DO respect the signage. If a sign says, “No Photography,” then put your camera away. If a sign says, “No Flash Photography,” then turn off the flash! It's pretty straightforward, and those signs are there for a reason. If you want a photo of that Monet, go to the museum store for a print. It will cost a few bucks, but it will look better than any picture you could stealthily take in the gallery.
DO turn off the flash when appropriate. Most compact digital cameras’ flashes don’t reach farther than about 15 feet, so using the flash on a shot of a celebrity who is a football field away isn’t going to be effective anyway. Besides often being ineffective, the flash can be very intrusive: a gymnast performing on the balance beam does not want to be blinded by a flash bulb. It only takes one or two pushes of a button to change the auto flash to the off mode.
DO turn off the audio. Nothing is worse than the high-pitched beeping and fake shutter sounds that interrupt ballet recitals and weddings. You can get away with the audio in noisy places, but in places where you silence your mobile phone, you should also silence your camera.
DON’T photograph strangers without permission. While it may be legally sound to photograph people in public places, it is polite and respectful to ask first. If you’re a tourist taking photos of people, be sensitive to their culture. While vacationing in Ecuador, I took a group shot of smiling street kids. Only after the shutter flew did they hound me for money; apparently pictures of cute kids come at a price in some places.
Other cultural groups have different ideas about photography. The Amish don’t want any photos taken because they believe it is a “graven image” forbidden by their religion. I found this out after trying to spontaneously photograph a father and his kids in their horse and buggy. As soon as they saw the camera, the father pulled his hat down over his face and the kids ducked. Now I know to always ask first.
DON’T shadow the pros. You may think you’re doing your niece a favor by shadowing her wedding photographer to grab the same shots for her for free, but let the pro do the work. The pro was hired and you weren’t, so give the photographer space to work. If you really want to do your niece a favor, get some pictures that the pro can’t get. One of my favorite pictures from my wedding day was taken by my older sister; it showed me and my little sister heading out the door for an early morning run with big smiles on our faces, ready for the big day ahead.
DO put the camera away sometimes. Do you ever find yourself taking so many pictures that you miss the experience itself? Sometimes it’s okay to put the camera down and live in the moment. When my first child was born, it was by a dramatic emergency C-section. I laid on the operating room table during the procedure watching my husband, camera dangling from his neck. He watched as my abdomen was sliced open with a scalpel, my intestines were piled onto the table next to me, and our three-pound son was pulled out of me the way a gardener pulls weeds out of the ground.
A few minutes later, once our son was cleaned up and fitted with an appropriately sized hospital beanie, his fingers finally found the shutter button. I asked him later why he hadn’t taken any pictures of the surgery; how many chances do you get to photograph your organs?! He said he was too emotionally involved and the procedure itself was too intense (and he is training to become a doctor himself). Perhaps he didn’t want to elbow the surgeon while getting a picture, but I’d like to think he was also too worried about me to worry about photography. And that’s fine by me.