don’t ask permission??
For example, sometimes people see you just as you take the shot and you end up with them glaring at you. It makes for a dramatic image but it’s no more real than if they’d smiled and said ‘cheese’.

If you watch the incredible Bruce Gilden shooting in New York then you notice that many people are oblivious to him.  But some seem startled when he lurches into their path, Leica in one hand and flash in the other. On these occasions he certainly has affected the image. (For example watch “I have no ethics”)

Personally, I like to be flexible about it. Sometimes I ask; often because I bottle it and worry I’ll cause offence. But often I won’t ask. Sometimes I’ll have a great chat with the person I’ve photographed and other times I walk on, trying not to engage or even turn round to see if they care.

Sometimes people seem really pleased to be asked for a photograph. For example the two ladies on the image above.  It might not be street enough for the purists but sometimes I simply like to ask and interact with the human being I’ve felt drawn to photograph.

Sometimes it feels less selfish because although the image can seem less ‘raw’ perhaps it’s more important to connect.

On the other hand sometimes connecting can lead to a very different scene from the one you expected. The first shot here is candid. For the second I asked permission which gave the guys in the background an opportunity.