Public or private?

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

Most of us don’t give a second thought about the whether a public space is in fact publicly owned or private. Just because space is publicly accessible, doesn’t mean it is public land. In fact, very little space, is publicly owned. For example, Paternoster Square, alongside St Paul’s Cathedral in the centre of London is publicly accessible. You can walk though it, stop, have a coffee, etc. However, the space is in fact on private land.

A photograph outside the National Theatre? "Sorry mate, not here."

On public space you are entitled to take any photographs you want. Whether you’re using an iPhone and are taking a quick snap of your family or friends or are taking an image of an interesting building or landmark, no one is likely to stop you. This extends to taking a ‘professional shot’ using a bigger camera and perhaps a light stand (mostly).

On public land, you still need to be conscious of local regulations. In London, the City of Westminster Council has a rather long list of things that need special permission and a licence, normally for a sizable fee. Setting up a shoot with a light stand, one photographer and a client is probably okay. Rock up with two lighting assistants, a makeup artist, hair stylist and an artistic director and you’ll raise a bit of interest and more than likely told to stop or apply for a permit for another time.

Private land and photographs are rather more blurred. Some smaller or less commercial landowners are unlikely to have a specific scheme in place for photography. That doesn’t stop them from asking you to stop and leaving their property, which of course you should do if asked. Other more commercial landowners will have photography policies in place. If you’re shooting on private land and are asked to stop or leave, you need to do so. This has happened to me a few times; I’m not the type to get into any confrontation so I always comply straight away.

"Hiya. What are you doing on my land?"

The difficult aspect is knowing whether a location is private or public. A beach? Most probably public. A field in the countryside? Most definitely private. A wood? Most are private, unless you’re in a national park, even then, that’s owned by an organisation. So, most of the time you’re on private land, regardless of what it might look or feel like.

I set up what was going to be an epic shoot on a dark, moody and blustery day, I dragged a table, chair, tablecloth and dinner setting, plus a fair bit of kit from my car across Dungeness beach. I’d been shooting for about five minutes, when I could see a chap making haste our way. As soon as I saw him coming, I realised my error. I grabbed another few shots in quick, but when he reached us, I stopped. He explained that Dungeness beach is privately owned by the energy company that runs the power station there. Photography needed a licence. Could I buy one retrospectively? No.

"Evening, do you have a permit to shoot here?"

I had no choice, we packed up and trudged back to my car. As it happens, we skipped down the road to another beach and carried on the shoot there, not such a good back drop, but we got some good images there.

The trickiest thing for me is the definition of amateur and professional shoots. You can use an iPhone. You can use a professional DSLR. But if you have someone dressed up in a ballgown (as we had at Dungeness), then that’s professional. If you pop up a light stand and a soft box, that’s professional.

So, in the main, when I’m scouting for locations, I’m very mindful of the public/private land issue. There’s no point in taking a risk, planning a shoot, setting everything up, only to be asked to move on. I’d much rather play it safe in the first place and have a productive shoot at the end of the day. But, that said – Some locations are worth the risk ;)

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