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  • Writer's picture.iana

The Question of Privacy - Public Photography: Is it OK? Ethical? Legal? Aberdeen Family Photographer

Updated: Dec 27, 2018

Hi everyone,

With the summer upon us and the festivals and fayres season in full swing already, I thought it would be worth writing a quick blog giving some guidance on photographing in public spaces – where you run a risk of capturing more than who you bargained for (i.e. not just your friends/family, but also unsuspecting members of the general public).

There is currently a LOT of concern out there regarding privacy, personal space and right to access; the recent GDPR regulations have sent every business owner (and many hobbyist snappers) into panic overdrive!

Disclaimer: I am not a legal professional, in no way am I trying to make it seem like this content is legally-sound advice and the following is purely findings from my own research of the subject, experience and subsequently-drawn personal opinion.

It is my understanding that there is no particular legislation in Scotland covering photography, so the lines are blurred. I may be wrong on this and would happily stand corrected, should anyone have any solid advice and references.

In general (extreme, but worth noting), police cannot stop you from photographing anything or anyone in a public place. They can, however, detain you on suspicion of committing a crime (such as harassment, endangerment, trespassing, theft, terrorism…) BUT would you ever let it to come to that?

If you are a super-keen documentary-style photographer, looking to capture high-intensity, dramatic events, then this blog is probably not going to cover the right level of information.

So there is always a bit of uncertainty surrounding the question of capturing strangers in images – what is ok? What is allowed? What is legal?

And a lot of people chose to avoid the issue altogether by not raising the camera at public events or not ever sharing the images publicly.

Can you imagine how many images of you are circulating around the world from attending concerts, festivals, parks, weddings (!) or even simply walking down the street! Have you ever had any of those, who captured the photo approach you for your permission to share?..

lisbon wedding photography, park
I have no idea what was going on here, these two seemed to be taking their Wedding photos as selfies?

Some locations (for example, a lot of the National Trust and Council-ran parks, gardens and castles) require you to pay a fee for photographing (commercially) on their premises. A lot of people chose to ignore this requirement and still take their clients there, but you risk being approached by a member of staff and politely (or not!) asked to leave or pay. I’ve never gotten in trouble before (I chose not to risk it – plenty gorgeous places to visit without the risk factor), but I’ve enquired with a few NTS venues and got a range of prices from £100 to £300 per session to shoot on their grounds.

The above pertains to commercial photography. If you go to a local winter gardens, city park or have a picnic in the gardens of your favourite castle with your family and take some gorgeous images for your own personal use, nobody will (should!) bat an eyelid – unless there are restrictions in place (thinking some playgrounds or swimming pools).

lisbon old man at a storefront window, a lisboeta cafe in Portugal
Some places are just full of charismatic people - Lisbon is one such place!

For me, as there is no specific legislation regarding photography of people in public areas, the following applies:

  • It is not OK to photograph someone in a vulnerable situation (someone walking down the street with their skirt tucked in their pants, someone really drunk and doing things they may not want to be reminded of (certainly not in photographic form, by a stranger), someone you don’t know crying (this is OK to photograph for some people, I am not comfortable with this)).

  • It is not allowed to supply commercial services on the grounds of National Trust, Council etc. properties without seeking permission and paying any applicable fees first.

  • I would venture a guess that it is not legal to photograph someone in their home, where they would expect privacy – I might be wrong, but I think it should definitely be ILLEGAL – though, seeing paparazzi photos of stars sunbathing naked in their gardens, I’m not convinced the law is as respectful of privacy as I am.

Lisbon, Portugal street photography, tuk tuk driver in a hat on a cobbled street

Not everyone reading this will be seeking information to apply to their work life and, my hope is that if you are a professional photographer, you will look beyond this blog post to get further information and form your own opinion.

So the general guidance on taking and subsequently sharing photos with strangers in the frame is that this is fine, as long as the photos:

  • are taken at a public location and without causing harassment to the persons being photographed - there is a general presumption of photography taking place at public events, though, some concerts, museums, events etc. may respectfully ask you not to take photographs – this will be communicated and thoroughly sign-posted. If there are signs saying ‘do not take photos’, I wouldn’t

  • do not disclose any personal information of the person (especially sensitive with children) in the photo

  • are not revealing or inappropriate in any way – I wouldn’t photograph naked children at a beach

  • are taken ‘in good faith’

Obviously, if someone approaches you and asks you to stop or delete the photos (of them or their family) you’ve taken, you should really do so – it is the decent and respectful thing to do. But I understand that the law says that you do not have to.

I’ve heard of some photographers making a point of “standing their ground” and continuing taking photos, arguing they are in a public place etc.

Wood work in a Marrakech souk in black and white, travel photography
This guy gave me his consent to take his photo, but was VERY keen for me to buy something from him after. A Marrakech souk is such a charismatic place, but definitely one where you should thread carefully with a camera - unless you are planning to make a purchase.

I would say, anyone attending a wedding should have reasonable expectation that there would be a professional photographer there and they and their family members might end up in some/few/all photos. It would, therefore, be unreasonable for them to then contact you and request you remove any images you have of them from your portfolios etc.

This is unpleasant, but they would not be in the right to make such requests – it is up to you as to how far you want to take that conversation.

It is slightly trickier, if you are photographing an event, such as children’s party – in this case, I would request that the host, or whoever engaged you to provide the services, politely notified everyone ahead of the party that there will be a photographer present and should anyone have any concerns, to speak to them or you prior to the event.

Gondola ride along a canal in Venice, Italy, travel photography

The whole subject is a tricky one, especially as there is no strict law to guide us one way or another. It is probably a good thing though, as any extreme points are covered and the rest is up to your own conscience, taste and comfort.

Remember, when travelling abroad, approach the subject cautiously too. When we were in Morocco a couple of years ago, I wanted to take a photo of a couple of ladies collecting the fruit from the Argan Tree and when asked, they refused me the photo.

The laws and culture in other countries can be very different and taking a stranger's photo can be near-offensive, so thread carefully.

There’s a huge skill in taking beautiful and meaningful photography without having that connection of your subject knowing you are photographing them, I think.

There’s someone I follow on Instagram, who’s brilliant at street photography:, based in Edinburgh.

I’m not sure what his approach is with regards to asking permission, but his photos range from posed street portraits to what looks like unsuspecting models riding a bus, waiting at a bus stop, having a coffee, walking the streets... he also uses film, which is extra intriguing to me!

If you’re curious about street photography, I recommend you look him up!

kissing couple in Italy in black and white, romantic embrace with a dog
These two were kissing for about 20 minutes, when I drummed up the courage to raise my camera at them. At this point they paused and noticed me and then went back to doing what they knew best.

What are your views and knowledge of photographing public spaces – have you had any encounters with places with restricted access or has anyone ever asked you to delete their photo?

When it comes to capturing images with the risk of catching unintended subjects in the frame, as long as you do it safely, unobtrusively, respectfully and delete the images, should someone ask you to, you’re fine!

Verona, Italy, cafe tables in the piazza by the Coliseum

P.S. Writing this blog and trying to find some relevant images to add in, I have realised how little 'street' photography I now do - except for seriously personal stuff, usually snapped with my phone!

This actually goes back to my previous writings about my resolution on travel photography - travelling light to ensure I actually use the camera I have with me - even if it is just my iPhone.

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