The Problem of Self-Appointed Photography Police

The Problem of Self-Appointed Photography Police

Have you ever been in that moment when you’ve composed the scene just how you wanted, you’ve nailed your focus, you’ve placed your grad perfectly to balance the exposure and you’re about to take the photograph when you’re interrupted by someone telling you that you’re not allowed to use a tripod at the location?

On closer inspection, you notice that the person isn’t even in security, they’re just a self-appointed tripod policeman. In this article, I’ll examine this photography policing phenomenon in an attempt to stop it.

I remember doing a commercial travel photography job in Turkey. I had a permit to photograph with a tripod in a cave church in Cappadocia. The rules of the church clearly stated that tripods were not allowed. Even so, members of the public tried their luck. The security guards told the public to put away their tripods and then a voice whined out, “how come he is allowed to use a tripod?”. I turned around, shocked to see a fully formed adult man pointing at me. I was dismayed because logically, there were only two explanations for why I was using my tripod. I either had permission or I was trying my luck and getting away with it. What did this man hope to achieve by reporting me? Did he imagine the security guard was going to roll over and allow him to also use his tripod? More likely, this man was annoyed that he couldn’t use his tripod, so he wanted to prevent all others from doing so.

No tripods

Both this and the lead photograph were taken either side of Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge is one of the most photographed icon in London, however, both locations are privately owned and the owners have chosen to ban tripods. At both locations, I've been told by other photographers not to use my tripod.

Since owning a drone, I’ve had to deal with similar issues: self-appointed drone police constantly telling me what I can and can’t do. Worse still, whenever I post a photo or video from a drone, certain people are outraged, convinced that I’ve broken the law to get the shot.

I appreciate this video by Tech Drone Media because it provokes the drone police and highlights the futility of the practice. To some extent, I understand why some photographers feel compelled to police other photographers. When photographers willful break the law and annoy the general public, it can make it more difficult for law abiding photographers. However, there are three issues facing even the most well intentioned photography policeman:

  1. The photographer has a permit and is operating within the law. In this case, confronting the photographer distracts them from doing their job.
  2. The photographer is aware of the law and is taking a chance, hoping to get away with it. In this case, the photographer will simply move to another location and will continue to take the chance.
  3. The photographer is ignorant of the law. This is a common occurrence with drones available from most stores sold to the general public without any education. This group does not represent the serious photographer group and if you're going to try police this group, you've got an uphill battle now that just about every person in the world has a camera in their hands.

Have you ever found yourself acting in some sort of photographic policing role and if so, what were you hoping to achieve? To the self appointed photography police out there, I suggest making a decision to make your life easier and just let other photographers practice their craft without interference.

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63 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

It's a problem not only between peers but also security/police who have no clue what's allowed but have decided that they're making a judgement. Shooting in my city has been a struggle sometimes because it seems like many police and security guards think that even when I'm on public property I'm not allowed to shoot. It's why I've been looking to switch away from a professional looking camera and downsize to make me look more like a tourist. Even in my own city.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yeah, the security thing is a constant problem. We definitely don’t need other photographers acting as security on top of this.

Saul Shiffman's picture

I do occasionally explain to nubies why flash photography may not be allowed, even if photography is, and sometimes help them turn off the flash on their automatic camera

Jonathan Reid's picture

Makes sense - use of flash in some places can cause problems and also kills any chance of decent video capture.

Geoff Miller's picture

The flip side of that is when you have permission to use strobes and the "photo police" say you shouldn't be allowed to use them. I partner with a guy that has the had the photo concession at an area ice hockey tournament series for 12 years. He strobes the rinks, which allows us to take some of the best photos that parents will ever get of their kid playing the sport due to the beautiful lighting and low ISO. Each year many returning teams look forward to coming to one of these tournaments for the photos that they will receive.

