The Ten Legal Commandments of Photography
I. Anyone in a public place can take pictures of anything they want. Public places include parks, sidewalks, shopping centres, etc. Shopping centres ? Yeah. Even though it’s technically private property, being open to the public makes it public space.
II. If you are on public property, you can take pictures of private property. If a building, for example, is visible from the sidewalk, it’s fair game.
III. If you are on private property and are asked not to take pictures, you are obligated to honour that request. This includes posted signs.
IV. Sensitive government buildings (military bases, nuclear facilities) can prohibit photography if it is deemed a threat to national security.
V. People can be photographed if they are in public (without their consent) unless they have secluded themselves and can expect a reasonable degree of privacy. Kids swimming in a fountain? Okay. Somebody entering their PIN at the ATM? Not okay.
VI. The following can almost always be photographed from public places, despite popular opinion:
- accident & fire scenes, criminal activities
- bridges & other infrastructure, transportation facilities (i.e. airports)
- industrial facilities, Superfund sites
- public utilities, residential & commercial buildings
- children, celebrities, law enforcement officers
- UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Chuck Norris
VII. Although “security” is often given as the reason somebody doesn’t want you to take photos, it’s rarely valid. Taking a photo of a publicly visible subject does not constitute terrorism, nor does it infringe on a company’s trade secrets.
VIII. If you are challenged, you do not have to explain why you are taking pictures, nor to you have to disclose your identity (except in some cases when questioned by a law enforcement officer.)
IX. Private parties have very limited rights to detain you against your will, and can be subject to legal action if they harass you.
X. If someone tries to confiscate your camera and/or film, you don’t have to give it to them. If they take it by force or threaten you, they can be liable for things like theft and coercion. Even law enforcement officers need a court order.
What To Do If You’re Confronted
- Be respectful and polite. Use good judgement and don’t escalate the situation.
- If the person becomes combative or difficult, think about calling the police.
- Threats, detention, and taking your camera are all grounds for legal or civil actions on your part. Be sure to get the person’s name, employer, and what legal grounds they claim for their actions.
- If you don’t want to involve the authorities, go above the person’s head to their supervisor or their company’s public relations department.
- Call your local TV and radio stations and see if they want to do a story about your civil liberties.
- Put the story on the web yourself if need be.
Some of the greatest photographs ever taken fall into the ‘street shooter’ category’.
Legendary photographers like Cartier Bresson and Andre Kertesz created their striking shots by walking the streets and looking for ‘decisive moments,’ interesting juxtapositions or just being in the right place at the right time.
So it’s vital for the art of photography that photographers should be able to go about their business without hassle from the cops – and by law that’s exactly what they’re entitled to do.
If you’re on a public right of way – such as a public pavement, footpath or public highway – you’re free to take photographs for personal and commercial use so long as you’re not causing an obstruction to other users or falling foul of anti-Terrorism laws or even the Official Secrets Act (frankly, this one is unlikely).
DPP -v- Jones (1999): The Court recognised that the public may enjoy a public highway for any reasonable purpose, provided it does not amount to public or private nuisance or obstruct the highway “by unreasonably impeding the primary right of the public to pass and re-pass: within these qualifications there is a public right of peaceful assembly on the highway.”
There’s nothing stopping you taking pictures of people in public places within reason, but if you start shoving your zoom lens up their nostrils or taking action shots of their every step, there’s a chance you might get a clip around the ear from your aggrieved subject or possibly face a legal charge of harassment or breach of the peace.
Harassment is defined as a ‘course of conduct’ (so it has to happen at least twice) that causes another person ‘alarm or distress’, but we have to say that the bullying and aggressive antics of the paparazzi would suggest that prosecutions are few and far between.
Photographers are free to use their photographs of people taken in public places as they wish – including for commercial gain.
Note: Professional photography is banned in London’s Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square as well as the Royal Parks.
If you start breaking out the tripods, glampussy models, make up crew, Winnebagos and huge lights and reflectors, expect a parkie to turn up on the scene pronto demanding a hefty fee. However, be a little more low key with your shooting and you should have no problems.
People and Privacy
UK laws are fairly vague when it comes to defining what constitutes an invasion of privacy, but while street shots should cause no problem, you might get in hot water if you’re strapping on colossal telephoto lens and zooming in on folks stripping off in their bathrooms – even if you are snapping from a public place.
The key seems to be whether the subject would have a reasonable expectation of privacy – a statement that seems vague enough to keep a team of lawyers gainfully employed for some time.
With some countries having stronger privacy laws, UK snappers looking to commercially exploit images of recognisable people snapped without their consent may find international clients unenthusiastic unless a model release has been obtained.
There’s also a remote chance that photographs of people in public places may be subject to the Data Protection Act, but that’s pretty unlikely if there’s no other identifying information accompanying the image.
There are no laws against taking photos of children, but someone taking an unhealthy interest can rightly expect to attract unwelcome attention from the authorities (and quite probably passers by) pretty sharpish.
Be also mindful that if you’re taking pictures in areas where dodgy folks, drug dealers and ne’er do wells may be in view, they’re unlikely to be pleased with the attention and probably won’t be bothered about the niceties of the law in their response.
If someone asks you to stop take pictures of them, it’s generally a good idea to do so.
Be respectful and considerate with how you decide to take your images. If it is a sensitive location, ask before you start to shoot your images. You might be surprised and still get that go ahead and some great images!