Shooting professionally in London with and without a permit.

I shoot on location in Central London dozens of time every year, by which I mean I’m shooting a commercial job, outside, usually in a public space, rather than in a hire studio or similar. In many parts of the country, and in many parts of the world, professional photo-shoots, and their much bigger cousins, film crews, are something of a rarity, and as such there is often less hassle.  In London however, with a large media, film, TV, and photographic industry based in the city, all the authorities are pretty turned on to their presence, are on the look-out for them, and charge for a permit accordingly for the disruption they insist we cause. I’m not going to get into that argument here…..

There are basically 2 ways of shooting a commercial job in public in London: with, and without a permit. Before I get too stuck into the details, I want to stress something – you’re very unlikely to get arrested for shooting without a permit, but what is 100% certain is that if you’re spotted, and stopped for shooting without one, the shoot in that location is now over. At the very minimum this will be quite inconvenient, and could throw the whole day’s shoot into question, plus it could also cost you a hefty fine.

Scholl for Women's Health - shot with a permit
Shooting on the street in Soho. Not normally a problem, and you could manage it without a permit if you had a small crew and no lighting. Do it on Berwick St when the Market’s open, with a crew of 8, and lighting, and you WILL need a permit. And you’ll need to buy a few fruit and veg from the stall as well!

It may be very tempting to think you’ll get away without a permit, as from memory you think to yourself “well, I’ve hardly seen any police/security around there, I’ll probably get away with it.” I can tell you from bitter experience that there are a surprisingly large amount of police in places you might not expect – the Royal Parks, for example, are very heavily patrolled, and stopping a photographer for not having a permit is a much easier “win” than chasing someone who’s just stolen a handbag. Arresting a photographer who’s stolen a handbag without a permit counts double.

Here’s a shortlist of places that are very secure, well policed, and pretty much impossible to shoot in without a permit:

  • The entire area of Whitehall, Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square, St James’ Park, Buckingham Palace, the Mall, Horseguards.
  • The Royal Parks – Regents Park, Hyde Park, Primrose Hill, Richmond Park
  • The area around the London Eye and More London (the GLA Building by Tower Bridge) both of which are private land, despite looking very public.
  • Huge swathes of the City of London, places like the Lloyds building are actually copyrighted, and many others are extremely well policed and secured.
  • The Tate Modern, and the Millennium footbridge.
  • Canary Wharf – has it’s own security force, who, to be honest, are over-zealous numpties. Tread very carefully in the entire surrounding area.
  • All MOD properties, as well as the MI6 building (yes, that one from the James Bond films)
  • Most stations and Transport for London locations.
Ironman Triathlete - shot without a permit
Matt, Ironman Triathlete, who also happened to be a Met Police officer, based at Limehouse. This was taken just on the edge of Canary Wharf, and as we were finishing shooting I spotted a couple of the private Canary Wharf security guards hovering. I asked Matt if he’d ever had problems with them being over-zealous and he rolled his eyes. They duly came over, gave me the usual speech and tried to turf me off, only for Matt to pull out his warrant card and tell them they were out of their very limited jurisdiction.  Having had a few tangles with this private army in the past, this was enormously satisfying!

Getting permits.

Getting hold of a permit to shoot in a certain area is pretty straightforward, just contact whichever London borough is in charge of the area, and get hold of their film office/filming officer. They’ve usually got a standard form to fill in, and a fee to pay. This can vary hugely from place to place, and some areas will offer an hourly rate, whilst others may only offer a half or full day option. In my experience very few places have any sort of sliding scale depending on the size of a shoot, and I think this is not only a big mistake, but very prejudiced against stills, which tend as a rule to be much smaller productions than films and TV. Personally, I think they’re missing a trick with this, and that there ought to be a “small unit” permit system, whereby if you’re only going to have, say, half a dozen people, and cause minimum disruption you can get a much cheaper permit. If this were the case I’m sure many more stills photographers would apply for and buy permits, rather than trying to sneak under the radar. As it stands, the price for even a small shoot with a couple of people is basically the same as a feature film with 60+ crew and several vehicles.

Runner's World Rave Run
Taken for a Runner’s World/Puma promo. Despite scouting all 4 sides of Tower Bridge, this was the only spot we could get a permit for.

