Illegal! Think Twice About Metadata and How You Tag Your Photos Online

Nov 11, 2017

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

Illegal! Think Twice About Metadata and How You Tag Your Photos Online

Nov 11, 2017

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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Illegal Photo Use Metadata

The internet is a strange and wonderful place. As creative professionals we’re all working hard, creating cool stuff and sharing it online with the world.

But behind this land of chocolate are not all smiles and sunshine.

There are legions of trolls and cyber-vigilantes laying in wait to cause $hit for fun or just to fight their own personal versions of injustice.

A recent incident with a cyber-vigilante made me realize how important it is to really think twice about what I share online, what someone can glean from metadata and how I tag my photos.

In this article, I will share the lessons I learned and some tips for avoiding similar problems.

Some Rules Can Be Bent Others Can be Broken

This is going to sound pretty crazy for some…but lots of people, possibly myself included, don’t always follow the rules.

I ride my bike without a helmet.

I don’t wait an hour to swim after I eat.

I connect to unprotected wifi networks.

There is a certain self-righteous corner of modern society that truly (and often gleefully) believes that if I were run over by a truck on my bike, drowned because of a cramp or was charged with a felony for checking my email – well as a scofflaw I just got what I deserved.

Illegal Photo Use Metadata

Take a look what happened when we recently posted an article about a photographer melting his drone photographing lava flows in Hawaii (Photographer Melted His Drone To Capture Lava Flows. It Was Worth It).

The immediate response wasn’t: Hey cool photos – nice work! It was: Ahhhhhhh illegal! illegal! illegal!

I’m 100% certain that somebody was so offended by this photographer’s work that they took it upon themselves to report him to the FAA, National Park Service, Neighborhood Watch, Knight’s Watch and whomever else they could think of – just to make a point.

For the purpose of this article, can we all agree that there are many rules, laws and social conventions that we all bend or break on a regular basis – and it’s almost never a big deal?

To those who are already bubbling over with righteous indignation right now…I get it, I get really angry when I’m following the rules and someone comes along and breaks them right under my nose – I want to take them down a notch too. But honestly, in almost every circumstance it’s not a big enough problem for me to waste my time worrying about it.

Can we agree that as a society we all really need to chill out?

We’ve Received A Complaint…

It’s pretty safe to say that most of the innocuous activity we are all involved with on a daily basis goes unnoticed by the man – and really, society would grind to a halt if it was.

In my case, I received a call from a Canada Parks ranger after a complaint of a photo that I posted online featuring an (alleged) illegal campfire in a national park.

Further, as I was a commercial photographer taking photos in a national park I was (allegedly) working without a permit.

The image in question was captured over two years before grabbing the attention of some cyber-vigilante and ending up on the desk of a Canada Parks ranger, who was then obligated to follow up.

Like most national parks in the world, Canada’s national parks have been totally swamped with tourists (see: Tourism Has Run Amok…And Ruined Photography) and I can only imagine the crap that rangers have to deal with on a regular basis.  As an avid visitor to those parks, I recognize that I have a personally responsibility for their proper use.

I honestly have no idea if I realized what we were doing at the time was against the rules – but regardless, the ranger had photographic proof that I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to, along with neatly tagged location and contact information.

The ranger’s primary concern was that by sharing images of an illegal activity I was essentially promoting that activity. I understand and totally agree with the ranger’s point so I agreed to remove the images in question from my online portfolio.

Not a big deal.

Illegal Photo Use Metadata

However, for me the much bigger issue was the assertion that I was “working” in a National Park without a commercial photography and video permit.

Almost all national, state, provincial and even municipal parks (and some Italian towns) restrict commercial photography and video to some extent.

I don’t want to get into a protracted argument about what the definition of commercial is – but legally speaking the definition is extremely broad – so much so that almost all tourist photographers could legally be considered commercial photographers (even likes or shares can be considered personal gain and therefore commercial use).

There is nothing wrong with the premise of permits for commercial photography and video in national, state, provincial and municipal parks – but in practice the scope of regulation is pretty ridiculous.

As an example, here is the Commercial Film and Photography Guidelines for Banff National Park.

The application form is six pages long and must be submitted a minimum of three weeks in advance.

Say you are a stock film maker or photographer and you’re going camping for a long weekend – to legally film or take photos in Banff National Park the application fee is $ 147.20 plus a location fee of $490.60 per day x 3 days = $1619 (tax is included!).

And here are 100 out of over twenty eight thousand images with the keyword “Banff” on Shutterstock.

All of these images were most likely captured without a Commercial Film and Photography permit – and that is just one single stock agency.

In my opinion, this is typical of most government regulation when it comes to photography and video – nobody actually follows it and nobody really expects you to, but if there’s a complaint it’s there to screw you over with.

