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Photography Ethics: How to Take Pictures With Respect

11 min read

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photography ethics.
Quick summary

In this article, we will introduce many of the fundamental concepts defining the field of ethics in photography. You will learn what it means to be an ethical photographer and when it is especially important to adhere to certain ethical and moral standards to prevent harm – both to yourself and to your subjects, clients, and audience! From informed consent to ethical photojournalism, this guide will cover all the bases you need to know about to grow as a professional.

As photographers, we constantly capture candid, raw moments of the lives of others, often without even thinking about it much. In this day and age, that’s not limited to the professional photojournalist either! Millions of people snap billions of pictures every year. A large share of them end up online for the whole world to see. And on top of that, photo manipulation has become so accessible as to be considered commonplace.

Suffice it to say that this can open the doors to some serious ethical dilemmas. While this is an issue that has plagued the photography field for decades, it has intensified in recent years.

Today, let’s have a serious chat about the topic of photography ethics. We’ll analyze what ethical problems there are that you may need to watch out for in your line of work. We’ll also discuss how to consider your subjects’ rights and safety and how to take pictures with respect for ethical behavior.

Arguably the most fundamentally important concept for the ethical photographer to internalize is informed consent. There are two basic elements to informed consent. First is voluntary agreement – your subject lets you know what they are and are not okay with.

The second aspect is equally important, and it relates to the dissemination of information. Basically, it is up to you, the photographer, to inform their subjects of their rights, how their likeness is going to be used, what happens to their photographs after the shoot, and so on. Only when the subject is properly informed in this way can they really give informed consent?

A photographer and his model agreeing on the condition of their shoot while reviewing pictures taken. An example of informed consent in action.

To make a really basic example, consider asking a model during an arranged studio shoot whether they’d be alright with their pictures undergoing basic edits as part of the publishing process. Following basic guidelines of informed consent, this would involve you explaining in detail what changes may be necessary, who will carry them out, and for what purpose. You should also note where the work may or may not be published.

Recognize that this process goes both ways. Just as it is up to your subject to voice their informed consent (or lack thereof) on whatever issue they may deem appropriate, it is up to you to respect that consent and act accordingly.

In many photographer-model relationships, you may reach informed consent by means of a written contract. However, verbal agreements are also common in plenty of fields and genres. It’s all up to you and the people you work with to find something you’re all comfortable with!

This line of thought leads us straight to the next issue, requesting consent. You should go out of your way to request consent as a photographer as much as you can. Trust me when I say this can never hurt!

Often, subjects may not be aware of the moral or ethical implications of having their likeness published. They may not consider such issues unless you prompt them to confirm their consent explicitly. This is especially true outside of a controlled studio environment. Visual journalists and those taking pictures in open, public environments need to be especially careful.

A street photographer taking pictures of two young women in a public environment. Consent is an essential component of ethical photography conduct in situations like this.

In an ideal scenario, you will want to gain unambiguous consent at least two times. First, request the subject’s permission to have their picture taken. You should also ask for further permission to publish the work featuring them. Remember to clearly state in what media and in what context that work will be publicly available. Finally, if appropriate, a short conversation over compensation may also take place afterward.

Note that many times, a person may express consent even if it is not actually in their best interests. It is up to you to accept the responsibility of reading through the lines here.

Are you shooting in an environment where your camera gives you a certain sense of power, perhaps even dominance over bystanders? Is there a language barrier that may make it difficult to establish proper context?

Questions like these should always be on your mind when requesting consent from your subject.

Photo Manipulation and Ethical Dilemmas

Another key problem within photography ethics is the issue of doctored pictures. Especially in fields like fine art, travel, and fashion photography, it has become more and more common to see photographers and their clients trying to manipulate images to increase their value.

Whether to gain an edge in photo competitions, to stimulate sales, or for the sake of pushing idealized aesthetic standards, photo manipulation and similar practices can misrepresent subjects and their intentions. By doctoring a photo, you remove it from the context within which the original image was taken. You also may mislead viewers who will accept it as the real thing.

A photographer professionally editing a studio portrait session in post-processing.

Many photographers try to circumvent this problem by minimizing the use of edits and post-processing in their photographs using software. This is a simple and straightforward solution, but it is not always practical. Sometimes, images need extra work to be presentable. At the same time, even the most innocuous changes can be hugely important in the right context.