You will almost certainly need a public liability certificate – which of course you got as part of your annual professional insurance didn’t you? Didn’t you? Call your insurers now, and get one – Local authorities usually need to see evidence of £5 000 000 in public liability, but this costs nowhere near as much as you might think – generally a few quid on top of your premium. Scan the certificate in, and keep it handy on your smart phone with something like Evernote, that would be my advice.

Check the details of the permit very thoroughly, and by all means query them with the issuer as you could be in a lot of hot water if you breach the terms by using equipment you didn’t list, being in areas you weren’t supposed to be, or having lots more people around than you claimed. You may of course need to comply with Health and Safety requirements and wear things like PPE (Personal Protective Equipment for those not in the know – high vis vests, hard hats, and steel toe-capped boots.) During the shoot you must also take great care over things like lighting stands, big reflectors and the like – anything that could fall over/be blown away into the face of a small child or litigious businessman.

Saucony Social Media Campaign
Battersea Park is a very versatile location. Within a fairly small area you’ve got waterfront, an athletics track, open green areas, wooded areas, lakes, an outdoor gym, and all the usual park stuff.

For value for money, look for locations that can offer a variety of looks in one space, rather than just one. I’ve used Battersea Park for this reason several times.

I won’t try and provide links to every borough here, as there are 33 of them (I’m an expert on this – trust me) but a very good place to start your search for who you need to contact for a specific location is Film London.

Shooting below the radar.

So, for whatever reason (usually budget) you’ve opted to not get a permit. How on earth do you manage to produce professional images without getting stopped 5 minutes after starting. Here are a few skills I’ve acquired over the years:

    • Stay small (1). Try and keep the crew to a minimum, and keep them dispersed, rather than huddling round the camera or the model all the time. I’ve actually used a wireless transmitter system (the camranger) and had the art director and crew sitting on a bench 20 yards away looking at images on their ipad, whilst I work with the model “remotely”. Above all, try not to give the impression to a casual observer that you’re a big professional crew.

      Fit Girl Revolution
      Taken on Clapham Common with no permit, no lighting, and no crew!
    • Stay Small (2). Don’t use too much kit, or kit that’s really big and easy to spot. If at all possible, avoid using flash, or big reflectors, as these will obviously attract a lot of attention. If you have the option, use the smallest camera set up you can, the one that looks the least professional, rather than your D4 with a 70-200 on. In this vein, avoid having several cases of equipment
    • Stay Small (3). Try not to draw a crowd or make a fuss. If what you’re doing is particularly eye-catching – someone performing a stunt, or some degree of nudity – don’t be surprised if you start to attract a crowd. This is NOT a good idea!
    • Shoot at odd times of day. Make the effort to get up very early, or stay out very late, and you’ll have a lot less trouble from the authorities as a rule.
      28 Days Later
      For a feature on living out famous moments in cinema for Shortlist magazine. To recreate the opening scenes from 28 Days Later we simply did the same as they did, and just got up VERY early!


    • Scout the location in advance. You may well be able to find spots that are less visible to passers by, and by that same token, the authorities.
Sean Lerwill - Urban Commando
The benefits of doing some location scouting and finding hidden corners. No, I’m not telling you where this is, go out and do some leg-work yourself!
  • Make your movements natural. I’ve shot in Trafalgar square with 3 models, and got away with it. We simply loafed about as if we were 4 mates, and I was just taking some snaps – we didn’t “stage” things too much, just kept things very fast and loose. The more formal things look, the more people will assume you’re a professional crew.
  • Don’t fight. If you do get approached by the police/security etc, don’t put up a fight. Play innocent by all means, but don’t get into an argument, just move on. The odds of you getting arrested are so small as not be worth worrying about, but they increase dramatically if you kick off and tell the authorities what you think of them, that you pay your council tax, that you’re only taking pictures and why don’t they go and arrest some real criminals. You get the picture.

For those of you based here in London, I suspect most of what I’ve said is second nature, and you’ve got your own share of war stories regarding over-zealous security guards and the like. For those coming in from elsewhere to shoot here, hopefully forewarned is forearmed!

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