Shutterstock Banff National Park
28000 images with the keyword “Banff” on Shutterstock – likely all illegal.

Capturing Interesting Photos? Chances Are You’re Doing Something Illegal

The point I’m getting at is no matter what you’re taking photos of, there is a very high probability that at some point you’ll post something that is illegal, against the rules, captured without permission or simply something that somebody has an issue with.

A few common examples that immediately come to mind of images that could get photographers into trouble include:

  • Anywhere you need a ticket to access. Museums, theaters, stadiums, concert venues, amusement parks etc.
  • Private property or anywhere that is not accessible to the public. The interior of buildings, private estate grounds, homes, factories, offices etc.
  • National, state, provincial parks and even municipal parks.
  • Anything captured by a drone.
  • Any activity that is forbidden in a specific area. Rock climbing, off piste skiing, slack lining, cliff jumping etc.
  • Any nudity or suggested nudity.
  • Any depiction of illicit drugs or alcohol.
  • Any image that has to do with politics, gender, race or religion.
  • Any image from a location that is only accessible by trespassing. Hiking off marked trails, hopping a fence, sneaking into abandoned buildings etc.
  • And of course my personal favorite…using a tripod at a location where tripods are banned! (Can’t we think of the children…).

Putting together an exhaustive list of things that someone might have an issue with is impossible (What would you add to the list? Leave a comment!), and any reasonable person wouldn’t have an issue with pretty much anything on this list.

I’m not encouraging photographers and film makers to go out and intentionally break the law – instead the point I want to make is that there is a very big chance you already are, because it is very easy to capture something that is against the “rules”.

canada day independence day fireworks
SharpUSA licensed this photo for selling 4K TVs, but I’m sure someone somewhere is super pissed off that I am promoting the dangerous use of fireworks in this photo.

Think Very Carefully About What Information You Volunteer

It is always best practice to add pertinent metadata to all of your work. At a minimum, the following fields are recommended:

  • Copyright Owner and Creator
  • Document Title
  • Keywords
  • Licensor
  • Website & email
  • Copyright notice
  • Rights usage terms

Including copyright, usage terms, ownership and contact information are necessary to help ensure the legitimate use of your work (even if they can all be stripped out).

A descriptive title and relevant keywords are necessary for an image to be indexed by search engines. However, it is the title and keywords that can most easily get you into trouble.

When In Doubt – Strip the EXIF Data

In my opinion, the big social media corporations get away with copyright murder simply by stripping the metadata from everything that is uploaded to their platforms, so if you’re not sure, you might want to clear some of that data too.

EXIF data usually includes camera model, settings, date and time, copyright and location.

In particular, date, time and GPS location information are the most likely to be used against you – especially if you used a mobile phone or a drone to capture the image.

Do Not Add Unnecessary Specifics

In order for you to get into trouble, people and locations need to be identifiable.

Illegal use of images of a landmark like the Eiffel Tower at night may be easy to identify, but in many cases, you can’t really tell who is in an image or where it was captured.

However, if you specifically tag a person or location – you’ve just identified them/it.

Generalize Anything That Could Potentially Get You In $hit

It is silly that we even have to think like lawyers, but there is a big difference between a photo that is tagged as “Banff National Park” versus “Banff National Park Area”.

You want to tag your images with as much relevant information as possible, but if you’re not sure that you’re 100% within the “rules”, generalize.

Use An Alias or Stage Name

The thing with the internet is that it is actually relatively difficult to identify people personally – unless they volunteer that information.

In serious criminal investigations, of course law enforcement agencies usually have no problem identifying the personal information of people online – but the average government bureaucrat does not have the time, resources or inclination to do that level of investigation – so if you don’t offer your personal information, unless it’s something really serious, they’re not going to dig enough to find it.

I personally use my real information because to me my personal brand is just as important as my photography brand – but if I was primarily a drone photographer or urbex photographer – there is no way I would be posting under my real name.

The same goes for registering personal information with equipment that is likely to be used against you in the event of a complaint – DJI may force you to register your drone with them – but they aren’t forcing you to get a retina scan.

Just Don’t Break the Law Or You Get What You Deserve

Again, the point of this post is not to encourage photographers and film makers to break the law.

There will always be a black and white segment of society that believes if you break “the law” then you’ll get what you deserve (this is probably a subject for a much larger discussion on current political trends).

However, if you think about it honestly, there is a very large grey area that we all navigate on a regular basis.

Government bureaucracy and authority are a tricky beast. Once a complaint gets the ball rolling, due diligence and “the rules” can snowball out of control very quickly and all of a sudden you could be facing some pretty serious consequences.

