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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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...

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

Jonathan Reid's picture

To be clear, I wasn’t saying the landowner should shut up and leave me alone, I was saying other photographer should do so. With so many private security guards around already enforcing the tripod rule, we surely don’t need other photographers doing their job.

Iain Stanley's picture

Surfing communities around the world have banned drones from certain spots to keep crowds down. Can’t say I’m against it

Rod Kestel's picture

Never been told off using a tripod, but was accused of taking pictures of girls with a long lens at a sports field. The person had no clue, I was on the other side of the carpark!

Another time I was shooting little kids at soccer match. Not easily offended but as the father of two girls I was horrified. I wanted to make a shirt saying 'photographer, not pervert'.

I'm guessing many of you have had similar experiences.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yes, as a travel photographer, I’ve had to cover many beaches. Often someone will come up to me and shout and me not to photograph their children, even though it is very clear that I’m making every attempt not to photograph people.

stir photos's picture

"I am the law. Don't you understand, I represent the law?" - Cotton Mouth
" Piss on ya and your law" - Rubber Duck

michaeljin's picture

I believe the term is "snitches".

Tim Shoebridge's picture

There are two contributory issues here in London. First, most of what you assume is public property is
actually private and owned by land development companies or the Corporation of London. Being granted the right to walk on private property does not give you the right to take photographs. Second, years of mindless terrorism have made the security forces paranoid, and they in turn have made the general public paranoid. On public transport there is a mantra fed over the PA system urging the public to use their initiative, be vigilant, to act like security personnel. I really don't see anything changing for the better any time soon....

Duane Klipping's picture

I have never had this problem but then I do not shoot iconic trophy locations and do not shoot where people are. I am out to get away from people.

These people were tattle_tales as children in school. Always pointing out the faults and errors of others to distract from their own inequities. They profess to be liberal in their thinking but in fact are mini dictators trying to make the world to their liking. I have no tolerance for them or their self imposed rules.

As long as you are not impeeding anyone else what is the harm. Actually the photographer takes all the risk with a tripod that could easily get knocked over with thousands of dollars on the line by some careless fool not watching where his feet are planted.

I will stick to my private corners of the world avoiding most of the human race while shooting.


Mini tripods can be very useful and's one I made earlier.

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