Please note that the information on this website regarding photographers' rights and UK law must not be regarded as authoritative. It is written in general terms with a view to increasing general everyday understanding. However it is neither intended to provide authoritative advice nor to be used as guidance in specific cases. Anyone seeking authoritative advice regarding such matters, or anyone involved in a particular legal case, must seek the advice of a suitably qualified solicitor.
Providing a photographer is in a public place, that is on a public highway, pavement, footpath, public park etc, and not causing harassment or obstruction, he or she is free to take photographs of people and use them as required for personal or commercial purposes. The law allows the public to use public highways "for any reasonable purpose" provided the relevant activity neither amounts to a public or private nuisance nor obstructs the public highway "by unreasonably impeding the primary right of the public to pass and re-pass". Within these qualifications there is also a public right of peaceful assembly on on a public highway. The use of a tripod on a public highway, pavement, path, or in other busy public places, may attract attention and hence be classed as a form of obstruction.
Photographing children has become a particularly sensitive issue in recent years. The law allows children to be photographed in public places but public attitudes are now generally less tolerant than UK law. Photographing Children provides more detail.
In UK law there is no specific right to personal privacy in public places, however The European Convention on Human Rights provides a "right to private and family life". In practice it is wise to limit photography to a sensible level that is unlikely to cause the subject reasonable concern.
To obtain good portraits it is often necessary to become involved with the subjects - ie approach them sufficiently closely that their tolerance or co-operation may be required. Working at a distance with a telephoto lens is less likely to lead to high-quality results. For these reasons it is best to approach subjects in an agreeable manner and explain the purpose of your photographic activities. If subjects prefer not to be photographed, or object to a photographer's activities, their wishes should be respected. Insisting on your legal rights will inevitably lead to difficulties, and might lead to a charge of harassment. In UK law harassment is defined as a "course of action", hence excluding a single instance, that causes the subject "alarm or distress".
It is also worth noting that professional photography, ie that undertaken in connection with any business, profession or employment, is banned in London's Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and the Royal Parks. Tripods, models and expensive lighting equipment are likely to draw attention and may invite a large bill. Personal and tourist photography in these areas should not cause any problems.