Street photography in the UK – know your rights

Street photography in the UK is one of the fastest-growing pastimes amongst all ages. Think about it. More than 66 million people in Britain and nearly every one of them has a camera. No matter what brand of mobile phone you use, Apple, Samsung, One Plus, Google, there is always a lens attached. This means that the ordinary person in the street is able to photograph anything they want, anywhere they want, and anytime they feel like doing it. Or does it?

Where do street photographers stand legally when it comes to taking innocent photos of random strangers, public buildings, military installations, etc? OK, so taking photos of military installations is probably not to be recommended. It is certainly not advisable if you are in the middle of a field, with a telephoto lens, wearing a ghillie suit and night vision goggles. Not that I’ve ever tried this, obviously! But surely, everything else is a fair game, right?

What the law says about street photography in the UK

Street photographers are becoming more and more visible on the streets of Britain. Even in Brighton, where I live, if I go out for a photoshoot the chances are that I will come across at least a couple of other street photographers on my walk.

The type of street photography that I am talking about, however, is not some adolescent’s snap of his/her girlfriend/boyfriend, or an artistic filtered photo of your lunch. More, I am referring to the ardent enthusiast or hobby street photographers, with their Nikon or Canon, or Sony cameras. These guys may occasionally be spotted leaning over bridges or staring up at tall buildings. They are the artisans of street photography. The people that helped to make Instagram and Flickr a thing.

street photography
Chinese lady in a straw hat on streets of Brighton

The laws regarding street photography in the UK are pretty clear. So long as you are on public property you are free to capture an image of whomever you wish without restriction. There is nothing in UK law to prevent you from taking street photography portraits or candid street photography of anybody or anything*. Even if your subject is not itself on public property, so long as you are on public land when you take the shot you are fine.

*This of course assumes that you are not transgressing any norms of social decency such as upskirting or similarly immoral behaviour.

The keywords are public property. Street photography is designed for photography on the street (the clue is in the name). Once you venture out onto private land then you will find that in most cases permission must be sought.

This may sometimes be tricky in big cities such as London, where the lines between public and private property are not always clearly defined. Mostly though, even in London, you can practice street photography anywhere.

A person’s right to privacy

In the UK people do not have a right to privacy when going about their daily business. This is actually true of any European country and the USA, and indeed the world.

A person’s right to privacy only extends to their own home. Furthermore, nobody owns the right to their own image. By taking someone’s photo you are not infringing on a person’s image rights. Not even if they are a public figure. At least not on the street. How else do Paparazzi get to make money?

In fact, any image that you take doing street photography is your property and yours alone. Any photo you take is copyrighted to you and only you can decide what you use that image for. It cannot subsequently be reproduced without your permission. If you are a hobbyist or an enthusiast (as I am) that may not be too relevant anyway.

Whilst we are on the subject of permission and copyright. Anyone reading this article is free to download the images contained and use them for their own personal use. I merely ask that you do not try to pass them off as your own or sell them on for profit. Should you decide to use them for any reason a credit and a link back to this website would be awesome!

Images elsewhere on this site do not belong to me and were obtained under license from Unsplash. The copyright to these images are held by their respective authors.

Nobody can make you delete your photos

No person has the right to compel you to delete photos. Not even an officer of the law. If your subject was unhappy to be photographed they could reasonably ask you to delete their image. However, they have no right to make you delete it, and you are within your rights to refuse.

You are not breaking GDPR regulations

GDPR which is frequently misunderstood only concerns information that is not in the public domain. This would include bank accounts, a person’s home address or medical records etc.

No actual information about a person can be gleaned from an image so GDPR does not come into play. If anybody ever claims that it does then they are mistaken and should be directed to the European website concerning GDPR regulations. It may interest you to know that your name is also not covered by GDPR as this is information that any reasonable person would be expected to give up when asked.

What this means, is that no matter what a person may quote you, if you attempt to take their photograph on the streets, it is, in fact, an urban myth and they have no right to stop you. A person does have the right to walk away, turn their back on you, put their hand in front of their face, or otherwise prevent you from taking their photo in a non-physical way though.

street photography in the uk
Man smoking a cigarette viewed from a shopping mall.

What does the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have to say about street photography?

