Common Sense; the law and the photograph

Imagine the scene, you are standing on the pavement and there is an architecturally interesting building in front of you. You take out you camera and start shooting. Maybe you start with wide angle shots zooming in for tighter framing of details. You are in your own little world capturing beautiful images excited about taking them home and editing them with the different possibilities. A voice breaks your concentration.

“Excuse me, can you stop taking pictures.”

It is a security guard, or a police officer or a city security officer.

You may have been in this situation before or may be not, but having a guide in you head of your legal rights and what you can legally take pictures of is a great help.

Now I better say that I am not a lawyer, solicitor or a legal specialist and if you are looking for legal advice please go to such a person.

We live in a world which has dramatically changed in the last 20 years and the change has been due to fear and money. In recent years photographers may have felt they have been targeted by police and so called “rent a cops” (private security officers), as the numbers of instances when photographers have been challenged has greatly increased. Most claiming for security reasons to combat terrorism.

Knowing what, where and how you can photograph portraits and landscape may help you either avoiding or working in such situations. Obviously every country has different rules and laws and this is just general information but on visiting different countries try to find out their rules.


Generally you can take a picture of anything and anyone as long as you are standing on public property and your subject can be seen without specialist equipment (large telephoto lenses). If you are on private property with public access the same principle applies. If you are approached by security and asked to stop taking pictures and you continue, you may be asked to leave the premises. These rules are good as long as your photos are for non-commercial use.

Some places like museums and tourist attractions where you buy a ticket to enter may have their own rules for photography. In the salt mines near Krakow Poland, and Television tower in Berlin Germany for example, ask you to buy a special ticket that enables you to take pictures. If you are going to take pictures common sense says buy the ticket to avoid problems. These rules are hard to enforce because of the number of people who have cameras on their mobile phones.

You cannot (depending where you are) take pictures of military installations, certain areas of airports, or legally restrictive areas.  There are some places that you may be able to photograph for example; MI6 headquarters in London. This building is located on Google street view, Google maps and can be seen at the beginning of a James Bond Film. Though if you do photograph it don’t be surprised in the police do ask you about your motives.

If you are on private property without permission, you are trespassing and just because you have a camera does not mean you have extra rights to trespass on private property. Also if you have permission to be on private property for work, may not mean that you can take photographs. Sometimes places do open up for photo tours or walks. The best idea if you want to photograph inside a building is to seek the owner’s permission


On public property you can take a picture of anybody. This is generally true but if someone asks you not to take the picture they can ask you to stop and you can ignore their request. Though would you still take the picture? I would probably say no. The same as you can’t follow people around taking pictures of them; this could be construed as stalking. Celebrities are more willing to allow photographic stalking by the paparazzi than members of the public. If the person has gone to efforts to not be seen and protect their privacy, you cannot take their picture as it is invasion of privacy. If someone is on the beach sunbathing topless in the open their photograph could be taken (as long as you are not using specialist long distance lenses). If a person has gone to a small cove which cannot be seen form a public footpath and other beaches nearby then you cannot take the picture.

As I have already said common sense does have to take a priority when thinking about taking photographs. If you are in a park wanting to take pictures of children or of man sat on a bench you can take the picture. Though wouldn’t it be best to ask them or ask their parents. You can then explain your motives, why you are taking the picture. You never know, you may be able to sell it back to them. If you don’t ask permission what is the problem, none but think about how it may look.

You are at the park a man is taking pictures but it doesn’t seem that he has children in the park. What is your assumption?

As with people, you can take pictures of any building from public property unless as I stated above they are prohibited by law. Some buildings are copyrighted and so taking the picture for personal use maybe fine.

How you use the image

You can use an image for personal, editorial or commercial use. A personal image is one that you have for yourself and don’t sell it or give it to others but you can share it by showing photogrpahs to others. Editorial is when you sell the image for media publication or print, not advertising. A commercial image is an image used for advertising and trade.


For commercial images you will need to have a “realise” to go with the photograph, either a “model release” if the image has people as the subject or a “property release” for property (this can be a building, or a piece of technology for example an Ipod.).

