Photography Etiquette – What’s the Right Approach?

Whether you have a DSLR, a pocket camera, or simply use your mobile phone to take snapshots, there are some simple rules of photography etiquette that you can follow to make the shooting experience more enjoyable for you, as well as everyone else around you. Some of these tips might seem obvious, but even if you think you already know what to do, or not to do, when taking pictures it might be worth reading just as a refresher.

It’s easy to notice the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and note when other people are violating simple rules of etiquette. But sometimes it’s difficult to recognize the plank in yours, and see if you have a few habits that could be changed. These are short and simple lessons that I have learned the painful way over the years. I hope you can benefit from my mistakes and avoid these pitfalls in your own photography.

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Be discrete (i.e. don’t be the center of attention)

I can recall being at weddings and parties where I thought I was the king of the room just because I had a camera, however, all the while I was only making other people annoyed or frustrated because of my behaviour. One of the most difficult thinks for new photographers to realize is it’s not about you. It’s about everyone else, and you just happen to be the one documenting things.

Have you ever stood up in the middle of a wedding to get a shot of the bride and groom? Have you muscled your way to the front of a group of kids so you could capture little Timmy opening his birthday present? Have you found yourself running back and forth on the sidelines of a high school football game trying to photograph some highlights, while pushing a few players and coaches out of the way? If so, you might have indeed gotten a good picture, but you might also have unknowingly caused some hurt feelings in the process.

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This might be a decent shot, but to get it I had to work my way through the crowd and potentially block the view of people behind me. I’m not sure it was worth the trade-off.

As photographers it can be tough to take a more discrete approach, but often that is exactly what we should be doing. It might sound counterintuitive, but staying out of the way can often yield the best results because we are taking other people into consideration. This goes double if you’re not even the official photographer, you just happen to be in attendance with your camera. Everyone around you is trying to enjoy the experience, and couldn’t care one whit about whether or not you have a camera. They just want to watch the wedding, see Timmy open his present, or experience the game-winning goal along with everyone else. From their point of view, a person with a camera who is running around frantically or blocking their field of view is an annoyance, not an asset.

A while back I went around taking pictures at a high school production of "Pride and Prejudice." I thought people would excuse my actions since I had a camera, but in reality I was likely bothering the audience and possibly even distracting the performers.

A while back I went around taking pictures at a high school production of “Pride and Prejudice.” I thought people would excuse my actions since I had a camera, but in reality I was likely bothering the audience and possibly even distracting the performers.

To remedy this situation, try to find alternative viewpoints that won’t ruin the experience for other people, but still yield good pictures. It might be good to buy or rent a zoom lens for special occasions, or do some searching online for how people have taken photos in similar situations without being rude or disruptive. You might actually find yourself getting more interesting photos, and looking at things from new angles that you had never considered, which could not only benefit you as a photographer and be a pleasant surprise for the individuals whose pictures you are taking.

Ask for permission before taking pictures

Here’s a bit of information no one told me when I first got into photography as a serious hobby – not everyone wants their picture taken. Years ago when I was a wet-behind-the-ears photographic newbie I took my camera everywhere, and photographed everything and anyone. If I was shooting landscapes or nature this was not a problem at all, but when we had friends over, or went to events, it became a bit of an issue. One that I hope you might be able to avoid.

The more I got into photography the more I realized that not everyone likes being on camera, and not every event demands hundreds of snapshots. I can recall times when we were out with friends or at a party or social event, and having people around me freeze-up or give me the cold shoulder, because I had morphed from friend to photographer. I thought that my camera gave me some kind of unwritten license to take pictures of everyone around me, but in truth most of them just wanted to go about their business and not have a camera in their face. Simply asking for permission would have solved a lot of problems, and avoided some hurt feelings along the way. Even though it can be a bit awkward, it’s worth the trouble if it avoids animosity down the line.

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I checked with the parents before getting my camera out and snapping pictures at this birthday party.

The next time you’re at a party, celebration, or sporting event, take a minute and ask the hosts or some of the other guests if they mind you taking photos. It takes almost no time at all, and can reap incredible rewards throughout the event – Uncle Bob, notoriously shy around cameras, might appreciate that you were willing to ask his permission and not only grant it, but loosen up a bit as a result. Coach Taylor will be glad you asked, could point you to some of the better spots on the sidelines, and be willing to accommodate some special requests you might have. Grandma Agnes might not want her photo taken at all, and even though you won’t get as many good shots, you will help the rest of the guests ease up and enjoy the evening a little more.

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A baptism is a solemn and formal affair – definitely not the time to be annoying others with a camera. Get permission first, take a few good shots (without the flash, if at all possible) and put your camera away.

On a related note if you are a guest at a major event like a wedding it’s a good idea to check with the official photographer before you get up and start taking your own shots. He or she has likely been paid hundreds, or thousands of dollars, specifically to get good pictures. So while you may enjoy walking around with your camera and getting some pictures, you might by unwittingly annoying the couple, or the guests by your actions. My advice is to sit back and just enjoy the event or ceremony, and let the people whose job it is to capture amazing pictures do their work.

Ask for permission before sharing pics

We live in a time when almost everything is shared online, and nearly everyone has some sort of social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr, and many others. The key word here is almost: not everyone is online, and not everyone wants their photos shared on social networks. Even though you might be well within your legal rights to snap pics of other people (especially in public places) and post them to your social networks, you might be inadvertently hurting some feelings, or damaging your close relationships by doing so. The solution here is simple, and only takes a few seconds – ask permission before posting. Not only is it simply a nice thing to do, it can actually help strengthen whatever bond you do have with the people in your pictures. They may have had other people post their picture online and been upset by it. Whereas, there is a very real chance that you could impress them with your honesty and candor by asking if it’s okay to share their photo online.

Even though you can't see these kids' faces in this picture, I still asked their parents for permission before sharing this picture. They appreciated the gesture and gladly agreed.

Even though you can’t see these kids’ faces in this picture, I still asked their parents for permission before sharing this picture. They appreciated the gesture and gladly agreed.

Be a participant, not a photographer

In his song “The Gambler,” the American country singer Kenny Rogers crooned,

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away. 

His logic can be applied to photography also. You’ve got to know when to take pictures, and when to put your camera away. It’s entirely possible, and I would say quite likely, that the people around you at any given event or situation don’t want someone running around snapping pictures. Were you invited to your neice’s piano recital? Great! Keep your camera in your pocket, sit back, and enjoy her performance. If you really want a few pictures you can ask her to pose by the piano after the event is over. Are you going on a road trip with some friends? Awesome! But remember they invited you because they enjoy your company and conversation, not because they wanted to see you constantly snapping pictures and inviting them to look at the screen on your camera. You might be saying things like, “Check out this great shot I just got!” but the message you’re sending to your friends is, “My camera is more important than you.”

Sometimes less is more. We were invited to a birthday party for our friend's daughter, and rather than spend the whole time on my camera I fired off a few shots here and there and spent the rest of the time visiting with adults, playing with kids, and just enjoying the celebration.

Sometimes less is more. We were invited to a birthday party for our friend’s daughter, and rather than spend the whole time on my camera I fired off a few shots here and there, then spent the rest of the time visiting with adults, playing with kids, and just enjoying the celebration.

A lot of these etiquette rules walk a fine line. It’s up to you to gauge each situation and decide where the boundaries should be placed. The bottom line is that you may want to reexamine your approach to photography in some situations, and decide if a different course of action might be better for you and everyone else involved.

What about you? What are some of the tips and etiquette rules you have learned over the years? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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