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.

Best Street Photography Locations in Bristol

Here is a quick run-down of the best candid public street photography locations in Bristol, UK. When writing this article it quickly became apparent that central Bristol has a very different feel during the day compared to at night.

Stokes Croft

Bristol; May 2018
Bristol; May 2018

Stokes Croft is a melting pot of hipster chic, student housing, a vibrant arts scene, restaurant start-ups, clubs, bars, graffiti, drugs, alcoholism, homelessness and destitution. It is these traits that make it one of the more interesting areas of the city to hang around. On more than one occasion I have been asked not to point my camera at people – often when I am not pointing my camera or taking a photo. As a gateway to the city centre, the area transforms depending on the day and time you visit. I spend more time in Stokes Croft than in any other area of the city.

Old City

Bristol; June 2016
Bristol; June 2016

Snugly located between the high-street chains of Broadmead and the entertainment space that is The Centre, Old City gives us historical architectural backdrops, brutalist concrete buildings, a lively covered market, and an even livelier street market. This is another area of the city that transforms depending on the time you visit, with the tourists of the day making way for the parties of the evening. As the sun begins to drop, warm light streams up Corn Street to illuminate faces while the dark alleyways and quieter side-streets can offer dramatic shadows. If you are in need of a caffeine fix then hunt down Small Street Espresso.

The Centre

Bristol; July 2017
Bristol; July 2017

Once a busy commercial port with all that entails, The Centre is covered in bland concrete paving, surrounded by a busy main road and punctuated by modern fountains and the end of the harbour. During the week it bustles with commuters and office workers finding a spot for lunch, while at weekends it becomes a tourist hub and nighttime bringing hen and stag parties. This is the crossroads of the city connecting people with shopping, entertainment, offices and the university.

Park Street

Bristol; August 2016
Bristol; August 2016

Home to many independent shops, pubs, clubs and restaurants this hill is a marathon not a sprint. Starting at the bottom near College Green you’ll find sunbathers and the occasional political protest outside City Hall. As you walk up the slope towards the University buildings tourists and students will be slogging their way up with you. Look out for skateboarders coming down the hill and energetic (at least at the start) cyclists heading up.

Bedminster

Bristol; February 2016

Beginning in East Street and heading along North Street you will find two very different sides to the city. A high street that may have seen better days, East Street consists of pound stores, pawn brokers, charity shops, bookies, vape shops, mobile phone repairers and cheaper chain stores. As you head towards North Street you will find more independents and ‘hipster chic’, denoting the more affluent end of this area of Bristol. Home to Upfest, Europe’s largest Street Art & Graffiti festival, Bedminster is a vibrant and bustling part of the city.

Candid Public Street Photography

I practice candid public photography. As a sub genre of street photography, candid public photography is one of the most challenging and and at the same time most rewarding of the different kinds of street photography. It is also one of the forms that you are most likely to associate with street photography.

Bristol; May 2018
Bristol; May 2018

The essence of candid public photography is that it is not posed, set up, rehearsed or directed. It is a scene that you have discovered and then subsequently used to make a photograph. Your influence on the scene is minimal and you are unlikely to have interacted with the subjects. The scene will have taken place in a public location, although not necessarily by legal definition.

Candid public photography is difficult. It’s difficult because you are removing an aspect of the photograph that is under your control. You can’t control the scene, you can’t control the people, you can’t control the light. The only things you can control are yourself and your camera. You may be able to mitigate controlling the light by going out at certain times of day or when the light is “good”, but you can not force someone to stand in the shadow or the highlight.

99% of candid public photography is luck. The remaining 1% is having the skill, experience and imagination to capture the scene unfolding in front of you. Part of the reason why a great candid street photograph is critically acclaimed is because we know the effort that the photographer has had to put in to be able to make that photograph. We as candid street photographers know how many hours of walking it has taken to not only find the scene but also have the experience to capture it.

By designating photography as candid and public we are specifying how it was made and allowing the audience to judge the photograph on that basis.

Labelling a photograph as candid and public is important because it demonstrates how the photograph was made. If I had used a model or directed a subject, or interacted with the scene in such a way as to significantly influence the final image then I would not be being honest with my audience. Not being honest about the methodology used diminishes the photograph and the photographer. It would be akin to a wildlife photographer using tame animals or a war photographer making extensive use of Photoshop to add or remove objects in the scene.

The concept of candid public photography can not be claimed by any one individual, but it is championed by Nick Turpin’s #CanPubPhoto movement. Nick writes,

“It seems to me that Street Photography as a phrase now lets us down to some extent, it fails to identify the key aspects of our practice, namely that the work is shot without intervention, it is made in a public place (not necessarily the street) and it is a Photo Graph, drawn with light and not with a computer after the fact.”

We could take the idea of labelling our photographs one step further by looking at how artwork is displayed in galleries. Perhaps for every photograph we publish to social media we should include a note about our method. This is why on my Instagram posts you will see:

“This is a candid photo made in a public place. It wasn’t set up, posed or directed. This is life, as it happens.”

I do this to make it absolutely clear how I made the photograph. Equally if I make a street portrait then I am upfront as to how that image was made.