The intricacies of the UK law on photographing people in public

Nowadays the question I am asked the most is the one to do with the rights of street photographers to capture images of people in public places.

My friends and relatives, both foreign and domestic visitors to London, photography professionals and enthusiasts are all united in their desire to clarify whether the photos we street shooters take are legit and immune from the potential legal challenges from the strangers we photograph.

The complexity of the UK law and variations of certain laws regarding personal privacy in Scotland are only adding to the confusion. For the purposes of clarification and simplicity I would limit my response to this never ending dilemma to a brief summary of what is allowed and what is not and what is frowned upon in the areas of Central London only.

From the outset, the law is clear and transparent here. You are free to photograph people and places for both personal and commercial* use if you are on the public right of way and as long as you are not causing obstruction to other public space users. The right of way means any public roads, pavements, paths and most other public places. There are a few exceptions within Greater London though where the professional photography is not permitted. These public places include Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and all Royal Parks. You would have to apply for a permit in advance and pay appropriate fees if you are thinking of organising a professional photoshoot in any of these locations. However, it should not deter us street togs from taking snaps of people in these places on any given day as most of what we do is not considered to be a professional photography and any image taken could be assigned for use as editorial** work.

Similar rules apply to any private land where you might be asked to stop taking photos or will be advised to apply for a photography permit. The not so obvious examples of privately owned land cover considerable chunks of real estate in Canary Wharf, City of London as well as More London area on the south side of the Tower Bridge.

The Official Secrets Act prevents you from photographing certain military and government sites, compounds and installations. There are also certain sensitive areas around Central London where you might be asked by the police or security personnel to explain the reasons for your photography. Be also aware that you may come under the police scrutiny if you are taking detailed pictures of building entrances and the security arrangements around certain sites.

When it comes to nuances of candid street photography there are plenty of other considerations that had to be taken into account. And, in my humble opinion, these considerations could even be of more importance to anyone venturing out on the streets of London with intention of capturing the unposed photos of other members of the public. The obvious considerations of ethics and common sense should always prevail. Your moral compass, providing you have one, should deter you from taking pictures, or at least using the images, of people who look to be vulnerable (homeless, drunks, disabled, etc). The best way to determine whether the person is deemed to be too sensitive to photograph is to ask yourself a question: would you like yourself or your loved ones (family and friends) to be portrayed in this way?

Regardless of legality of your street shooting always try to apply a common sense approach when it comes to taking pictures of people in public:

- be considerate to other users of public space and do not obstruct the roads and pavements,

- keep in mind that photographing high-profile buildings and infrastructure can attract attention from the officials and be prepared to answer questions of what and why you are taking pictures of,

- above all, be polite and reasonable if approached by another member of the public or government official; a warm smile goes a long way here and your willingness to defuse the potentially difficult situation can in most cases help you to resolve the issue on the spot,

- remember that neither police officers or security guards have the right to confiscate your photo equipment and delete any of your images without the UK court order.

We live in the world where privacy and personal freedoms are being treated and interpreted differently according to where you are. In some countries the authorities will have a dim view of you using your camera in public, especially when it comes to taking images where facial features are visible and recognisable. Have the humankind always had such a draconian approach to street photography, we would not have seen and known the iconic images that were produced by the previous generations of reportage photographers. Luckily for us street shooters here in London there still exists a rather broad scope of where and how we can take candid shots and what we can do with these images afterwards.

* Commercial use is when an image is used to promote something, sell a product or raise money for a cause. This includes marketing, advertising, packaging and consumer or merchandising products.

** Editorial use is when an image is used to illustrate a news article, critique or educational text.