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.
“There is no legal restriction on photography in public places, and there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place.
It is for the Chief Constable to ensure that Officers and Police Community Support Officers are acting appropriately with regards to photography in public places, and any queries regarding this should be addressed to the Chief Constable.
However decisions may be made locally to restrict photography, for example to protect children. Any questions on such local decisions should also be addressed to the force concerned.”
Property owners have no right to stop people taking photos of their buildings, so long as the photographer is standing in a public place (e.g. the road outside).
It is also not an infringement of copyright to “take photographs of buildings, sculptures and works of artistic craftsmanship that are permanently situated in a public place or in premises that are open to the public”.
Section 62 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 expressly permits certain copying in relation to buildings, and also to sculptures and works of artistic craftsmanship that are permanently situated in a public place or in premises open to the public, although the Advertising Standards Authority has upheld complaints when photographs of private residences have been used in advertising without the owner’s permission.
Certain uses of a photograph of a building could amount to passing off, or may infringe a trademark, but as yet there has been no such cases in the UK.
Gerroff my land
However, if you’re standing on private property and the landowner/occupier objects, then they have every right to request that you stop immediately and ask you to leave if you refuse.
Many museums, art galleries, football grounds, concert venues and similar places ban photography as a condition of entry, so you can hardly complain if you get turfed out after you’ve whipped out your camera.
The same applies to all private property open to the public in general – e.g. offices, shops, even your local chippy – with the owner or occupier having the right to demand that you stop taking photos and get the hell out.
Most shopping centres and malls stand on private land with many gaining a notorious reputation for speedily dispatching stroppy security guards demanding that you stop taking photos.
The irony that they’re already busy filming you from every angle via a flotilla of CCTV cameras is generally lost on them.
However, it’s worth checking with individual companies before snapping and always use your common sense – if you’re getting in everyone’s way or creating a safety risk, expect to be turfed off sharpish.
Network Rail’s official line is that enthusiasts are very welcome and can be beneficial to security by providing extra ‘eyes and ears.’ All they ask is that people notify station staff and don’t do anything silly like hanging over platform edges as trains are approaching, which isn’t unreasonable.
Taking photographs on stations is permitted providing it is for personal use. For any commercial photography, prior permission must be sought from the appropriate train operator or, from Network Rail at their 17 major stations. On busy stations the use of a tripod may cause a dangerous obstruction to passengers and you may be asked not to use one.
In addition, tripod legs must also be kept away from platform edges and behind the yellow lines. Flash photography on platforms is not allowed as it may distract the attention of train drivers and train despatch staff and is therefore a potential safety hazard. You are also not allowed to take photographs of security related equipment such as CCTV cameras.
Virgin Trains have adopted a similarly sensible policy, with in November 2009 advertising their policy:
Virgin trains welcomes rail enthusiasts and passengers who wish to take still or video images at our stations.
We ask that you do not interfere with the flow of passengers and respect the wishes of both passengers and staff not to be photographed. If you are filming for extended periods and/or using bulky equipment you should make yourself known to our station staff so that the reasons for filming are clear.
Flash photography is not permitted at any time and the use of tripods should be avoided whenever possible. If you wish to use a tripod you should locate and speak with the Station Team Leader to ensure that you are in a safe area.
Seeing as we’ve heard so many instances of people being hassled over this, here’s the low down: non-commercial photography on tube stations is most certainly allowed – and if any busybody tries to tell you different, politely tell them to bury their head in part 10 of rule Sa109 in the Working Reference Manual:
10.1 Passengers can take photographs with small cameras for private purposes, provided flashlights and/or tripods are not used no obstruction or inconvenience is caused to staff and/or passengers.
Under UK law, it’s a criminal offence to obstruct the free passage on the highway and this includes footways, bike paths and roads.
If you’re standing on a thoroughfare to grab a photograph and you’re not impeding the movement of traffic or people to any degree, then you’re absolutely within the law. Sadly, some protest photographers will be familiar with the Old Bill tactic of claiming that they’re causing an obstruction in often the most frivolous of circumstances.
It may be a pain, but it’s usually best to move yo’ ass when asked as it’s not uncommon for innocent photographers to be arrested for obstruction at demos – or even get their collars felt for supposedly obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty.