Never the less, a handful of times each year new parents or coaches will try and demand that we turn our strobes off. The usual "go to" argument is that I hypothetically "could" trigger an epileptic seizure in someone. I then have to stop shooting the game, as it continues, explain that randomly fired strobes aren't a known source for triggering such events in people with photosensitive epilepsy. I had one guy threaten to call the police on me because I was "assaulting him" with the strobes. I've only agreed to switch to high ISO ambient lighting once, after a guy claimed that his wife was sensitive to strobes and it would give her a migraine headache if I continued. That seemed to be more than just a hypothetical, even though he almost certainly was just using it as an excuse. Before he started with the "migraine" angle, he simply said the flashes were "annoying."

When they don't get anywhere with the "seizure" argument, the fallback argument is that the players (goalies in particular) will be too distracted by the flashes. This season I had one coach kick me off his bench because I politely refused his request to stop using the strobes. He then tried to sic the referee on me to get him to order me to comply with his wishes, but thankfully the refs work all of our tournaments too and know that the protest was merit-less. He told the guy to worry about coaching his players and let me take my photos, each as we saw fit. To the coaches credit, he later came over to me and apologized and said that he was out of bounds with his treatment of me. I very much thanked him for his making amends.

The irony of the coach's concerns is that in the five games that his team played with our strobes firing, his team only gave up a total of two goals and won the championship easily.

The third argument that some try to use, which I totally LOVE, is "I've been to lots of other tournaments, and nobody else uses flashes, so why to you have to use them?!?!?!" I just smile, and say "Look at the photos in the lobby afterwards and compare them to what you see at the other tournaments and you'll understand WHY we use them!"

Jonathan Reid's picture

Wow! My worst is “police” that won’t accept your explanation or even documentation.

Deleted Account's picture

"Never the less, a handful of times each year new parents or coaches will try and demand that we turn our strobes off. The usual "go to" argument is that I hypothetically "could" trigger an epileptic seizure in someone."

Have these parents ever gone to an NHL game? I'm guessing since their kids play they're Hockey fans. I would have immediately inform them that NHL games are strobed and have been for a very long time.

Geoff Miller's picture

That's the funny thing, when I ask people that claim they have problems with the flashes, particularly the guy with the wife who he claims get migraines if they've ever been to a Red Wings game or a Pistons game and have they had the same issues with the strobes used there, they say "Yes we've been... and WHAT strobes?!?!?" I then pull up a game highlight video on my phone using YouTube and point out the strobes firing that can be seen in the video. I tell them that the physics is pretty much the same with us and Little Caesars Arena. We both have to raise the flash brightness to the level to where is enough higher than ambient that prevents motion blur at flash sync shutter speeds, supports a lower ISO, and gives us a decent depth of field. We use 1/250th, f5.6 at ISO 500.

I point out to them that the only real difference is that we have to mount the strobes about 20 feet over the top of the benches and bounce them off the low reflective ceiling instead of mounting them overhead. This means that the lights are in the top end of the spectator's field of view instead of "hidden" in the rafters. Yes, I know this set up is distracting at first, but we've done this enough to know that people get used to it real quick. We don't shoot games after a certain point in the weekend, if neither team playing has purchased our photo package. Without fail, parents will come out after the game and look for photos of the game at our booth and are shocked to learn that we didn't shoot any photos of the game. They didn't notice that the strobes WEREN'T firing.

Saul Shiffman's picture

Was not thinking of triggering an epileptic fit... i agree, that is not a reasonable concern. Was thinking of museums, where the museum is trying to avoid exposing art to light, to avoid fading of colors

Geoff Miller's picture

Saul, I understand completely. I was just expressing the flip side of the issue.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’ve heard that a painting will need to be exposed to a constant flash for 100 years to get damaged.

Matthijs Bettman's picture

After taking this image, I was told you aren't allowed to use a tripod there.. We were with maybe 10 people using a tripod, lol.
Anyway, we got our shots :-)

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yep, good old Katherine’s Docks makingn up the 3rd quadrant of privatised land around the bridge.

Alex Reiff's picture

There's a huge list of dangerous, illegal and unethical behaviors that people will do to get a shot. You have the people who left smoke bomb residue on others property, people who burn steel wool without fire protection, and people who harass animals to get a pose out of them. This argument could basically be applied to any of that.

