As a photographer, I take photographing in someone else’s private business—whether that’s a café, taco stand, or boutique—very seriously.
I recently attended an event where a photographer-turned-life-coach shared, laughing, “I used to be a photographer. I know what it’s like. ‘I’m okay to shoot in here, right?’ Ask forgiveness, not permission!”
I won’t say I’ve never made that mistake; but truthfully, I know better. There are rules when it comes to accepting money from a client and then shooting photos in a space that someone else owns—even if it feels public, the way a coffee shop and some other popular “brand shoot” locations often do.
If you’re not paying to rent a venue for your photos—this goes for both photographers and those paying for photographers—then you’re using someone else’s resources to get a job done, and that’s not something to be flippant about.
Here are a few rules-of-thumb to follow if you want your community and local businesses to think of you as a courteous professional, and to be happy to have you back in their space again soon!
1 - Call the owner to get permission
I recently shot at Little Wolf Coffee in Ipswitch, MA, for one of my clients. We found the cute coffee spot on Instagram and saw that it was a little funky, off the beaten path, and had great natural light.
I called ahead twice to be sure we had permission to shoot in that space. Like many coffee shop owners, the lovely lady I spoke with was more than happy to have us in her shop—and even though that’s often the case, I’m always glad when I call ahead, because you just never know.
Some places will want to ask if the photographer has insurance. Others will want you to reserve a table, or come in at a time when business is slow. But you’d have no way of knowing if you don’t call ahead.
It’s far easier when you’re on location to feel at ease, knowing you have permission to be there, than try to pretend you “didn’t know” or like you’re just out shooting photos with a friend. When it comes to shooting on location with my clients, I call ahead first to make sure we have the go-ahead! It takes the pressure off my client, and we both feel more comfortable at the shoot—which ultimately leads to better photos!
2 - Buy something when you get there
When I was very young and my family traveled a lot, my parents taught me that whenever you stop at a gas station just to use the restroom, you buy something, anything—bottle of water, pack of gum—to show courtesy to the business.
This same principle does double, or even triple, when you’re shooting in someone else’s establishment. Don’t just use someone else’s carefully curated boutique, or coffee shop on premium real estate with great natural light, and not buy something, anything—cup of coffee, a cute enamel pin—to show courtesy to the business.
By choosing to shoot in a spot you deem hip, beautiful, or on-brand for you, you might be saving hundreds on renting a photo studio for the day; but it’s a space that the proprietor is spending thousands of dollars a month to keep open. You can cough up a few bucks as a “thank you” to the person who created that space and let you into it!
Not to mention, whatever you buy can become a prop in your shoot and give you something to talk about on social media (see point #4!).
3 - Be conscientious of others
There’s nothing more awkward than knowing that a customer in someone else’s business moves or leaves because you’re there.
I try to train my clients ahead of time that shooting in someone else’s business is a privilege and not a right, though ultimately I don’t have control over how they act once we’re inside. That said, I do have control over my own actions, and for me that means making sure no one around us feels uncomfortable:
If it looks like someone is afraid they’re in the shot, I tell them not to worry—my lens sees past them.
If they seem to be hovering, wanting to be where we are, I tell them to go ahead, and I move my client and me to another area.
I only shoot a half-dozen or so shots in any given space so that we keep moving and don’t make anyone feel like they can’t walk by us or access something we may inadvertently be blocking.
In the above image, my client and I were shooting at the Union Coffee Roaster in Ayer, MA, and although we timed it for a “slower” time of day, the coffee shop was still pretty much full. I did my best to remain inconspicuous as I shot across adjacent tables to get the best angles, and even joked with a patron at one point so he wouldn’t feel like he needed to move.
When I can behave professionally, even if my client doesn’t (although this one certainly behaved just fine!), the business can tell that I’m the sort of photographer they’d welcome into their space again.
4 - Put it back where you found it
In my last post, I shared that photo shoots get messy. This is true no matter where you shoot—clutter has to be moved out of the shot, neat-looking items are used as props… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve swapped a chair out or moved in a photogenic plant when I’ve shot in someone else’s business!
The key here is that I always take the time to put everything back where I found it. It’s someone’s job at the end of the day in both restaurants and retail spaces to move everything back to its home—there’s no excuse for making that person’s job harder!
I know it can be hard to take the time to do this when you’re getting paid by the hour (or you’re paying for the hour), but this part of the process in getting photos and maintaining a professional reputation in your community. Take the time to put things back!
5 - Tag the venue when you post on social
When you get your photos in hand (or when you post them to your social channels as a photographer), the final courtesy you can extend to the business space you borrowed is to tag them on social media.
Everyone wins when you do this—the business leaves the transaction with a good taste in their mouths; the photographer, the client, and the business expand their reach in the social algorithm; and if you as client or photographer want to return to that space in the future, you’re much more likely to be welcomed back.
This step takes less than 30 seconds and it can have great impact. If you don’t have the time or the petty cash to spend on sending a physical thank-you card, this is the next-best thing—and for some, it’s the best thing! Don’t skip this step. You won’t regret following through!
Was this blog post helpful? If it was, pin it so you never lose it! Then leave me a (positive) comment below about why the topic of etiquette is important to you—whether you’ve worked with me before or you’re a photographer yourself! I can’t wait to read your feedback.
Hello! My name is Alexis.
Coffee lover, day dreamer, foodie, and creative. Currently working and living in New Hampshire, I’m an eclectic mix of forward-looking and completely old-fashioned.