What can you photograph

25 July 2017

Region: Headquarters

Can you take a photograph of anything? I mean legally. It's not as simple as it may seem and, years ago, the news would regularly carry a story about enthusiasts being arrested somewhere abroad for taking photographs of aeroplanes. In my travels I have been warned not to take photographs of a prison in Jordan, bridges in Russia and the president's house in Tunisia. Thankfully some of those prohibitions are no longer with us but you still hear of photographers being hassled by security guards and even the police for doing what photographers do.

In the United Kingdom, and many other countries, the basic rule says that you can take a photograph of anything you can see from public land, or land where you have permission to be. When it comes to people, in general if the person has no 'expectation of privacy' (basically, if they are also in a public place) then you can take a photograph of them. It's polite to stop if they don't like it, but that's just good manners.

A few years ago the RPS and the Association of Chief Police Officers agreed to the wording on a small card that all Society members should have called 'Know the Facts'. This states as item one: Every person has a right to photograph in a public place. (The other items cover photographing the police - you can - and what rights you have.) 

On private property, you may need permission to take photographs. Just because you have free access, this doesn't necessarily mean that it's public land. Canary Wharf is not public land, neither are shopping malls or Trafalgar Square ... and special rules apply to Parliament Square.

The spread of what are called pseudo-public spaces, especially in cities such as London, is a cause for concern; partly because not only do the owners set the rules but they are also under no obligation to tell you what those rules are. Pure Kafka! An article in the Guardian discusses this at length.

For professional/commercial photography the situation is much more restrictive and in many cases a signed agreement (known as a property release or a model release) should be obtained. The requirement is most extreme if you want to use an image in advertising, partly because this implies an endorsement of a product. 

Filming, which usually involves several people, can be quite obtrusive and extensive liaison with the local police can be very useful, if not compulsory, when shooting on the street in a town or city.

In some other countries, the situation can be more restrictive than that in the UK. The so-called 'Right of Panorama', which means the right to photograph a building or structure from the street, may not exist, or may only apply to non-commercial photography. In France, for example, it only applies non-commercially. One notable 'worst case' is Italy, a situation that even confuses the lawyers (see this piece in the IP-Kat blog).

For the professional, Getty Images has a useful Wiki that outlines subjects that are problematic for the benefit of photographers making submissions. It makes for interesting reading, with more than the usual examples such as the Millau Viaduct, the Atomium and Le Corbusier (whose work is described as 'simply off-limits'). So while legally there are two categories of use - commercial and non-commercial/personal - in practice commercial is divided into editorial and advertising.

In practice, if your photography is for your own amusement or perhaps for display at your local camera club you should have no problems.

Incidentally, I thought it polite to ask Foster and Partners if I could use a photograph of the Millau Viaduct, which they designed, in this blog post, and they were happy to oblige.

Andy Finney is the Society's representative on the British Copyright Council

Comments (2)

Emily Mathisen
26 July 2017

Hi Eric,

I have checked this for you and I am told that there are no plans to do so at the moment and the current rights card remains valid.


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Eric Begbie
26 July 2017

It is now several years since the ACPO became defunct. Are their any plans for the RPS to issue a similar card jointly with the current organisation?

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