Jonathan Reid's picture

You are technically correct, however I’m sure we can agree that there is a world of different between using a tripod on private land and the activities you’ve mentioned.

Alex Reiff's picture

That was kind of the point, honestly. I get not wanting to bother people using drones or tripods because there's not much potential for harm, but the overall tone I'm getting from this piece is "You can't change other people's bad behavior, so don't even try."

Jonathan Reid's picture

Surely anyone with an adult level of maturity can distinguish between what is a harmless activity vs something that can do real damage. Warning someone against using a tripod does no one any good. Preventing someone from causing damage to the environment benefits everyone.

Deleted Account's picture

Long story short.
Trip to London from Belgium to shoot a building facade for company.
Flight in, taxi to location. Canary Wharf. Which is, private property. No problem we have permission from the building (Bank) owner to shoot the facade.
Set up Sinar Large format on tripod. Security rushes out of bank to stop us. Checks paperwork, tells us to wait, goes inside.
Comes back, one form missing for security, have to wait, he goes away again.

In totally, we waited 90 min. In that 90min countless tourists have walked past and made intimate photos of the buildings around us including our building. Plus, a 7.5tonne TNT delivery service truck parked on the no parking zone outside the bank and driver walked away for 30min.
We, leaning on our tripod, getting rather miffed.

Security returned. 'Ok, I had to check as we're clamping down on people making pics of the bank for anti-terrorism measures, but you can make your photo now.'

'Click'

One more 'Click' for backup, few 35mm detail shots and we were back in the taxi.

Even with the paperwork, you always get some jobsworth with something to prove. Annoying.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

As if anybody can stop the taking of pictures with a zillion mobile phones around. They could have stopped that 20 years ago but nowadays it is like stopping a tsunami.

Deleted Account's picture

And to be honest. 2 blokes with a huge tripod and camera, big bags, looking like they are there for a reason, look much less a terrorist threat than someone dressed as a tourist making snaps of everything. If I was a baddie looking to recce a place, I'd sure not roll up with all that kit.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Drives me crazy!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Canary Wharf is crazy! If I see anyone getting away with using a tripod there I’ll high five them.

Felix C's picture

I was there at Christmas time and had no issue.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Lucky you. Anywhere near the banks is crazytown most of the time

Matthijs Bettman's picture

High five!

Philipp Pley's picture

As a fellow Londoner I think the Tower Bridge issue (I've been told off there so many times!) also just gives the city a really bad name, both sides of the river are ultra popular with tourists and locals alike and makes them feel unwelcome, it's idiotic to think that tripod = pro photographer = money grabber. You get treated like a criminal!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Exactly, we certainly don’t need more photographers acting as self appointed policeman.

Mikhail Davydov's picture

Tripod or a light stand... If feels like almost anything you can put on the ground makes you look too professional. The first go to target for a security. :(

Jonathan Reid's picture

I keep telling myself that they’re under specific instruction but it still drives me crazy!

Stas F's picture

In London near Tower Bridge I was asked multiple times if I'm recording video. I was just taking photos with tripod. I've been asked multiple times but every time after I said I was taking photos security left me alone. They said commercial video recording is not allowed. I am wondering let's say I'm recording video with the tripod for myself - this is not a commercial use, right? But my guess is they won't let you anyways. Whenever ppl (security) see tripod, they assume "professional photographer". In the US, where I'm home, when I'm in public I don't usually "leave" when they ask me to. Whenever a security guy tells me to leave in his first sentence, I just tell them they can call the police. No one ever called. I also tell them I'm going to file a retort against them if they won't leave me alone. Obviously I need to be somewhere not inside the building, but this happens a lot just simply on a street, idk what their problem is. Some security guys are nice and if they're nice and talk to me nicely and explain what's going on we usually don't have issues - they usually say something like "you just do what you gonna do and I'll just hang out nearby because my boss told me to come talk to you".
Yeah that's an issue.

