Japan is, as you’re very well aware, a beautifully picturesque place. Take out your camera or phone and easily snap away at the gorgeous mountains, rustic shrines and temples, abundant nature and modernized architecture. It’s ridiculous how photogenic this place is. You can get some fantastic shots by simply pointing and clicking in most cases! But what if you want to photograph the people? That’s a different story.

A guide to shooting people in Japan
Two elderly women look up and pose as I tried to photograph them planting rice in the fields.

Have you ever passed by someone on the street who you couldn’t resist sneakily snapping a picture of? Maybe it was that silhouetted old man walking away from the light, straight at you, or those amusingly joyful children playing tag while their parents watch over, or that model-like stranger sitting on the bench looking at their phone with the perfect backdrop. You try to pull out your camera or phone and…


They look right up at you as you’ve got your unwelcomed gadget pointed directly in their face. Dammit… there’s absolutely nothing you could be pretending to shoot at other than them and they’re totally aware of it.

Quick anecdote:

I got called out while trying to photograph an old man in the street. Not a good feeling. He was walking amongst the tree-lined sidewalk of the former French Concession of Shanghai. The golden rays of the evening sun were perfectly dispersed on his wrinkled face and there was no one else behind him. Perfect photo opp. The only problem was, he was walking toward me. With a careless snap of the wrist, I pulled out my camera from its holster, aimed and shot. Just so it wouldn’t be super obvious that I was shooting him, I stayed in my position, pointing only slightly more left of him and snapped a couple more of the trees. He saw through my poor disguise and shouted,

“Hey! Did you take a picture of me!? No photos! Show me!”

A guide to shooting people in Japan
A fly fisherman in unique attire pauses to look for the prime location to cast his line.

I was caught out and there was nothing I could do. Kicking his cane and running away only briefly popped up into my mind as I reluctantly complied to his request. I showed him the first picture.

“See? I’m shooting the trees.”

“No, show me the other pictures.”

Thankfully, I shot a few pictures after his impromptu shoot, so I slowly scrolled through before it came up to the angry old man and smiled,

“See? Just the trees.”

He waddled off with a scowl on his face as I breathed a sigh of relief.

A guide to shooting people in Japan
A young girl gleefully smiles as her father pulls her in a sled in Aso-Kuju National Park.

How to Shoot the Unsuspecting Subject

The first thing to remember is: you’re intruding on their privacy. How would you feel if, after an irritatingly bad day, some jerk started snapping pictures of your moody face? So here are a couple of tips I’ve learned along the way by trial and error. I’ll list them in order of politeness, with the rudest listed last.

A guide to shooting people in Japan
An senior citizen stops to smile as I gracefully whip out my camera in front of her and shoot.
  1. Ask to take their photo – This goes a long way. You show respect to them and they usually say yes. Only a handful of people said no to me. Politely walk away and move on to the next subject
  2. Snap a sneaky picture and if they call you out, smile and show them the photo. Tell them a nice compliment about why you took it. “I love your cool fashion!” “I really liked the lighting on you two!” I’ve never had someone say to delete it. People love compliments.
  3. Whip out your device and if they catch you, tell them it’s for a project (not a lie because it is YOUR project) and ask if it’s ok. Show them the photo.
  4. Do like I did in the above story and pretend you’re not shooting them. Let them pass you and continue shooting or pretending to shoot as they walk past.

In my experience, most locals don’t mind having their pictures taken. If you’re polite, kind and smiling, you’ll most likely win them over and can keep the photos. Just keep in mind that if they do catch you, they’ll most likely pose with a cheesy, cute smile with the peace/v sign. Happy shooting!