Monday, 29 August 2011

Er ... Excuse Me ... Can I Take Your Picture, Please?

Following my last post, Taking Better Travel Photos, Nan Sheppard commented about the rules with regards to taking photos of people. This is an area that can cause some confusion, so I thought I'd take the opportunity this week to explain the basics. Please note that in this posting I am referring to UK law. Laws in other countries may differ considerably.

The picture in this posting contains many people. Did I ask their permission before taking the photo? No. It simply wasn't possible. Do I need their permission if I want to use this photo to illustrate a magazine article? No.

In the UK, the law allows photographers in a public place to take photographs. Permission is not required from the people who are captured in the image if the photograph is used for editorial purposes. There are two key points here:
  • the photographer is in a public place,
  • the photograph is used for editorial purposes.

In this posting, what I mean by a public place is somewhere where the public have a legal right to be at any time of day, such as on the pavement beside a public road, or on a footpath in the countryside. A shopping mall is not a public place, because despite being full of members of the public, many are owned by private companies. So, when you enter a shopping mall you are stepping onto private land. It just happens that the landowner is happy for you to do so! Generally, public land is the road/highway and its pavement, a right of way across a piece of private land, common land, and land designated as open access (such as mountains, moor and heathland).

There are many places which people perceive are public places, but they are actually privately owned. Railway stations, car parks, shopping centres, National Trust properties, even many beaches, are all places where lots of people gather, but they are privately owned. To take photos for editorial purposes, or commercial purposes, in these places, you should have the landowner's permission. (Generally, taking photos for your own personal use, to record a family day out, is not a problem.)

For editorial purposes means for use in media, such as magazines and newspapers. In other words, I can use the photo above to illustrate an article in a magazine, but I could not use the photo above as an image on a T-Shirt, on a mug, or on a poster to sell to the general public. Those examples would be classified as commercial use of the image. Any image containing people (whether it is obvious who they are or not) which is going to be used for commercial purposes, must be accompanied by a model release form signed by every person in that image.

This is why, in the UK, the paparazzi can operate. They take their photos from a place where the public have a right to be - genrally they are on the pavement of a street - and their photos appear in newspapers and magazines.

Of course, there is nothing stopping you from being polite and asking people if they mind having their photo taken, even if, by law, you don't have to ask them. Often, you'll get a better photo, if you do. If you're at a seaside location, and see four senior citizens sitting on a bench on the promenade, wrapped up in winter coats and scarves, but each eating an ice-cream, that could make a great photo! Ask them if they mind having their photo taken. Most people are actually quite willing.

Obviously, extreme caution needs to be exercised when taking photographs in public places where children may be present. (This is an area of the law that some members of the legal profession feel ought to be clarified further.) The safest option is always to ask the parents' permission, or simply return to the site when children are not around.

For many travel articles, taking a photo of market scene, or a carnival procession will not cause any problems, because you'll be in a public space and, the chances are, those people won't even know that you are taking their photo. But just be aware that if you're taking a photo that includes one person, or a couple of people, then being polite and asking permission first, is a good policy to follow.

Good luck.


  1. This is a great post Simon and one that I have often wondered about. I had some very odd looks when I particularly wanted to take pictures of people's dogs! I happily snapped away but when I viewed the results, some of the owners looked a little cross so I decided not to use them. I wasn't sure if I should ask or not so this is really useful.

  2. Hi Di

    I'd like to see some of the dogs signing a 'model release form'!

  3. Hah, Simon! Model release form for dogs! I always err on the side of caution and ask permission before snapping away - I've had a 'no' on a couple of occasions but, as you say, most are happy to be snapped.

    The issue around photographing kids is a sticky one. I have to admit to feeling aprehensive about anyone photographing my daughter when we're out and about but I'm not quite sure why! - it's a minefield in regards to schools too. I had to get parents of garden club kids to sign if they were okay with me using photos of theeir kids in line with school policy - but I still felt uneasy about it.

    Great post - makes you think.

  4. That's a really helpful clarification of the situation. Thanks.