Taking photographs is unlikely to amount to a ‘breach of the peace’ or be seen as ‘conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace’, but if you’re stuck in the thick of a heated demo or street riot, you’ll have to be careful that the police don’t confuse you with the participants and treat you accordingly.
If you’ve a photojournalist card, wear it on a lanyard so you can easily show it to the police if challenged, but if you’re a freelancer you might find it harder to convince the cops that you’re not one of the rampaging hordes.
The best advice is to keep your eyes open and to speedily back off when the police start to charge your way.
Note that there is no law preventing you taking photographs of the police at demos, unless there are any overriding security/law enforcement concerns.
Breach of the Peace
Another legal catch-all sometimes employed by the police against photographers refusing to leave a scene when doing their job is, “conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.”
We can’t think of any successful prosecutions of press photographers under this law, but it has certainly been used on occasion.
Some legal precedents:
In R v Howell  3 All ER 383, Watkins LJ said “… we cannot accept that there can be breach of the peace unless here has been an act done or threatened to be done which actually harms a person or in his presence his property or is likely to cause such harm or which puts someone in fear of such harm being done.” while in DPP v Percy  3 All ER 124, the court clarified that conduct could be breach of the peace if there was a real risk that it would elicit violence from a third party.
This could apply to a photographer hassling people in such a manner that he/she might elicit a violent response from those around them, although we’d suggest that this kind of offence would be extremely rare. Our advice would be to retire at a rate of knots when threatened with an arrest under breach of the peace.
If you start stomping over private property taking photos without permission, you’re committing a trespass, and the same applies to anyone who “interferes” with the property.
The “interference” law is a bit of a daft one and can be used for something as trivial as scrambling up a bit of wall to take a photo over the top or even resting your camera on a fence.
If you’ve been given access to property on the condition that your camera stays firmly in your bag, the second you start snapping you’re no longer entitled to be on the land and are thus guilty of trespass (Scottish law differs in this regard).
Landowners, occupiers, security guards and bouncers etc. are allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ to prevent a trespasser entering their property and they can also use reasonable force to eject a trespasser who is refusing to leave their land, but the law is very strict about what constitutes reasonable force.
This means that almost any violent attack would be unreasonable under the law, as would threatening someone with a knife, club, Ninja sword, Nunchaku, AK47, thermo-nuclear device or any other weapon.
Note: Property owners or their employees and security staff have no right whatsoever to confiscate or damage a photographer’s camera or insist that images are deleted.
We’ve given this a separate page because it’s a very important issue – your photos are your work, and you’re entitled to protect them.
We deal with some of the related issues in more depth in our Photographing protests in the UK page, but here’s the basic outlines of the law:
Security guards do not have stop and search powers or the right to seize your equipment or delete images or confiscate film under any circumstances.
In some circumstances, the police may grab your film or memory cards but they are still not authorised to delete any images.
After all, if you’ve committed an offence the images would act as evidence, and if you haven’t broken the law, the images are innocent.
RECOVERING DELETED IMAGES
If you are forced to delete your photos, take the card out of the camera immediately. Whatever you do, do not take any new pictures as these will reduce your chances of recovering the deleted images. If you want to keep on snapping, use a fresh card.
When you get home, you can use a file recovery program to get your images back. These often have a high success rate.
If you are arrested, keep calm and do not panic. Remember that you have the right to be treated fairly and with respect by the police.
When you are arrested you do not have to say anything to the police. BUT if you are later charged with a crime and you have not mentioned, when questioned, something that you later rely on in court, then this may be taken into account when deciding if you are guilty.
We suggest you respond with:
I have been advised that I should answer no questions.
It is not right that I should have to give a complete case for my self until charges have been made and properly explained and until there are other people around to check that questions put to me are fair and legal.
I will say nothing until I am advised to do so by a fully qualified legal advisor.
There may be good reasons why you do not wish to say anything to the police, and you should not be intimidated into answering questions. Get a solicitor down to see you in the police station as soon as possible.
Remember that it is wise not to discuss the case with the police until you have consulted privately with a solicitor. If the police are about to arrest you or have already arrested you, there is no such thing as a ‘friendly chat’ to sort things out. Anything you say can later be used against you. Think before you talk.
Always get proper legal representation if you get into bother with the law.