Robert Nurse's picture

Once, on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of Pennsylvania Ave. near the FBI building, I set up a light stand and strobe with 5' Octa. Directly behind the stand was a traffic light. On either side of were two bike lanes keeping traffic at bay. MPD drove by. Federal police drove by. Not so much as a "hey, what are you shooting?". Now, I'm sure if some snitch had called the police I would have been asked to leave. But, as long as no one complains...

Pieter Batenburg's picture

It is really ironic that a city with half a million cctv cameras ask photographers not to use a tripod.

ashley list's picture

How can they stop you filming in a public place Tower bridge or not? They do not have that authority?

Jonathan Reid's picture

It is not public land but private land masquerading as public land

Stas F's picture

Search for "private property with public access". It's kinda grey area, but not really, but kinda grey. After lots of reading I understand that no one can stop you from taking photos or recording, but they can ask you to leave and you have to comply otherwise it's trespassing and you could be arrested. So when security guy says "you can't take photos here", you actually can most likely, but after that 99% probability they will ask you to leave and there's nothing you can do - you gonna have to leave. So it's a trade off - you can try to continue taking photos, but until the moment they say you have to go.

Robert Nurse's picture

It goes like this:

Self-Annointed Law Enforcement (SALE): "You aren't supposed to have a tripod here!"
Photographer: "May I see some state or local law enforcement ID?"
SALE: "I'm not with law enforcement."
Photographer: "May I see some ID of any kind granting you authority?"
SALE: "I don't have authority per se."
Photographer: "Then the discussion is over."

You don't have to yell or be mean. Just firmly resolute. If they call the police, then you show THEM the permit! Don't feed the SALEs by showing them permission/documentation that they're not entitled to see.

Stas F's picture

I actually had issue recently while shooting with platypod from the ground level. Not even tripod. And I was on a street near stop sign on a crossroad with cars driving by and pedestrians walking around. Security guy who didn't speak pure English started yelling from far away I need to leave. I told him he can call the police. He called his manager, the manager came and they both tried to tell me it's a private property. I told them I'm not going anywhere and can be there as long as I want. The building indeed was someone's property, but the street is considered a public place even if it's a private property - I wasn't trespassing. So then manager gave up and told that first guy to leave and then told me I can continue taking photos and he left as well.
My issue with them is that I didn't use tripod at all. Even though I still could, but I didn't.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Well done for standing your ground.

Andy Toga's picture

OP is trying to associate ppl reactions with simply feeling the envy. That may not be exactly right.
In general, every exception from the current law should be explicitly announced or displayed. For instance, the person having the permit should display it, have a high-visibility vest, or use the permit with assistance of the guard ready to explain the case to anybody.
Otherwise, he provokes either a righteous indignation – at those “more equal”, or corruption and depravity making others thinking that avoiding the law is OK in some way.
Blaming others for the indignation is slightly out of place here and is indicating rather the OP not being sufficiently explicit with the permits being in use.
Look at that from this PoV: the “Self-Appointed police” can be a good thing as it really helps to protect local regulations - that is actually a desirable behavior in the community. On the other hand, it may actually safe the unaware suspect from penalties when being applied as a direct warning.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Andy, you’ve brought up a couple of good points, however, you’ve taken my one example and applied it to all scenarios.

Let me take the scenario that others have also commented on in cities like London. At most public locations, when you pull out a tripod, the security come running out and inform you that you’re not allowed to use a tripod as professional photography requires a permit. In this situation, use of a tripod is not a law, it is the policy of the landowners that cannot actually be enforced. In this case local regulations do not need to be protected and should not be protected.

In another scenario, a photographer jumps the barrier at a national park for a better view and in doing so, damages the local flora. In this situation, I would expect the other photographer to intervene.

My point is that adults should be mature enough to distinguish between the two types of scenerious.

Lastly, your point on righteousnes indignation is just a euphemism for envy. It’s what a child does when they are not allowed to play with a toy that other children are. It’s not the sort of behaviour you associate with any level of maturity.

