Monday, 1 December 2014

Gerr' off my land

Recently I reviewed Julia's and Joel's rather excellent book on black and white architectural photography, and I was inspired to give it a go. I have been playing around with welding glass as an ND filter alternative, but eventually I gave in to the inevitable and purchased 3 ND filters of various stopping powers(Question: why do ND filters insist on have at least 3 naming conventions?).

The next problem was what to photograph?

Unfortunately I do not live close to any major metropolis areas with soaring skyscrapers, nor close to the coast for those pictures of the sea turned to milk. However I do live rather close to a  major coal fired power station.

Now I know power station cooling towers are not everyone's definition of beauty, but to me they are the ultimate form over function. Also because they tend to be built in flat areas, close to rivers they dominate the landscape. Best of all for the kind of photography I wanted to do, they produce their own clouds which is useful on a cloudless autumn mornings.

So armed with the filters all I had to do was to wait for 3 rather unlikely events to occur simultaneously. Firstly the weather needed to turn from the uniform gray which we have been suffering from recently to the clear blue skies. Secondly this needed to happen on a weekend. Finally that weekend needed to be free from other pressing family matters. Amazingly this Sunday morning, all three occurred (which to me is  equivalent to winning the  lottery), so grabbing my bag, tripod and camera I set off for the 10 minute drive to the station.

The 1st thing I have to say about this sort of long exposure photography is that it is quite cathartic. It basically involves finding a good position, setting up the tripod, arranging the composition, taking a few light measurements, fitting the ND filter and then opening the shutter. You then have 5 minutes (using Joel's 5MF8 rule) to wander around, examine the scenery ,and look for your next shot, which is much more relaxing than most photographic experiences where you are rushing around trying to get a good shot

Things were going well, but in the corner of my eye I did notice a pick-up trick within the station perimeter, and the driver taking a interest in what I was doing. Now to be clear  I wasn't exactly skulking around. It is difficult not to stand out,  when you are carrying your SLR, all your kit and a large tripod. But sure enough it wasn't long before the same truck came out and the security guard driving it pulled over to ask what I was doing, with the clear undertones that they would rather I stop it.

At this point, it is important to explain where exactly the power station is situated. It is just off  a major thorough fare between two cities and there is a road next to it that leads to a major inter-city railway station. So the place I was standing and taking photos was very much open to the public.

I explained that I was just trying to get some shots of the cooling towers for my own use  and offered the guard my business card (I work for a company that is major producer of electrical  generation equipment, so I offered this to prove that I was not some eco-warrior in disguise). He seemed satisfied and moved off. However 5 minutes later his boss came out(again in a pick up truck ) and asked me similar questions with the same result.

Now to be clear here, both times the guards were polite and made no attempt to threaten me or stop me taking photos. Also I have a lot of sympathy for them. The power station has over the years been the target of friends of the earth and green peace, with protesters invading the site. So they are being paid to be vigilant. Also having a job stopping a power station being nicked is probably not anyone's 1st career choice, so anything that breaks up the monotony, such as investigating someone taking photos outside the perimeter, probably provided the most excitement that they had had for weeks.

However it is at such times when you realise knowing the laws governing where you can take photographs and your rights would be useful.

So the following is what as far as I can tell is the laws governing where you can take photo's in the UK

The legal bit

OK before I start, just the usual blurb. I am not a lawyer and have no legal training. So if you get arrested taking photographs, using this blog is not a valid legal defence. Also the following only applies to the UK, and other countries probably have different rules (i.e. don't follow this if you reside say in North Korea)

With this in mind, this is what I understand to be the case.

The most important point is that if you are in a public place you have every right to take photographs and no one has the power to prevent you from doing so.

There are a some of exceptions to this, such as Trafalgar square and Parliament square, London. But even there, this only applies to professional photography. Tourist snaps are fine. Also if you like taking photos of celebrities sun bathing on their balcony, you can still be done for a breach of privacy (and also pretty shoddy moral standards). But generally the rule is that no one can prevent you from taking what you want when standing in a public area.

