I don't generally follow the strategy that just sticks the camera in someone's face, but I think a street photographer nonetheless has to reconcile him/herself to the likelihood that someone is gonna get upset at some point. I was documenting protests in the Bay Area late last year and watched a young woman throw a bottle at an Oakland Tribune photographer. "I know my rights!" she bellowed. "Evidently not," I thought to myself, given that a public protest fits the very definition of an event in which photographers have (barring police declaration of an unlawful assembly, which happened a lot) carte blanche.
The law enforcement angle, as a poster mentioned above, is also a consideration. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/police-overreach-in-the-name-of-fighting-terrorism/2012/01/17/gIQADluG9P_story.html?tid=sm_twitter_washingtonpost
This article describes the situation.
At demonstrations and protests, I've generally found the police to be as accommodating as they're supposed to be-- though I've also been around some situations in which the crowd became unruly, and in which the police attitude (toward everyone, photographers and protesters alike) became abruptly impatient in a manner that, at best, asks for a liberal interpretation of legal process.
I've never had trouble with the sort of photography described in the linked article--i.e. photographing an industrial building at night. The police are told to suspect photos that lack obvious aesthetic value, so street photographers who go for abstract urban images (among other things) might get more officer attention than they want. Given how little Congressmen know about the Internet ("it's basically a series of tubes"), I'm not sure that all policeman, especially without training, will properly gauge the aesthetic efforts of an isolated photographer. There's also the matter of photographing the police on active duty, which can be a gray area for street photographers. Generally it's legal, though some states have wiretap laws that muddle the issue, especially if you record video that includes live sound.
In any case, to me, street photography etiquette depends on the ambiance and environment:
- If I'm just walking around somewhere in which there are few, if any, cameras, and in which my picture taking will be conspicuous, I am much more circumspect. I circle the scene, take shots distance with longer lenses, and am generally more likely to engage subjects if I want more intimate shots that single out individuals, frame as portraits, etc. This type of photography is perhaps one of the few in which gear can matter.
With a kit lens, you'll be pretty limited as a street photographer. Slow aperture means you'll lose most functionality at night, and the limited telephoto range means you'll need to be in fairly close proximity to your subject. My 85mm f1.8, though, allows me to take great shots from a decent distance (i.e. across the street) and to continue shooting after dark. My 50mm 1.4 is less useful if I want to maintain distance but it still allows me to work in the middle of the night. My Tokina 11-16 f2.8 is harder to use discretely, as you need to be close to the subject in most wide angle street applications-- but the short focal length means you can get away with low shutter speeds, which - when combined with the wide aperture - enables the lens to shoot well after the sun goes down. My Tamron 28-75 f2.8 and (especially) Canon 70-200 f4L are awesome for daytime street photography but too slow in most night uses. If I ever have the resources, I'd like the 135mm f2L, the 24mm f1.4L, and the 35mm f1.4L. Can you get great street shots without this gear? I have to hope so (and I do), since I don't have any of these lenses-- but given the nature of street photography, I think they'd really open up some flexibility for night shooting. Gear lust aside, a good, bright lens and/ or a telephoto lens open up some street flexibility that allows one to circumvent some of the awkwardness between photographer and candid subject.
- If I'm walking around in a touristy area (i.e. Union Square in San Francisco), there will be tons of cameras, so I generally shoot whatever I want. If you get in someone's face and single them out, you'll need to be prepared to engage them-- but if you shoot someone with some remove (i.e. isolating a person against a backdrop), then I think you'll be fine, as long as you don't look so uncomfortable as to draw attention and suspicion. A poster above mentioned emphasizing action over faces. I don't follow this rule, per se-- but I also don't try to shoot people like they're in a portrait, with their attention directed toward me. Consequently, I end up emphasizing dynamics in which the subject's attention is elsewhere. I might still photograph a face-- but it's a face that's not remotely concerned with me. Generally, none of these people notice that they're being photographer-- but if they do, I've just learned to shrug it off and go somewhere else. If you pay attention, you'll normally see another photographer committing the same "offense" within minutes, meaning that your action doesn't really stand out in a meaningful way.
- Public events are incredibly liberating. In San Francisco, for example, you have not only the aforementioned political protests but also Critical Mass biking events, the Fulsome Street Fair, Halloween in the Castro, and a million other public spectacles. At these events, there will be so many cameras and so many people clearly vying for attention that you can basically feel free to shoot as you see fit. At it's best, this can be one of the environments in which the camera becomes an extension of my intentionality, in which I react and adapt with the camera as much as with my physical senses.
Ultimately, though, I look at it like this: One's ability to take pictures in public is a protected right because creative and artistic expression are important liberties. If you're taking a picture that you feel fulfills that kind of expression, then own it. Not everyone values expression the same way (a reality basically codified in the courts by Potter Stewart), but if the moment fits your convictions, exercise your right to express. If you have some suspicion, though, that your action might be more exploitative or invasive than artistic, then trust your gut and back off. I suggest going to some public events in which photography is welcomed, as it will help you to grow a bit bolder about your photographs as worthwhile acts of expression-- but ultimately everyone has to find the middle ground individually.