Belfast street photography

Recently I took a one-day course on street photography, held at Belfast Exposed. My motivation was that while I learned how to use a camera 30 years ago (printing from black and white film shot in a Canon AE1 Program), I have been wanting to go beyond taking competent publicity shots and colourful tourist scenes.

I was intrigued by street photography, particularly about approaching strangers.

One of the first things we learnt was that you don’t have to ask for their permission! Okay, but then how do you go about this?

Chris Barr was our tutor and was very friendly and approachable. In a concise yet comprehensive overview of street photography, he gave good practice examples of others’ work. At one end there are the carefully prepared scenes where the photographer has a planned vision to convey. At the other end are the totally candid situations where often the image is grabbed immediately.

We focused on the this latter approach.

Bruce Gilden is a well know street photographer, and he does not hesistate when he’s at work:

Meanwhile, the following video we watched examined the legal dimension of public street photography. In the United Kingdom, essentially if you are on public property, you are entitled to take photos of pretty much anything you want. I would generally cooperate with a police officer’s advice, but I’ve always known that they can’t compel you to delete any image or hand over any equipment (unless they are actually arresting you). It’s the private security sector that isn’t as well informed:

So, armed with all this knowledge and excitement, Chris led us out on a particularly wet day to several venues: St George’s Market, Belfast City Hall, Castlecourt Mall, Smithfield Market, the Tavern Bar (Union Street), and finally a tour through the University of Ulster Belfast campus, where we reviewed some current students’ work.

I very much enjoyed the experience. I was so anxious at the start. Chris gave encouragement, and I was able to keep calm and soon found my stride. This was definitely not something I would have ventured on, on my own. I highly recommend this course and Chris’ tutelage!

I look forward to meeting up with some new street photographers, those from the course and others in Belfast and further afield.

Here are a few of my images from my journey (slideshow of all at end). All taken with an iPhone 4S. The phone’s discreetness provides a noticeable advantage. Shortcoming is autofocus lag.

My first street photography shot of the day. I noticed this man stopping a young female shopper. Right after this shot she opened her purse and gave him some money. Victoria Square Mall, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

This image a little more daring for me. I noticed this woman with her umbrella on the other side of the street while waiting for the light to change. I didn't want her to notice me, but she did. The clever aspect of taking these shots at pedestrian crossings is that people are less likely to challenge you on the spot. Victoria and Chichester Streets, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The Three Dames. I am happy with the composition and timing of this shot. St George's Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Course classmate Thomas in the background!

I got chatting with this seller. Loved the blue denim hat. Didn't convert to black and white because the colourful yarns and jumper are part of the story. St George's Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I saw this woman in outrageously large fur hat and was thankful the iPhone autofocus worked on this quickly grabbed shot; I did not want her to notice me. This is one of my favourites of the day. St George's Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I was planning an unposed shot but then they noticed me and invited me to take one. I failed to ask them the significance of their sign. But I subsequently learned that they went through an ordeal from security authorities in Turkey during a holiday there. Belfast City Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Have you just taken a photo of me?" said this bus inspector. We then had a discussion, when he asked me several times to delete the image. I replied that I may or may not. I was grateful for the tutorial and legal briefing I had just received a few hours earlier. People may not like their photo being taken in public, but the fact is that it already happens all the time. This was my first street photography confrontation, I survived intact and am now a little more confident. But yes, a little scary. Belfast City Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

This is the elderly mother of the owner of a bric-a-brac shop. She sits in front of this electric heater and small tv most of the day. Another one of my favourite images of the day. Smithfield Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Original post:

  • pauluk

    Looks like you put in the picture of the inspector out of sheer spite. It’s not even in focus and the composition is rubbish.

  • That’s a bit harsh, pauluk, as none of the photos are presented as masterpieces.

    I see these photos as perfect examples of the journeyman process of learning street photography — that’s what the thread is about, and the photos illustrate that well.

    This is a tough undertaking in today’s air pf paranoia against photographers as a supposed source of terrorism, copyright infringement, invasion of privacy, and fear of child pornography.

    Few people recognize that photography is not a permissioned activity, a camera is not a weapon, photography is not a crime.

    Photographers especially need to feel confident in exercising their rights as a necessary and supported part of a free society.

    I have some shots from my visit to Ireland at and now feel invited to post more, especially from the street.

    Great blog — keep it up.

    Love and hugs,
    Peter Blaise

  • Catherine Couvert

    I like the humour and ‘humanity’ in your market photos and the protest one. The street ones do look like you were a bit terrified (which I would be if I was taking those).
    Sounds like a great course, although I can’t stop feeling that Bruce Gilden is more rude than brave. What do you think?

  • andnowwhat

    How come when I do this, Angelina Jolie takes out a court order against me?

  • Mary Anna


  • Keithbelfast

    Interesting read. Practice will make perfect in the long run.

