Updated It may surprise readers to learn that with a few very specific exceptions, there is no law in the UK against taking photographs. That said, there are a range of quite specific exceptions to this rule.
There is no law against taking photographs on private property: however, “no photography” may be a condition of entry to many private buildings, which effectively changes the ground rules. Photography itself would still not be illegal: but the owner of the property would have the right to eject you if you started taking photographs.
You may not take photographs (for commercial gain) in certain specified public spaces: Trafalgar Square and the Royal Parks are covered by this.
According to the Official Secrets Act 1911, you may not take photographs in “prohibited” places (defence locations and munitions factories spring to mind). Further, s.58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 makes it an offence to “possess a document or record containing information”... “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.
The apparent breadth of this formula was seriously narrowed in February of this year, when the Court of Appeal ruled that simple possession was not enough for a conviction. There had to be demonstrable intent to commit terrorist acts as well.
Do not obstruct the public highway whilst taking photos: that, too, could be an offence.
When it comes to individuals, there is no specific law on privacy. At least not in a public place or where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Insofar as schools may be considered “public places”, this means that restrictions on photography in school are on fairly shaky legal ground.
It is technically possible that pursuing someone with a camera could amount either to Harassment (though not a criminal offence in Scotland) or a Breach of the Peace. Police have indicated that they might just recognise the latter if taking a photograph – perhaps of someone about to commit suicide – was felt likely to exacerbate the situation.
You should not take pictures in court. Nor should you take pictures likely to identify witnesses, some victims and anyone subject to a court order (most likely to be children in custody cases).
Some pornography – especially anything involving children – is absolutely forbidden. Again, though, prosecution is more likely to follow as a result of publishing the image than simply taking a photo.
As of last week*, the government has forbidden couples getting married in registry offices from having their photograph taken as they sign the wedding register.
Last but by no means least: do not photograph banknotes!
Note: this is not a definitive legal guide. The law changes. We are not lawyers. If you want legal advice, talk to a solicitor. And remember: just because you can take a photo does not mean in all circumstances that you should.
Sometimes, in our eagerness to bring you news, we make the mistake of believing what we read in the papers. Or in this case, the Daily Mail.
The claim that “new” Home Office guidelines prevent photographers from taking photos of couples signing the register in the registry office was incorrect.
Guidelines are produced by the General Register Office. According to a Home Office spokesman, they have, for some time now, advised against taking photos in which the (wedding) register may be seen. They warn that the photograph might be a distraction, leading to an inaccurate entry and the need for a formal correction in the register. They are also concerned about the risk of damage to the register, as a fountain pen filled with archival ink hovers for some indefinite time over the page.
They are at pains to point out that this guidance is pretty old hat and has NOT changed as a result of the Data Protection Act.
This is confirmed by the Office of the Information Commissioner, which wrote to the Mail following publication of the story. As they pointed out in their letter, “it would be a complete nonsense if the Act prevented photographs being taken, in the same way that it is nonsense when schools suggest that parents cannot take pictures of their children at a school sports day”. Sadly, this appears to be yet another urban myth attached to the DPA.
Far too many petty officials – and newspapers - have taken it upon themselves to reinterpret the DPA in the most unfavourable light possible. This is why the Information Commissioner now produces an occasional guide, to matters that are really NOT covered by the DPA.
This would appear to be one of them! ®