Well, it’s funny you should ask. Some years ago, when Britain was at the height of its paranoia and terrorist attacks were more commonplace, the Police were prone to take a more heavy-handed approach to their job. This translated to their handling of street photographers. Anybody with a parka and a ‘professional looking’ camera was looked upon with suspicion. Especially if it had a telephoto lens. It was not unheard of for Policemen, or women, with little understanding of the law, to stop street photographers on the street, and in some cases tell them to delete their photos.

This, it has to be said, was more common in London, but also took place around other big cities in the UK too.

As it turned out, the Police had no legal right to do this. Eventually, the situation got so bad that it prompted a letter from Andrew Trotter, head of the Police Communication Advisory Group. In his letter, addressed to all Police Constables in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, he made it clear that the rights of street photographers up and down the UK were being infringed and that it was unacceptable behaviour by their officers to challenge street photographers in pursuit of their hobby.

I have included a copy of this communication for you all to take a look at. It clearly states the legal position regarding street photography in the UK and is a handy point of reference. Feel free to download a copy of this jpg to your mobile phone. It may be useful if you are ever challenged whilst engaged in street photography yourself. Many street photographers (including myself) already do this, although I personally have never needed to produce it.

Street Photography and the law
Guidance for Street Photographers

Photographing people on the street

Living in Brighton I have about 20,000 images of seagulls! They are everywhere. In fact, in Brighton, it is pretty much impossible to take a photo of anyone or anything without a bloody seagull in it. The trouble with seagulls though, is that once you have taken a photo of one seagull you have taken a photo of them all.

Beautiful tattooed girl with dreadlocks and nose ring. Brighton Lanes

People are on the other hand are much more individual. Nowhere is that more obvious than here in Brighton! You can walk down the street and literally no two people are alike. Ha, ha!

This is perfect for street photography portraits. There is such an eclectic mix of personalities and styles in this little seaside town that they might have been designed for street photography.

Most street photographers will tell you that the scariest thing that they ever have to face is asking someone for a street photography portrait. Going up to a perfect stranger and asking to take their photo can be incredibly intimidating.

Is street photography legit?

What you should remember is that street photography is legit. Tens of thousands of street photography enthusiasts up and down the UK face the same issues as you do. Best of all the secret to getting a great street photography portrait is so simple.

How street photographers capture someone’s portrait and make them love you for it

Always begin with a compliment. In order for you to want to take someone’s street photography portrait, there must (presumably) have been something about that person that attracted you to them in the first place.

For example in the photo of the young lady above I was attracted by her hair. I began by saying straight away “your hair is lovely, you have such a great look. May I take your portrait?” Because I immediately paid her a compliment her guard dropped and she was happy to pose.

It may not always be a pretty member of the opposite sex that attracts you though. Suppose you come across a middle-aged man with a luxurious beard (as in the photo below) you may want to comment on their magnificent facial growth (as I did) in order to get them to agree.

is street photography legit?
Middle-aged man with a luxurious beard. Brighton Lanes

Do not be embarrassed. Approach your subject with confidence, like a Siberian Tiger stalking its prey (perhaps not the best analogy) and they will be much more likely to let you take your shot. Being overly apologetic and shy will make them feel less inclined to comply.

I almost never begin with things like “I hope you don’t mind” or “I am sorry to disturb you” when doing street photography. It just seems so negative. Talk to your intended subject like you expect to get a photo and 99 times out of 100 you will.

Oh by the way! You will need to be smiling when you do this as you don’t want to come across as being aggressive.

Another way to approach people is to announce straight away who you are. Something like “Hi! I’m a street photographer and I take portraits of people in (insert your town here) I really like the way you look, may I take your portrait?”

Once the subject understands who you are, and why you want their image, they are much more likely to pose for you.

Photographing children

Parents in this day and age are incredibly sensitive about their children. Certainly, I have the impression that in my day, kids seemed to have a bit more freedom than they do nowadays. For sure, it is a good thing in the internet age that parents are concerned for the welfare of their children, of course, it is. When I was a child the internet wasn’t even a thing! However, this sensitivity does throw up some interesting conundrums for the street photographer.