  • The Raven

    Ignore the detractors and keep going. You’ll get there. You can’t be Cartier Bresson overnight – and neither can those who have given their overly negative “opinions”. Good luck!

  • weidm7

    I don’t want to be negative, but your publication of and failure to delete the bus inspector photo is a clear breach of ethics, it’s not like he was a corrupt policitian caught taking a bribe, he was just a guy who would’ve preferred if you deleted the picture of him, which you refused to do, seemingly just cause you didn’t feel like it.

  • JH

    Have to agree with thon fella above here. There are any number of reasons why a person might not want their image to be held by a stranger, especially when the destination is a public forum.

    State surveillance at the level that it happens here is already ethically unsound in my opinion. It certainly doesn’t excuse your actions here.

  • derrydave

    Interesting thread Mr Ulster. I disagree with those who say that you were wrong to include the photo of the bus inspector – his photo was probably the most important to include in order to create discussion and highlight much of the point of the thread i.e. that whilst in a public space we are free to photograph who and what we like, regardless of peoples objections. The ethics and morals of this can be discussed but it is clear that it is perfectly legal – how then do we deal with peoples right to privacy vs this freedom to record events in public ? I guess in todays world we simply don’t deal with this issue – privacy it seems in the modern world is very much a thing of the past (something hammered home to me personally and very recently thanks to the tabloid press).

    I know next to nothing about photography, however for what it’s worth I think the photo of the guy in the denim hat stands out above all the others. Excellent image.

  • The yokel

    Looks like an interesting course Alan. But it is one thing to challenge the paranoia of the security trade in London but another to stick your camera where it is not wanted i.e. in the face of an ordinary person. That American photographer is, to use their vocabulary, an asshole.
    Before you know it you will join the paparazzi and be killing members of the royal family.
    I have added a link to the master of street photography Cartier-Bresson. See how it’s done!
    His subjects appear to to at least give tacit approval to be photographed.
    He used Leica cameras. When Steve Jobs was launching the i-phone 4s he likened it to the Leica M3. Complete garbage of course, as the 4s is a piece of mass market ephemera and the M3 a masterpiece of precision engineering which will last several lifetimes

  • Thanks to everyone for their messages — this posting had a desired result of provoking some discussion. A good spectrum of views here.

    I’ll do my best to reply to them:

    @pauluk There’s no such thing as to what a picture is supposed to look like. I teach beginners the rule of thirds and fill the frame, all the time. But anyone can take a nice picture. Photography is about conveying a message. Especially with street photography, rules are to be broken.

    @PeterBlaise @Keithbelfast Thank you for understanding my journeyman perspective. Look forward to viewing your own street photographs (another purpose of this posting — to discover other Belfast street photographers).

    @CatherineCouvert @Theyokel Catherine you say I was terrified taking some of those street photographs — well the camera doesn’t lie! This is a valid point — street photography is mostly mental. Although street photographers do not like to be categorised, one suggested the following types: in-your-face, hipster, flasher, ambusher, stalker, invisible.

    On the course day, embolden by master flasher Bruce Gilden, I went for in-your-face. I’m finding myself now more comfortable as a hipster. All aspire to be as invisible as Henri Cartier-Bresson.

    Is Bruce Gilden more rude or brave — or asshole or genius? He proclaims respect for his subjects, fellow New Yorkers. And I think that’s true — he knows what characters and images say “New York”. Could there be a Bruce Gilden of Belfast, or anywhere else in the world? Dunno.

    @andnowwhat I’m impressed by Angelina’s court injunction against you 😉 Prompted me to investigate how this works in the world of paparazzi. Very interesting case involving Jackie Onassis.

    @weidm7 @JH Street photography and ethics. I understand your point. But one could argue that taking any photography of anyone in a public space, without their knowledge, is unethical. A lazy method is to use a long, telephone lens — a bit too creepy and stalker for me. Yet if you ask for every subject’s permission, you likely run the risk of not capturing a candid image. I took his photo because his stern expression; how are you going to capture that after a chat?

    So I didn’t comply with the bus inspector’s wishes. And I should have because he wasn’t a bad guy? Really? Only bad people should have their photo taken without their permission? He works for the public and was in a public space. I believe the public have a right to photograph any servant of the public in public spaces — including taking photos of the police.

    On the other hand, I would not take a photograph of a homeless person or a beggar in the same manner. For me, that’s exploiting an individual’s circumstance.

    Nor do I think I have the stomach to take a photo of a dead person. (The French actually have a law against this.)

    @derrydave Bless you. You got it in one. And thanks for highlighting the denim hat photo. You say you know next to nothing about photography, but that photo was also my course instructor’s favourite. Any photos to share? Suggestions?

  • between the bridges

    personally i would have thought it was just a case for old fashioned manners, regardless of your rights,you are not paparazzi and he was not a celebrity…