Just as anyone should avoid presenting one’s own achievements, character, or physical composition in a dishonest way, so should you, as a photographer, strive to be honest about what you photograph. Provide context to any alterations that your images may undergo. Try to gain understanding by explaining how these edits, if any, were necessary.

Your photos will benefit from that process. Not only will you preserve your own dignity this way, but also that of your subjects and your audience!

Authenticity in the Age of AI

The advancement of large language models has generated an entirely new subset of ethics in photography. Now, we don’t only need to ask ourselves about those who intentionally sabotage or misrepresent their work by their own hands.

The use of AI photography to generate authentic-looking images – without a camera or lens at all – is a new area of concern, too.

A close-up view of an advertisement for AI-driven content creation services. An ethical dilemma in photography exists due to the widespread availability of free, LLM-generated content.

Because large language models use existing work to build their databases, the resulting images are often amalgams of real photographs. Sometimes, this may be obvious enough that other journalists or artistic photographers may recognize their own portfolio within the AI-generated result!

In fields like journalism, where authenticity is key, AI photography ethics are also of particular concern. With the current-generation tech, it has become possible to easily create ‘pictures’ of events that are entirely fictitious. Large language models have also made it much easier to misrepresent the actions of real-life figures and place them into misleading contexts.

As an ethical photographer, you should avoid the use of such methods as far as absolutely possible.

An evocative street portrait taken with the candid photography method. Subject caught unawares at point blank range. Such practices frequently open up debates on photography ethics.

Ever since the days of Henri Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries, candid photography has been one of the most coveted and admired genres, not just as one of the styles of street photography but modern artistic photography as a whole. It’s a field rich in conventions like any other, but unfortunately, it is also ripe for ethical dilemmas.

Candid street photography relies on the idea of capturing daily moments incognito, removing the photographer from the frame as much as possible. Unfortunately, this makes taking pictures without consent far too easy.

Many candid street photographers feel that explicitly requesting permission to take pictures of their subject contradicts the inherent nature of the photographer as the passive observer within the genre. While that’s a fair point to make, you should not try to sacrifice your ethical integrity for the sake of artistic expression where it could hurt others. Try, for instance, to ascertain consent after taking the shot if it would hurt the quality of the images otherwise.

Your subject might, of course, display immediate rejection and act offended by the notion that someone documented their private moments without asking for permission beforehand. However, it is often possible to explain yourself in honest terms.

Make sure they understand how exactly (if at all) you plan on using the images featuring them. Remember to also place the photographs in the right context by explaining the creative principles behind their candid nature. With the right mindset and under the right circumstances, you will for sure find understanding.

How to Deal With Capturing Private Moments as a Street Photographer

A couple embracing by a cityscape view. Black-and-white street photograph.

More so than in any other field, working as a street photographer elucidates how photography can intrude on others’ privacy and their inner world.

Photographing strangers in street photography can be exciting and creatively very rewarding on the one hand. Getting so close and intimate with the life of another person in a totally unstaged, improvised manner is an experience that compares to little else. However, this precisely is also where a big moral issue lies.

The fact of the matter is: the vast majority of subjects suitable for street photography would probably not consent to have their picture taken if they were approached and informed of the photographer’s intentions beforehand. Even in exceptional cases, most people act very differently when they know they’re in someone’s viewfinder. Sometimes, the photo you are seeking is simply not possible within the scope of full, honest communication!

Resolving the Ethical Conflict

In order to resolve this ethical problem, you need to ask yourself a few questions. First of all, do you feel ready to accept the ethical responsibility of photographing subjects who may not consent fully to your work? Dealing with such conflicts is part and parcel of all photography, but things can get especially messy in street photography.

Secondly, do you accept the fact that your photos may not last, i.e., that their publication may be cut short by conflicts over privacy and consent? Again, such conflicts arise routinely in street photography. You need to have a thick skin to potentially sort out these kinds of disagreements with the people you photograph.

Finally, it is important for every street photographer to respect others’ dignity and the fact that your photos featuring their likeness are just as much theirs as they are yours. You do not get to use the private moments of others for your own sole purpose without consulting them.

After all, it is them that made the images possible in the first place!