Street photography is based on the premise that one can take photos of people, places, and things in a natural environment. This means all people, all places, and all things. Yet a parent’s natural inclination to protect can and will put some street photographers off taking pictures of children.

The photo below, for example, was taken in the park, and even as I took the shot I could see the mother moving towards her children, intending to drag them away from the guy with the camera. To be honest this is one reason why I rarely take photos of kids. Sometimes the shot is simply not worth the guilt trip you get put upon you.

street photography
Children playing in Preston Park, Brighton

However, it isn’t illegal. If they are in a public place, kids are as much of a photo opportunity as anyone else. More so in many cases. Who does not appreciate a photo of a child happily playing away. Even if the children are not yours, they make such a joyful (and often colourful) image that the opportunity may prove irresistible, as this one did.

When photographing children it may be wise simply to ask the parent first. It is, after all, polite, and at least the parent(s) get an opportunity to make a judgment call about the type of person you are. Prepare to be rebuffed though. Especially if you are male and over 35. Female and younger street photographers may be given more license.

Another approach is to hand out business cards (even if you don’t have a photo business) with your contact details on them and offer to send copies to the parents. That way the parent has something tangible and they get to keep the final image.

At the end of the day though if you see the shot, go for it. Never be afraid to take a great shot if the opportunity presents itself. You can always deal with any fall-out later. Always remember you are NOT doing anything illegal or shameful.

That said, once you have your shot it is always better to move on. Do not hang around children’s play areas for any longer than you need to, as that is just plain creepy!

Is anything off-limits to street photographers?

There is nothing that you cannot photograph (ignore the double negative) but you need to bear in mind that not everyone appreciates it. If taking a photo is going to make someone really angry it might be best to give it a miss. Why would you want an image of an angry person anyway?

As previously mentioned photographing children is best handled with care. Police stations whilst not a problem for street photographers may attract attention. Again, I give the same advice as for taking photos of kids. Take your shot and move on.

Anything which could be considered ‘politically sensitive’ such as military barracks etc is probably best avoided. Even if you are only taking a picture of the General’s Land Rover you should be aware of how it could be potentially viewed. Under no circumstances linger outside military installations in the UK for too long to take pictures.

Most places in the UK are easily accessible for street photography and street photographers. Much of this is public property. There will be places that are not public property though, shopping malls for example. Security guards at shopping malls are generally not au fait with the law and will challenge you if you stand around taking photos with a ‘performance’ camera. This is despite the millions of photos taken every day by shoppers on their mobiles. Just be polite.

Railway stations are generally OK with street photographers practicing their art. What I would say though is that if you intend to take photos of the station or trains or whatever, let someone in a position of responsibility know who you are and why you want the photos. If you are just indulging your passion for street photography then they are happy to accommodate you. If you are making money from the sale of your street photography though, you will need written permission.

Network Rail has produced a set of guidelines for anyone wishing to do street photography at one of their railway stations in the UK. You can find a copy of these guidelines here.

street photography
Street photography at Brighton railway station

Candid street photography

Sometimes, either due to circumstance or lack of opportunity, it isn’t always possible for street photographers to take a portrait. In this case, candid street photography can be great fun.

Candid street photography is when street photographers take pictures of people going about their normal daily business. This genre of street photography is rarely posed, and photos are usually taken in the moment.

Famous street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Vivian Maier are great examples of this style of street photography. Look them up online.

It may appear to be a bit sneaky and underhand but frequently your best shots will be taken when your subject least expects it. Recording life as it happens, in all its gritty reality, can be incredibly rewarding.

street photography
Blonde lady in a shop doorway. The Lanes, Brighton

This is especially true in big cities such as London. Here people are constantly rushing around getting from A to B and you may only have a fleeting moment to take your shot.

Many street photographers consider themselves to be archivists. They tell themselves that they are documenting brief moments in history for future generations. They may actually be right. People tend to live in the here and now with little concern for the past or the future. Who is to say that in 200 years from now, images captured by today’s street photographers won’t give future generations a glimpse into what our life was really like.

If you are a street photographer and you have encountered difficulties such as those mentioned here then please tell me about them in the comments.

Alternatively, if you have had your portrait taken by a street photographer, or perhaps an awkward encounter tell me your story in the comments below.

I am always happy to hear your stories!

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