Common sense is still king. Well, for some of us…

And nobody got hurt, insulted or arrested

There’s one thing that’s often missing from photographers’ skills nowadays. It’s not anything technical like mastering Photoshop or – God forbid – how to get it right in camera first time by using lighting, exposure and composition. How very twee.

In fact, it’s something that seems to be missing from society in general. And it’s that an old thing called Common Sense. We live in an age where a hot McApple Pie has to be adorned with warnings that “contents may be hot”. Where a job centre removed an advert which called for a “reliable and hard-working” person as it could discrimate against unreliable people. You can even get fined up to £110 for allowing a scrap of paper to get mixed in with your glass recycling.

And if you ever catch a burglar in your house making off with your prized camera kit, make sure you help him carry his swag out safely or else you’re likely to end up in court for some human rights or health and safety charge.

Wow, a real person in a real city and nobody minds
Wow, a real person in a real city and nobody minds. Even if you use off-camera flash and a brollie

Of course, the most heinous crime seems to be getting your camera out in a public place. And if your DSLR is deemed to be “a big one” and is mounted to the terrorists’s number one choice of covert surveillance – known around these parts as “a tripod” – then you’ll be whisked off to Guantanamo Bay with your al-Qa’ida chums.

A bit of a Lastolite reflector and is is well
A bit of a Lastolite reflector and is is well

And if you dare to get your camera out within a mile of any children – even your own, despite them being fully clothed and in a public location – then you know you’ll have the police on you within seconds. Even though the pictures that kids take of each other with their mobile phones and post on their Facebooks are a million times more shocking.

Fuelled by paranoia, some photographers spend hours swotting up on their rights, learning all about section something-or-other of the anti-terrorism laws and parroting sections of the police act verbatim. Some even carry cards or lens cloths with their rights printed on them. All very British and, of course, no use whatsoever when you’re confronted by an angry parent or jobsworth security guard in your grill who is convinced you are up to no good.

My tip is this: Use your common sense. If you go swinging your big camera about near a playground or an obvious terror target – also known as “London” or any other big city – then you could be asking for trouble. If a copper asks to see your photos and they are truly innocent, then why not show him and defuse the situation, rather than refusing, citing a law and risking a trip to chokey.

Yes, even a nice meadow was obligingly free of hassle
Yes, even a nice meadow was obligingly free of hassle

If a security gorilla takes offence at your image making, then be polite and make a sharp exit rather than standing your high ground and demanding he calls the police. Then take it up later with his bosses, rather than risking causing a disturbance of the peace and an ASBO.

And still we manage to avoid the ASBOs, PCSOs and mentallists
And still we manage to avoid the ASBOs, PCSOs and mentalists

Shielded with a dollop of common sense, I recently decided to run a lighting workshop with a fashion model for a group of photographers on the streets of a major UK city. I chose Cambridge, partly because it’s hugely picturesque but is also tourist-friendly. There are hundreds of people wandering around with cameras all the time.

I had an assistant on hand, to watch the piles of kit and lights we had but also make sure we weren’t in the way too much and didn’t block pavements or the like. We were polite to passers-by, and when asked, showed what we were doing.

Policemen and PCSOs wandered past occasionally and had a quick look at what we were up to, and gave us a smile and an approving nod. We stayed off the main thoroughfares to avoid causing a traffic jam. We had lunch in a trendy restaurant and asked for permission to take some photos in there and the owner obliged.

Just by using a bit of common sense, we avoided confrontation and had a wonderful day. And got some pretty cool photos. And nobody was maimed on the contents of any pastry-based snacks.

  • First published in Practical Photography magazine