street photography

Some people get downright mad when their photo is taken.  People get violent even.  Case in point, a homeless man punched me yesterday for taking his photo (do not fret friends, your loyal blogger is ok).  On the other hand, there are those who love getting photographed.  Some people even come up to me just to ask to get their picture taken (I get so happy when this happens!).  The law of averages being universal, the vast majority of people react in a similar way – nonchalance.  Most people don’t care.

So when we ask ourselves, is what we are doing ethically justifiable?  And further – what would make a photograph unethical?  These are tough questions to answer and therefore posing them is also somewhat tough.  However, as I like to emphasize… we are the intrepid and immune to trepidation.  So let us strap on our utility belts like Batman and bring evil doers to justice.

John Stuart Mill (henceforth – JSM or Mill) became very famous for his “Utilitarian” philosophy.  In short – whatever produces the highest good or highest pleasures for the greatest number of people should be promoted.   Now JSM did not create “Utilitarianism”, there were many thinkers before him, but his version of the philosophy is one I think worth exploring for today’s discussion.

The point of departure for Mill was that while his predecessors were very interested in hedonism, he maintained that there were a variety of different pleasures, intellectual pleasures being the highest.  So far, so good.  Mill also argued that people desire happiness (the ultilitarian end) and that general happiness is “a good to the aggregate of all persons.”

So what would John Stuart Mill do (WWJSMD)?  How does street photography fit into this picture?

Are we producing the highest good for the highest number of people?  I would answer in the affirmative.  I believe that these images enrich our lives and promote empathy.  To make portraits of people, you have to study them.  The anonymous crowd pouring through the city is now a mass of individuals.  Each person is imbued with love, hate, and joy.  So it is in this sense I think we are philanthropists.  We love humanity.  How many misanthropes do you see shooting street photography?  We find beauty in humanity and accentuate it.

So we are the finders, keepers, distributers and multipliers of beauty.  And to prove another slightly different point, I think this is why I like to photo the grit and the grime of New York.  To show that there is something lovely in the destitute.  The lotus flower is one of the most beautiful… and grows in the muck of nasty swamps.  Our city of New York is covered in dirt, graffiti and rusty syringes.  There is also a suspiciously high number of used tampon applique’s on the beaches of Brooklyn.  But our minds crave beauty and we shall find what we seek.

What about the nay sayers?  Well… I suppose we could take a look at the hater’s argument.  While I don’t think there are many that get displeasure from looking at these photos, there are probably quite a few that get displeasure from their photo being taken.  How are we promoting the highest good if people are getting angry?  The paparazzi harass celebrities into shaving off all their hairs (shout-outs to my girl Brit).  This is where the fuzzy line of ethics in street photography is encountered.  Harassment is definitely the transgression into unethical photography.

Could you say that I am harassing someone when I snap the shutter and walk away?  Perhaps… but that’s a shaky espousal.  If I photo someone, they get upset and I continue to photo them, then the line was crossed (and no, I don’t do this).

So here is my list of unethical situations that I do NOT participate in and I highly suggest you don’t either:

  • Harassing someone when they ask you to leave or stop.
  • Trying to photograph girls up skirt.
  • Peeping Tom-ery.
  • Failing to help someone in need because you’re too busy to take a photo.

I think Johnny Law has some things to say about this – upskirt photography and peeping tom-ery is illegal (coined unlawful surveillance).  And while not helping another person and harassing someone may not be illegal per se, I would argue they are unethical (according to Mill’s definitions of ethical behavior).  So since I don’t do any of that foolishness and never will, I am in the green.  How about you?

Happy, ethically justified, shooting!


One of the most characteristic things about photography in New York City is that you find these sources of light coming from interesting places.  Glass covered skyscrapers reflect the suns rays down into the subway (try the Bryant park station at 42nd and 6th Ave at 8:00AM).  Scaffolding for construction creates large X’s on the sidewalk from their shadows.  Building outlines create sharply defined steppe shadows that people walk along.  Highway overpasses allow cracks of light to peak through like lazer beams of direction (example from the BQE below).

To capture these pockets of light, you need to first train your eye to find them.  There can be many things to make a photo interesting but one of the main ones is the quality, quantity, direction and contrast of light.  Finding interesting light is a lot of fun… and when you get it you feel like you’ve won the lottery.

So where to find them?  Mid-town is awash with reflections from the skyscrapers!  Lots of uniform blobs of light reflect down onto the street from the windows.  Take this example from 41st street (between 5th and Madison).

The other nice thing to recognize in the above photo is the reflection of other buildings in the glass.  Reflections of other items in your photos can be used in fun ways to juxtapose different elements that are not supposed to normally be there.  The next photo I took in Williamsburg Brooklyn (at the intersection of Ainslie and Leonard).  There are lots of religious paraphernalia on the street and this particular one has a nice reflection of the apartments across the street (with a nice distortion to boot).

Sometimes of course, a reflection can hurt a photo more than it helps it.  The below photo may be one of those instances.  This is a bit too busy for my taste.  Of course with a carefully used polarizer, you can eliminate reflections altogether.  That is for another post.  But if you don’t have a polarizer then moving your subject into an interesting position to take advantage of the reflection can make a stronger photo.  If I would have positioned the tree trunk right behind the woman’s head with the glasses… it would have looked like she had a million tree limbs growing out of her head.

By the way, these two ladies sit at this bench on North 7th and Bedford Ave almost every Sunday.  Good old geriatric predictability :-).

The next shots are an extreme example of “pooling” light in a really deliberate way.  In order so that people do not throw plastic bottles in a newspaper recycling bin, steel tops with a newspaper-formed cutouts cover the bins at Bryant Park.  I noticed the garbage men opening up these covers (they are hinged).  This gave me a cookie cutter perspective of people on the street.  A funky folded newspaper view of the passer-byes.  Just another interesting way of cropping your image to get some captures.

Mentioned earlier, scaffolding can be a great way to chop the light into different patterns.  Most often, these can add directionality to photos as they add lines to your image.  This next shot also illustrates nicely how to take the best advantage of these lines.  Notice how there is a shadow line going down the man’s face (even crossing into his eye).  Since the shadow lines are a main focal point and the man’s face another main focal point… putting them together is only natural!

Of course, New York City is not the only place where pools of light exist.  They exist everywhere.  I have only outlined some of the different ones that are easy to spot.  One of my favorite pockets of light is in Italy at the Colosseum.  While this next shot isn’t perfect, I still really enjoy the Gypsy’s wild dress… and the fact that she is standing in light that is defined by one of the arches of the Colosseum doesn’t hurt either.

Happy shooting.