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

Michael Holst'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.

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.

Michael Holst'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.

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.

Rob Mitchell'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.

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.

Rob Mitchell'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

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

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

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.

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.

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