How to Shoot Incredible Photos in Public Places (Without Getting Arrested): 6 Tips from Jordan Matter

"At first I was using a 200mm lens for the dancers among us idea, but something was missing," Jordan Matter says. "A photographer friend looked at the early photos and said, 'Where's the "among us"? You gotta use a wide lens.' So, with only my 28mm, Jeffrey and I went into the subway—it was, Get it with the 28 or not at all. When I got this shot I realized, this is the project! This is what I'm trying to do. Now I get it!" All photos © Jordan Matter

It would be easy to categorize Jordan Matter as a dance photographer—he has published three books of his dance images—or as a portrait photographer—it was what he did before turning to dance, and he still includes it in his repertoire.

But it's where and how he photographed dance that makes Matter noteworthy and noticed: he took dancers to the streets—and shops, parks, playgrounds, outdoor cafes and lots of other places—and photographed them performing their art in the midst of moments of everyday life. The project became a book, Dancers Among Us, which was followed by Dancers After Dark—a riskier project in which he photographed nude dancers. In his most recent book, Born to Dance, kids are his subjects.

Along the way he created the 10 Minute Photo Challenge: make as many awesome shots as possible in (mostly) unlikely locations in ten minutes—or until some authority figure decides you're having too much fun.

Matter obviously believes it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and a guiding principle—second only to not hurting anyone or anyone's feelings—is what he calls the risk-reward assessment.

The folks on the bench had no idea what was happening. "It was quick—she sat, jumped, got the pose and landed," Matter says.

"The way I like to work with all these things," he says, "is to pretend we have permission to do anything we want, and assuming that permission, what's the best photo we can possibly make? Of course, we don't have permission, so the next thing is, is that shot—that best possible photo—worth taking the risk? If we say, 'Yeah, it is,' then we go for it."

Jordan Matter’s six tips for a successful "go for it" photo shoot in a public place are these:

#1 Stop and Think: Are you hurting anybody? Are you hurting anybody's feelings? If yes, whatever you were planning—it's off.

#2 Scope Out the Location: Walk around—without your camera in sight—to get a sense of what you want to do and where you want to do it.

Clean-up in aisle three: One of the most popular of the challenge videos, this adventure resulted in the police being called. Watch it all happen here.

#3 Go Right to the Spot and Shoot: That's the first photo—now comes the improvisation. Think fast, move fast, shoot fast.

#4 Know Your Gear: There's no time for test shots or fumbling with settings. Make sure you’re confident and extremely comfortable with your gear. (Matter's lately been shooting with a Nikon Z7 mirrorless camera—"huge difference because you can't hear the shutter's rapid clicking, and I see the exposure before I take the shot.")

A 10 Minute Photo Challenge picture. "These phone booths do exist in New York City," Matter says. "No idea how many are functional."

#5 Know Your Team: The people you work with have to be as nervy as you are, and willing to take the risks. Talk with them, make sure they get it and are all in. If you need to persuade, you're doing it wrong.

#6 Prepare for the Worst: When the authorities come—and you must assume they will—plead ignorance along the lines of "I'm sorry, I'm an artist, I thought it was free expression." Shoot first, apologize sincerely and profusely later.

Drawing a crowd in Washington Square Park. "There was someone there with birdseed, and we kept putting some in her hands. These are New York City birds—they're used to people."

All the above works for Matter. "I've yet to get anything other than a figurative slap on the wrist," he says. "I've never been arrested, jailed or fined."           

But he's Jordan Matter—an artist with three books to his credit, a You Tube channel with close to two million subscribers and photos featured on network TV, in prestige publications and worldwide exhibits. He is also a fast-talking New Yorker with brash confidence and years of experience.

Taken in Melbourne, Australia, this photo appears in Born to Dance, Jordan Matter's most recent book. "Not risky," he says, "just responding with imagination to what's in front of you: they all showed up wearing the same shoes. I said, 'That's interesting, I wonder how we can feature it.' "

And he's rooted in reality. "When I talk to kids in schools, I don't skirt the fact that what I'm doing is breaking rules. I say that I'm ready to take the consequences of those actions—that's my decision. Then I say that as kids, that can't be their decision, their parents have to be involved. You might think that's a bad message for kids, but what I often get in e-mail and messages and at book signings is parents saying that my YouTube channel is one of the few they watch with their kids. What they're watching is often me breaking the law, but I'm an adult, and when the police come I'm very nice, we all shake hands and it's over and done."

"This was in London, and no one came along, and we got away with it— there's a video on my YouTube channel. I do not suggest anyone even think of doing this. We got chased away three times before this: trying to get into a department store they saw my cameras; then for shooting on a merry-go-round; then for climbing on the cables of a bridge."

Still, as responsible journalists we're not recommending you break the law. What we are recommending is that you share in the fun and exhilaration of Jordan Matter's YouTube channel, and his website,