Is it OK to photograph random people?

Is it OK to photograph random people without their permission? Is it weird? (Or, how weird is it?)

Last summer I took a workshop in street photography at the Community School of Music and Arts. It was a small, fun class, on a beautiful sunny day, and as part of it we went out into the streets of downtown Ithaca 3 separate times. All of the participants were relatively new to photography, and so our concerns were all the same – do I have to ask someone to take their photo? What if they see me?

The answer was – in the US, it’s OK to take take people’s pictures if they are in a public place except when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There are lots of sources online for this information, which makes me think it’s reliable.

I was way out of my comfort zone in the active part of the workshop, but forged ahead anyway, and was generally pleased with the results. I found that if someone noticed me and started asking questions, they accepted my response and let me continue on. I’m sure it helps that I’m not an especially scary looking person. On a couple of occasions since then, I’ve taken shots of cute little kids (and puppies!), and the moms have been OK with it.

So the next question is, what are the legalities surrounding how the photos are used? I’ve been looking online for that answer, too, and haven’t found a definitive response. However, I’ve gathered that it’s generally OK to post photos of people on flickr / picasaweb, but generally unethical to do so if it makes them look bad. Certainly, I’d take down a photo of someone if they asked me to do so. Selling a photo for profit changes the rules, and moves into the realm of model release forms.

Yesterday was a great day to be out shooting photos. The animal science undergrads ran a petting zoo event; the vet school had an open house; and the weather was beautifully warm and sunny. The petting zoo was just cuteness everywhere, and no one seemed bothered by my camera, not even the moms. In the evening, I went over to Sunset Park to work on capturing sunsets (of all things)… and people there, all adults, seemed very weirded out by me and my Canon. I saw my doctor walking her dog, waved to her, and she turned around and went the other way! (Granted, I only see her once a year, but still.)  One of the subjects of my favorite photo of the day turned around and stared me down shortly after I shot it. But, I believe it’s within my rights to put it online – and it fit the current challenge theme of “light/shadow” – so here it is.

Sunset Park

Sunset Park


Comments from anyone who can fill me in on the finer points of the law would be most welcome!



  1. I try to be careful about pics of children because in this day and age I feel parents are justifiably wary. Any children pics I post I either have the parents permission or the child is unidentifiable – like the people in your picture above (which I love btw). And I think you must’ve hit a rough day in Sunset Park – I’ve never had any issue there at all.

    • I haven’t had problems in Sunset Park before, either. Maybe it was my imagination. Or, maybe I looked odd because I was doing things like following around a robin while I was waiting for the sun to set.

  2. Wow! Great photo!

    But is there an error in your 3rd paragraph? Should it say: “…in a public place and DO NOT have a reasonable expectation of privacy”? Or am I totally misunderstanding.

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