Ethics in Photographing Wildlife

A man documents wildlife from a lookout point using a DSLR. An example of ethical wildlife photography practices, using distance and location to prevent disturbing animal subjects.

Human subjects are not the only sources of ethical dilemmas in photography. A good example of this can be seen in wildlife photography. Conventional wisdom tells you to pick a large telephoto or super-telephoto lens to allow you to capture your animal subjects undisturbed. This is a step in the right direction, but proper ethical conduct for wildlife photographers can go a lot deeper than that.

Consider your subjects’ natural environment and their safety when setting up your shot. Try not to disturb their natural habitat or leave any permanent traces for the sake of the picture. Also, make sure to research the behavior and characteristics of the wildlife you plan on photographing.

Knowing about your subject helps you identify, for instance, signs of stress or fear, which you can then mitigate by practicing more careful and appropriate conduct.

As a wildlife photographer, you should also take care not to allow your subjects to get used too much to interactions they are not supposed to have in the wild. Many make the mistake of trying to allow their wildlife photography subjects to be ‘more at ease’ by accommodating them excessively, feeding them, or treating them to a comfortable, artificial environment. Don’t do this!

While intended as acts of kindness, such manipulation of the natural environment can make your subjects adversely familiar with and dependent on human contact and affect their behavior. Always remember: you are here to document and to do no harm! For further guidance and reference, consider reading what National Geographic magazine has to say about ethics for wildlife photographers.

Bias, Dignity, and Ethics in Journalism and Press Photography

A press journalist photographing an event with a stabilized camera and heavy telephoto lens.

Press journalism is definitely one of the areas where photography ethics has traditionally been a big talking point for the longest time. That’s for a good reason! As a photojournalist, it is your duty to adhere to standards of integrity, honesty, and responsibility to set an example for good conduct and serious reportage.

Because your images may be used to paint the subjective views of countless viewers, readers, and listeners, it is paramount to avoid stereotyping individuals, maintain crystal-clear context, and follow high ethical standards to the letter.

It is not rare for the media industry to get caught up in scandals of staged photo opportunities, dishonest interviews, and misleading footage. That’s especially true in our day and age of “fake news”, of course!

A scene from the 'Yellow Vests' protests in France. A sensitive area of photojournalism that demands high standards of photography ethics.

In such an environment, it is more paramount than ever to lead with honesty and ethical responsibility. Pay special consideration to proper sourcing and practice the highest standards of research and due diligence.

When documenting a major, large-scale event, it is important to educate yourself on the background of the events you are documenting, even if it only seems tangential to your job as a photographer.

We carry subconscious biases with us every waking hour of every day, and as a photojournalist, you should strive to remove those biases from your coverage as much as possible. You cannot do that effectively without knowing your subject very intimately, so make sure to do your required reading beforehand!

Preventing the Exploitation of Vulnerable Subjects

An elderly man sitting alone by the side of his bed isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Elderly male subject with face mask.

Especially when traveling for work and traversing vulnerable social environments, you must take heed not to influence events in a detrimental or dishonest manner when recording subjects. It is wrong to assume that exploitation only happens when deliberately and consciously employed.

Rather, the opposite is true! It is all too easy to fall into the trap of treating certain vulnerable subjects in an exploitative manner – sometimes, this can even happen when you least expect it to.

Practice thorough study and understanding of the cultural context of the people you are photographing. Try to challenge whatever preconceived notions you may have of them, their appearance, their behavior, the linguistic or cultural barriers between you, and so on.

Again, as I said before: we carry biases with us all the time. And as an ethical photographer, it is up to you to dismantle yours for the sake of your journalistic integrity!

The Code of Ethics in Photography

A baseline for all ethical photographers worldwide, the Code of Ethics published by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) is more than worthy of a read by any aspiring professional.

A number of simple, easy-to-memorize standards outline the basic moral behaviors expected of any press photographer. These include declining to influence coverage in any biased or dishonest manner, the right and duty to request and act according to explicit consent, and the need to adhere to local laws on privacy and disclosure wherever you are active.

The Code also touches on many issues we surveyed in this guide, such as the need to pay sources their fair due and to edit photographs as minimally as possible to preserve an accurate, authentic representation of real-world events.

For reference, you can read the full Code of Ethics here. I suggest coming back to it every now and then as a reminder of the moral and ethical duties we all have to uphold as fellow photographers.

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
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