Photographers rights is one of the last things you learn as a photographer, long after the basics of composition and exposure. Yet a photographer's rights is one of the more fundamental elements of photography. If you can't use your knowledge of composition and exposure to take pictures of people in public, landmarks, animals, art work, or anything outside your home, then what good is having a camera?
As governments around the globe have tightened anti-terror laws, we've heard more queries about just what exactly a photographer's rights are when he or she is out with a camera. To help demystify the topic, we've produced what we hope is the ultimate guide to photographers rights.
Below you'll find necessary photography tips and all the up-to-date information you need to shoot confidently in public. We'll tell you how to take pictures of people in public, how to shoot artwork and animals, when to acknowledge copyright and trademarks, how to safely sell your photos and what your rights are when dealing with police vs security guards.
Photographers Rights: Public vs Private
Members of the public do not need a permit to shoot in public places and, apart from some notable exceptions, you can shoot private buildings or property as long as you're standing on public land.
'Public' property is rather a loose term, because all land in the UK is owned, even if it's accessible at all times. There are some 'prohibited places', which it is an offence to take photos of (such as factories, dockyards and mines owned by the Crown).
Some public places also have bylaws preventing commercial photography, such as in Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and some Royal Parks. But if you're not taking photos for commercial gain or causing an obstruction, you're unlikely to be restricted.
That's not to say you won't draw some attention. Stake out a street corner with an SLR, long lens and tripod, and you might be approached by over-zealous security guards, keen to see what you're up to. Be courteous and polite, but be aware of your rights.
It can be hard to discern if you're on public or private property, as a lot of private property isn't clearly marked. Unless you're absolutely sure that you're on the public highway, it pays to be cautious.
If you're on private land and the owner asks you to leave, failure to do so will be classed as trespass. They can use reasonable force to make you leave the land, but this doesn't include grabbing or smashing your kit.
Also note that it's a criminal offence to commit trespass on railway or military property, and some politicians' and Crown property in the UK.
Be careful when you're out and about in the country with your camera, too. Most fields, and all farmland, in the UK are privately owned. If shooting within the boundaries of a farmer's field without permission, you'll risk trespassing, unless you're on a designated and marked public footpath.
Shooting a field of flowers from the public road is fine, even though they're on private property (see our 25 flower photography tips for beginners).(opens in new tab)
Photography on Public Transport
You can take photographs at train stations for personal use. Any commercial photography requires prior permission from the train operator or Network Rail. Flash photography is banned, and you may be asked not to use a tripod, too.
Personal photography is fine, but you must not use a flash or a tripod on the platforms. If you want to spend longer than 15 minutes taking pictures, or you want to sell the pictures, you need to apply for a permit.
Airports are private property, so restrictions apply. Generally, only photos for personal use can be taken in the terminal lounges. Most civil airports have viewing areas outside the boundaries, from where you can shoot aircraft.(opens in new tab)
Photographers Rights: Taking Pictures of People in Public
Are you breaking any law when you're taking pictures of people in public? Probably not, but the position under UK law is uncertain.
There are currently no general privacy laws under UK law, but the UK courts must take into account the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives everyone the right to respect for their private and family life. As this is an area of law that has been developing rapidly over the last few years, it is hard to be certain what will constitute an infringement.
The key issue is whether the place the image is taken is one where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, it has been suggested that the right of privacy of a child could be infringed by publishing a photo of them with their parents in a public street.
It is therefore advisable to be careful when taking photos intended for publication, even where the subject matter is in a public place. Failure to obtain a model release for the use of an image will certainly make it harder to sell the picture to stock libraries.
The same laws apply to adult and child subjects, but a child does not have the legal capacity to consent and a parent or guardian must therefore do so on their behalf. Be aware that schools, leisure centres and places where children and adults gather usually have their own photography restrictions.
Although decent photos of children taken in a public place may be fine for non-commercial use, seek permission from the child's parents or guardians and don't shoot covertly with a long lens. For commercial images, you'll need to get a model release signed by the parents.
What is a model release?
A model release is simply confirmation of consent given to a photographer by the person in the photograph that the image may be used for various purposes - and it is not a requirement of the law. There are currently no standalone 'image rights' in the UK, but please note that they may exist in other countries.
Currently, there's no 'industry standard' model release form, and each agency or publisher will have his or her own requirements. If you know which agency you'd like to submit images to, visit their website, where you're likely to find a printable copy.(opens in new tab)
Photographers Rights: Police vs Security Guards
Police in the UK have no powers to stop you taking photos in a public place, but there are other laws you could be arrested and imprisoned for, such as the Official Secrets Act. An officer may wish to search you in connection with the 'stop', but they can only do this if they suspect you're carrying drugs, weapons, stolen property or items that could be used to commit a crime, an act of terrorism or cause criminal damage.
Searches carried out under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 have been banned for individuals, but an officer can still stop and search you if they have a 'reasonable suspicion' that you're a terrorist, under Section 43.
Unlike police officers, security guards have no powers to stop and search. They are members of the public, and as a result they can't obstruct you from taking pictures if you're standing on public land, nor can they ask you to delete any shots.
Anyone who demands you should, and uses threatening behaviour, could be committing assault.
Similarly, if they use force to take your camera or memory card then not only could they commit assault, but also the civil tort of trespass to goods and trespass to person. If they withhold your camera or memory card then it's theft and a criminal offence. In this situation, call the police.
You do need to make sure that you haven't accidentally strayed onto private land owned by their employers, though. Even if you simply lean over a wall or a fence to take a photograph, this can be classed as trespass.
Photographers Rights with Police
- Stop and search you if they reasonably suspect you to be a terrorist under Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
- View images on the camera you're carrying if you're being searched under Section 43.
- Seize and retain your camera if the police officer reasonably suspects that it may contain evidence that you are a terrorist.
- Question you if you appear to be taking photos of a member of the police force, armed forces or intelligence services.
- Arrest you for taking pictures of the police, armed forces or intelligence services under Section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000, if they have a reasonable suspicion that the 'information' is designed to provide assistance to a person committing or planning an act of terrorism.
- Stop and search you under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (which doesn't require any suspicion of an offence having been committed).
- Prevent you taking pictures on the public highway (although you could be charged with obstruction or a public order offence - breach of the peace, for example).
- Delete or ask you to delete digital images at any point during a search under Section 43 (although they can do this following seizure if there is a court order or similar that permits it).
- Arrest you for photographing police officers involved in the course of normal police duties and incidents (unless they have a reasonable suspicion that the pictures will be used for assisting terrorist activities).
Photographers Rights with Security Guards
Security guards can…
- Ask you to stop taking photographs if you're standing on private land without permission or a permit.
- Use 'reasonable force' to remove you from private property if necessary.
Security guards can't…
- Prevent you taking pictures of private property if you're standing on public land.
- Take your camera equipment.
- Look at your photographs.
- Delete, or force you to delete, any of your shots.