There are some exceptions. A model release is not needed when there is a picture of group of people and are not recognisable or out of focus in the image. For example a silhouetted image of a man walking down a street would not need a model release as the person is not recognisable. A property release is needed for the exact same reasons as a model release and especially for copyrighted materials.

The Eifel Tower in Paris is a copyrighted building at night. During the day you can take pictures and not need a release form but at night when it is lit up you will need one for example. I once wanted to take pictures of market stalls in a market hall. I need a property release as I was looking to use the images for commercial reasons. There are many examples of releases available online and in books.

If you are looking to sell your images to image libraries and you don’t have a release then they won’t buy your images.


An editorial image can be sold and published and you will be fine as long as you are not defaming the person. You can sell an image of a person walking down the street, but if it is put next to the heading “Drug dealers in the city” in can be read that the person in the image is a drug dealer or a drug user therefore defaming the person in the eye of the public. In these cases you may be taken to civil court over your image. Most magazines when buying portraits of buildings or people may ask for a release. When taking an image to sell I normally offer to give a free print to the person or the owner to appease/compensate them and tell them how my image will be used.


When the image is for personal us you can use it how you want in line with the country that you live in being aware of the rules will help.

What to do when approached

If you are approached by Police or Security officers, be polite and courteous as they have a job to do.  If you think they are being oppressive or if you feel their behaviour to you is not correct or right make a note of their names, if it is a security officer ask to speak to the manager or even call the police. But you have rights and they have rights to.

Sometimes when people talk about their rights they forget that others may have rights as well and just because you have a right to do something does not mean you have the right to encroach on theirs.

Police and Security officers cannot take your camera/film or delete/destroy your images. They are your images and your copyright. If they do destroy your copyrighted work you may have a civil case against them. You don’t have to show them your images, but it may be a way to defuse the situation, showing that you are not doing something illegal.

You do have the right to ask the police why they have stopped you or what law you may have broken. First to educated yourself and secondly to find out what the situation really is. But don’t become obstructive. A police officer may ask you to stop taking pictures because you are inhibiting his work e.g. in arresting or controlling a protest. If they ask you to stop taking pictures of their work then they can’t. You need to look at the situation and balance your actions against their ability to do their work.

Your do not have to give your identity or address to security firms except in some cases when questioned by the police. It is a good idea to ask why the information is being taken down.

Common Sense

Common sense is your best guide for all situations. Think about the situation where are you? what are you doing? how could this look to someone else?

Last year in a shopping centre a father was taking pictures of his daughter on a Vespa seat, eating ice cream next to an ice cream stand. The scene seems innocent. Security came and told him it was illegal for him to take pictures at the shopping centre. The police were called because of the type of incident, but said that they had the right to confiscate the phone.

The staff at the Ice cream stall had called security because they saw a man taking pictures at the counter. For me this situation escalated quickly and common sense from everybody may have defused the situation.

The ice cream personal could have spoken to the man and the girl to find out what he was taking pictures of and why. The security guard could have approached more tactfully. The police could have followed the law and not said that they could confiscate the phone.

With common sense the incident would have been deescalated, as each person got involved. What about the photographer and his common sense. Should he take pictures of his daughter? Yes. Was it a cute picture? Maybe. How was he taking the pictures, we don’t know.

A common sense approach when photographing can help when approached.

Many people say that you don’t have to explain your motives but in doing so can defuse any situation. Being polite, courteous and understanding can go a long way because you may find that you were in the wrong and what you thought was public is in fact private. If you are intentionally trespassing then be prepared to be stopped, if you are you are you still have the right to keep your images and for your copyright not to be infringed.

In the world of fear, common sense can help sooth most situations. As a photographer remembering that;

“if you can see it you can shoot it”

is a good mantra but do it with common sense.

For further reading this PDF by Andrew Kantor is quite good.

Good example of releases can be found here:

Let Me Know Your Thoughts, I Know You Have Some

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