Legality of practising street photography in the UK

Legality of practising street photography in the UK

I have no legal training and shouldn’t be giving advice on the legality of practising street photography in the UK. This article is intended to provide a list of resources you can use to make your own decisions on how to practice street photography in the UK and the approach that I take to a variety of situations. It is worth noting that Scotland and Northern Ireland can have different laws to England and Wales. If in doubt please consult a solicitor.

Broadly speaking if you are standing in a public place and you are photographing people where there is no expectation of privacy then carry on. As is often the case there are exceptions and as a street photographer you need to have an awareness of the following:

  • Children – many photographs that provide a historical record or social commentary of life in the UK have featured children. However, and hopefully for obvious reasons, you may attract undue attention from parents or the police if you are taking photographs of children. Unfortunately this also means that an important segment of our historical photographic narrative is being lost due to the current climate of distrust and fear.
  • Homeless & Destitute – taking photos of homelessness or people begging on the street can be like shooting fish in a barrel. It may be easy but will it result in a good photograph? I have also found that the homeless and the destitute are very observant of photographers, hyper-aware of their surroundings, and often do not want their photo taken under any circumstances. In my experience making photographs of people begging results in two things. 1 – a photograph that isn’t a keeper. 2 – a very angry person who doesn’t want their photograph taken and who will follow you around until you delete the photo.
  • Private Public Space – there are places which may look public but are actually private. This can affect shopping areas even in city centres, pedestrianised squares and footpaths. You may encounter security guards who ask you to stop taking photographs or ask you to leave.

This isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t take photographs of the above, but you do need to be aware of how you approach the subject and the situation. Would asking permission help? Would having a conversation first and explaining what you are doing make it easier? This is quite possible and for many photographers this is their modus operandi. As a street photographer who aims to produce candid public photographs, this isn’t how I work.

Simon Moran has published a concise, easy to understand, guide to UK Photographers Rights. It covers issues such as where you can take photographs, what can appear in your photographs, and the subsequent publication of your pictures.

I’m A Photographer Not A Terrorist – PHNAT have published a “bust card” which may be useful as a quick reference when confronted by security guards, police or other official looking people. While aimed more towards journalists and documentary or reportage photographers, the advice can be equally applied to street photographers.

​The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) published a letter in 2010 setting out guidance for police officers on photographers and photography in public places. ACPO was replaced in 2015 by the National Police Chief’s Council who have not as yet issued similar guidance.

The British Security Industry Association (BISA) publish a guide, only available to BSIA members, covering best practice for security personnel when they encounter photographers. It is relatively easy to find a copy of this publication by searching for “Photography and Hostile Reconnaissance“.

Remember that while there may be no basis for preventing you taking photographs, and you are not under any obligation to delete the photographs, ask yourself if the photos you have made are actually good photos. Are they keepers? If you are in a situation where you feel that the easiest way to diffuse the problem is to delete your photograph then will you have a better day than if you stick to your guns?

If someone spots me taking candid photographs then I use a number of tools and techniques to put them at ease:

  • A big, broad, friendly smile
  • An explanation of what I do and why
  • Business cards – with my name, website and email address
  • A way to quickly show a selection of my best photos (since the ones on my camera will be 90% rubbish) such as a portfolio app on my phone

Things not to say (mostly from my own experience):

  • I take photos of people looking weird
  • I take photos of people doing odd things
  • I take photos of people who are doing something funny
  • I took your photo because the way you were holding your coffee cup looked like a beak

Things you could say:

  • I am practising my photography hobby. As a street photographer I document public spaces and try to capture life in Britain today.

Street photography is how I relax and have fun. I don’t find confrontation fun and as such I aim to balance the chance of confrontation with the work I want to produce. I try to know and understand my rights, as well as the rights of the subjects in my photographs. Because something is legal doesn’t make it right.

Bristol; July 2015 Bristol; July 2015

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