In general, you do not need permission to take someone’s picture in the UK and so long as you’re on public land while you’re doing so, you can snap away quite freely without risking running into any trouble with the law. However, there are a few instances in which you would be required to gain the permission of the person you are photographing, which we will explore further in this article.
Photographers are able to take pictures in all public places, including photos of people, for journalistic, editorial or art purposes so long as they are not harassing members of the public to obtain the photographs. Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, you can be prosecuted if you are threatening, stalking, intimidating or causing distress to someone to obtain their photograph.
You must also be careful that where you are shooting these images is definitely a public space, as many areas that you may think are public are in actual fact privately owned. For example, many shopping centres, museums, art galleries, public attractions, churches etc are on private land and you would need the permission of the landowner in order to be able to take pictures in these places, otherwise, it could be considered trespassing. Generally trespassing is a civil matter and so if you do not have permission to take photos the worst that will happen is the landowner will ask you to stop taking photos and to leave the property. If you refuse to do so, you may be taken to civil court and ordered to pay damages. However, trespassing is a criminal offence on railways and MOD land, so you would need to obtain permission before taking photos in either of these places in order to avoid the risk of being arrested and potentially prosecuted.
Contrary to common belief, you do not need permission to take pictures of children in public places in the UK – so long as the images cannot be considered indecent – and the child’s parents cannot insist that you delete any images you have taken.
There are some occasions when having permission to take a child’s photograph can be advantageous to you if that child is easily identifiable in the image – for example, if you wish to use the photograph commercially or internationally, which we discuss further at the end of this article.
In the UK, police officers are generally unable to prevent photographers from taking pictures of them or delete any digital images that have been taken of them. Under Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000, police can stop and search anyone suspected of being involved in terrorism and view and retain any images that they have taken on a mobile phone or camera. However, even in this instance they are not allowed to delete any images unless there has been a court order to do so. Under Section 58A, police are able to arrest someone taking photos of police offers, intelligence officers or members of the army only if they have reason to suspect that those images are being obtained to aid terrorism. If you are taking photos of police for any other reason – namely, as a member of the press, for your art or simply as a tourist, you do not need permission to do so.
If you wish to take pictures on private land – for example, at someone’s house or in an art gallery – you need the permission of the landowner. So if you have been hired to photograph a birthday party at someone’s house, you don’t need further permission to photograph the people that are attending that party. However, if a guest asks you to stop taking their photo, it is probably best to value their privacy and do so as if they are a friend or relative of the landowner then they are likely to be sided with over you.
The grey area is when you are taking pictures of people on private land from public land. For example, if you take photos of someone in their own home or garden from a public footpath, you are not trespassing on their land, but they may attempt to sue you for breaching their privacy.
Many galleries, museums, stately homes and theatres have blanket no-photography rules and you will need the permission of the landowner in order to freely take pictures in them. Often there will be signs up in the venues saying photography isn’t allowed or it will be printed on your ticket if you have paid for entrance. If you ignore the rules and take pictures anyway, your camera cannot be seized nor can your photos be deleted, but you may be asked to stop taking photos and you can be asked to leave.
There are two things to consider when taking close-up images of a person without their permission; are you in a public space and are you causing them harassment in any way to obtain the image? If you are following someone around and making them feel stalked or threatened in any way, then you risk prosecution. If the person is on private land then you are required to have permission from the landowner in order to avoid trespassing charges. However, as mentioned earlier, in most instances you will simply be asked to leave and if you refuse to do so, it will become a civil – rather than criminal – proceeding.
So long as you are photographing are on public land and you are not intimidating that person, then you are allowed to take close-up photos of them for editorial or artistic purposes. However, there are several occasions when it would be much more beneficial to you as a photographer to gain the model’s permission, as we discuss below.
On most occasions, you are free to take photographs of people in public places and to publish them without their permission. However, the context in which you use their image matters. For example, if you take a photo of a young woman enjoying a cocktail in a public space with friends and use that image to illustrate a blog post about popular cocktail hotspots in your city, she is unlikely to get upset about it. Whereas if you use that same image to illustrate an article about young female alcoholics, that could be considered defamatory to her character and you risk being sued for damages.
In order to sell your photos to a media library or to use your photos to promote or sell products or services, you will often be required to obtain a signed model release form from any identifiable person featuring in the image. Although it is not illegal in the UK to take an identifiable photo of a person in a public place, media libraries and agencies often require you to have had permission to take the photos regardless.
The laws around taking photos without permission in the UK are very liberal compared to some other countries. For example, in both Germany and France there are very strict privacy laws around photography and you are required to gain the permission of any recognisable person in your photos. It’s common outside of the UK for the subject of the image to have a claim to any money made from their photo, too, so release forms are required in order to protect your profits. Therefore, if you wish to use your photos internationally – or sell them to libraries or agencies that publish internationally – you will likely need to have gained the permission of any identifiable people in the images, despite the fact that it is not required by UK law.
In general, for most editorial or artistic purposes, it is not illegal to take someone’s photograph without their permission so long as you are on public land. However, whenever possible, it may be beneficial to request the person’s permission if you know you may wish to use the image internationally or commercially in the future.