Mark Fa'amaoni's picture

"however, you’ve taken my one example and applied it to all scenarios" says the person who wrote an article based on a single example and "applied it" to all scenarios.

Fred Teifeld's picture

Back in 2004 I was taking pictures at night in Millennium Park here in Chicago. I was accosted by a private security guard working the park who while rolling up on a Segway started yelling at me about how I needed a permit. When I asked him why I needed it, he said that anybody taking pictures in the park required one. It being a public park, I was mystified and the security guard ramped up his hostile approach until I told him that he would be best off to call the police and that I'd be happy to wait for their arrival.

This didn't dissuade Mr. Security Guard from his verbal hostility and I stayed calm and rational through the whole thing. When he tried to explain his point of view, he asked if I was a professional and I began to get a little flippant with him. I told him "No" and he responded with "Well, you have a TRIPOD". I then said to him;

"Well, you have an ***hole but that doesn't necessarily make you one, does it?"

That cracked him up and we ended up having a very pleasant conversation while I kept shooting. I even taught him a little about photography.

A few weeks later, it came out in the local news that the City of Chicago was trying to extort permit fees for anybody with a camera in the park. Even if they were using a point and shoot. The city then relented due to the major backlash. The funniest part of the aftermath was that they must have instructed the park security staff to leave people alone but be passive-aggressive in attempting to disrupt anybody using a tripod. Every time I'd be there shooting, a security guard would appear and pace very slowly in front of the main attraction (Many call it "The Bean") thinking they were ruining the image being captured.

One evening, I called over the passive aggressor (Not the same one from my first encounter), showed them the image(s) and they were completely shocked that they weren't visible in the image.

Thats when I explained the idea of a long exposure. They gave up bothering anybody not long after that.

Steve Molder's picture

I do my best to avoid whistle-blowers in these instances by getting crafty with my Gorillapod. From my past experiences the general public doesn’t seem to notice it as being a tripod, and it still allows me to stabilize my shot. It’s small stature allows me to come and go with little notice as it fits right inside my backpack.

Richard Tack's picture

I thought the main reason for the anti-tripod rule was not anti-pro photogs, but the fear that it could trip someone or get knocked into a crowd of moving visitors causing a NASCAR style pileup.

Jonathan Reid's picture

The anti tripod law is enforced to try extract money for permits for commercial photography.

In very crowded places, like markets, there is a case of health and safety, but mostly this is just an excuse.

Rob Davis's picture

Is this mostly a European problem? I hear it a lot from people in the UK especially. I’ve never had problems taking pictures anywhere in public in the US.

Jonathan Reid's picture

As a UK resident who has worked in the US, I’ve found this far more prevalent in the US. Cities like New York and DC were quick to prevent me using a tripod in many locations. In New York, I was in a location where people were openly smoking weed. The police ignored them but prevented me from using a tripod.

Rob Davis's picture

Interesting. I guess I wasn’t thinking of a tripod. That does make sense because it could quickly turn the city into an obastacle course with all of the aspiring photographers out there (Google Poppypocalypse). I’ve heard of people getting chased off in the UK simply because they had a big camera which I guess means pro.

Not trying to start an international incident here. Was just curious. :)

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yeah, in the UK, they want to sell permits for commercial (pro) photography. Same as LA.

Some Fella's picture

As a long time reader of Fstoppers, I find this article quite confusing. I come here to read informative reviews and articles for bettering my photography, but from this article I just read it as the rants of a frustrated guy.

If you have a permit for the location, I can understand the hassle of being told to stop working, and the time it takes you to explain that you have one and get the job done.

But one could read it and think, You’re implying they should just set up anywhere that’s needed to get the shot if that’s with a tripod and flash or whatever no matter the rules. If you go down this route, and you know it’s against the wishes of the landowner at least be so nice as to ask for a sec to get the shot and leave. To write a some what short article to say all these people should shut up and leave you alone is frustrating at least and doing nothing to better the photography community.

Please, next time maybe write an article about what sites need permits and how to obtain the necessary permits to take photos of the better sites of London so we can best avoid problems with the real police.

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