For example, one security guard suggested I needed to get written permission to take such photos, but I am pretty sure this was incorrect (and anyway there was no indication where such permission could be obtained)

Private land is different, and generally you need the owners permission.

Of course one of challenges is working out what is public and what is private land. Because I was on a road to a train station via a public highway, I was pretty sure the land was public. If I was on the slip road to the station entrance itself however, it would be a gray area. Unfortunately land does not need to be sign posted as "private" for it to be private.

Although photographing from a public area is a general right, like any such right, there are some government legal get out clauses. Firstly if you are causing an obstruction, you can be asked to move on by the police and arrested if you refuse.  However this is only likely to apply when you plonk your tripod in the middle of a busy thoroughfare.

The 2nd get out clause is if you are taking photos of anything that could give aid to an enemy. This law has been around since 1911, well before anyone thought of satellite photography or even Google maps and is only likely to apply to military installations and even then only the most sensitive ones, but it is something to keep in mind if you like taking things like plane photographs. Taking pictures of soldiers around barracks is also likely to get you into trouble under this category.

The 3rd category is the most wide ranging and the most open to abuse. The 2000 terrorism act has given the police wide ranging powers to stop and search  when in doing so could result in the prevention of a terrorism act. Unfortunately this is a catch all, and you could see how such powers could be brought into force around something like a power station.

This brings us to who has power to do what. The first thing is that civilian security guards, whoever they are employed by, have no powers of stop, arrest or confiscation. This means they cannot arrest or detain you, demand access to or confiscate your equipment.

However they have the power to make your life difficult by calling the police, who for an easy life may well take their side of the argument, until it can be sorted out at the police station. So my advice is always be friendly and polite, however ludicrous their questions are. Secondly like most security staff they are specially selected for there lack of sense of humour or sense of irony. So phrases like " I was just casing the joint to steal one of the cooling towers" however funny in your head, will not help your situation.

However if you are in a situation where you are on public land and someone does question your rights, I suggest the following
  1. Smile, be friendly. Explain you are a photographer, just carrying out your hobby.
  2. Carry some sort of ID. Like I said I gave them a business card, which seemed to help (even though it could be easily faked). A photography club card could be useful in these situations. You are under no legal requirement to prove your identity when asked, but there is no reason not too and any card will probably end in the bin anyway.
  3. If they do ask you to move on, you can then ask them why and if necessary explain to them politely of your legal rights. Phrases like "make me, copper" are unlikely to help the situation. If they insist, ask for their name and their supervisors name.
  4. If they try to confiscate your equipment or delete your photos', warn them you will ring the police. If they continue to try, do so.
  5. If the situation starts getting heated and they won't back down. Pack your stuff, and walk away. It is after all a hobby, and really not worth chaining yourself to the railings over. By all means complain to the company involved (plus any local news papers for effect)

In truth it is unlikely to get past point 2, unless you meet a very inexperienced guard with a Napoleon complex. Remember also that their bosses are unlikely to welcome any adverse publicity such an event would occur.

In my case we did the usual British dance where I answered  politely his questions and restrained myself from reminding him of my legal rights, and he did enough to make me uncomfortable about being there, without actually suggesting I was in any way wrong. After both of us had fulfilled our roles, we both went back to our jobs in hand.

However some of the questions did confuse me. He asked whether I was a professional. That is always a difficult question for me. Does he mean in my outlook? Does the fact I have sold 2 photos in my career count? Anyway what difference does it make legally?

The 2nd question was whether I had a Flickr account. Maybe he was trying to a trick question to see I really was a photographer on the basis that Al Queda  only use snapchat? (I lied here, I said no. I do have a Flickr account, but haven't used it for years.). Again legally it seemed a strange question.

Unfortunately as the world moves from crisis to crisis, and the paranoia levels rise and fall with them, it is easy to fall a cropper to such situations. The important thing is to be aware of your rights, but not to use them as a blunt instrument against any figures of authority.

Yes, right might well be on your side, but if you are not careful, it may only come to your rescue after a significant legal expense and battle. So you have to ask yourself, is it worth all that hassle to take a few photos?


2.  A very useful downloadable guide can be found here -
3. Advice from the UK Metropolitian police -

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