It may seem trivial, but if you share your work online, you really have to consider how someone could use your work against you – because a single photo or video can literally ruin your life (see: Photographer Mom Shared A Photo Of Her Son and His Father in a Shower – and Now She’s Going To Court).

If you think you might be in a bit of a grey area, even just a little, don’t make life easy for the cyber-vigilantes – protect yourself and think twice about metadata and how you tag your photos online.

YouTube video

(My son just posted this to his YouTube channel because he thinks it’s funny. So did I when I recorded it – but I am sure its pretty offensive to some.)

Do You Always Follow The Rules?

Do you think that it is prudent to be careful about how you tag your photos online?

Do you think it’s OK to occasionally work in a grey area – or is the law the law?

What photography and video activities are the most likely to skirt the law?

What unintended consequences do you think could happen to photographers or film makers from breaking the rules?

What examples of rule breaking have you seen that should be punished?

What examples of rule breaking have you seen that are perfectly reasonable?

How do you determine what rules must be followed and what can be ignored?

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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21 responses to “Illegal! Think Twice About Metadata and How You Tag Your Photos Online”

  1. Stefan Kohler Avatar
    Stefan Kohler

    Very good article!
    The internet is the most wonderful of all strange places.

  2. Avatar

    On the other hand, these “nazi” rules could be good for real professionals, who are willingly always work by the rules, unlike those who only want to take and not give.

  3. David Hennes Avatar
    David Hennes

    Would be cool to read if this crap would stop popping up all the time

    1. Linda Gayle Griffin Avatar
      Linda Gayle Griffin

      I do hate that crap!!!

  4. Tj Ó Seamállaigh Avatar
    Tj Ó Seamállaigh

    This is really silly. Probably I should take off all my shots from Ireland out of the stocks.

  5. Karel Bata Avatar
    Karel Bata

    Good article.
    But I really must take issue with your frequent use of the word illegal, and the idea of breaking the law. These photographic activities are not ‘illegal’, but rather unlawful. And only sometimes. It’s an important distinction. You’re not ‘breaking the law’.
    With notable exceptions (sensitive military sites for example, or if it intimidates someone) there is no law as such forbidding you from taking a photograph. The issue is about if you make any personal gain from it afterwards. Still not illegal though, and it’s up to the aggrieved party to seek redress for financial loss. In the UK we call it a civil matter. Uppity security guards may get upset at the sight of a camera (since they are plonkers with nothing else to do) but policemen here in London generally couldn’t care less.
    Am I nitpicking? No, because your usage of the term ‘illegal’ kind of gives the impression that the cyber-vigilantes really are in some way upholding ‘the law’. They are are not. They are party-poopers and really should get out more. Maybe break a few ‘rules’ themselves.
    As to photographing something you perhaps shouldn’t be doing (and you will in someone’s eyes somewhere) – you’re absolutely right. Strip off the metadata.
    Peace, love, and donuts. ;-)

    1. Tj Ó Seamállaigh Avatar
      Tj Ó Seamállaigh

      I like the donuts part.

    2. Brian Avatar

      Fantastic…. Well put!

  6. David Campbell Avatar
    David Campbell

    I’m sorry to hear about the troll and the lava video. I read that article and enjoyed it.

    Sadly, it is not news to me that politics are more important than laws. In the United States, we have many laws that are not enforced, but their presence on the books means that someone could make a charge if they know that a law exists. Even if it goes to court, is appealed, and eventually overturned or dismantled, the entire ordeal can be a lengthy process and often destroys people financially. (See patent trolls.)

    My favorite example of this is actually alcohol. It is literally impossible to serve alcohol in the U.S. without breaking the law because there are so very many laws regarding this activity that many of them contradict each other. But bars are everywhere, so how do they stay in business? They survive by maintaining positive social relationships with the local police; essentially, the workers at the bar make a point of knowing who the police are that visit and investigate reports at the bar, and stay actively connected with them to address emergine issues–and also appease them in subtle but direct ways, like services and products “on the house” for visiting officers. It’s how business is done.

    I am not sure what the equivalence of this might be for photography. There is probably a way to connect with local law enforcement to secure unharassed access to certain areas and bypass the typical troll, even if he does make an offical complaint. That might work for areas we frequently visit (because we live nearby), but obviously it may not be so simple for travel.

    Thanks for the reminder about what my metadata reveals. I will definitely keep it in mind.

  7. Xystren Avatar

    Another thought provoking article JP – thanks for posting it.

    It is truly a shame that things have come to this type of nonsense. I can understand some of the ‘rules, but they should be more guidelines with some common sense applied. Rather than prohibiting tripods, how about don’t allow your tripod to interfere with the enjoyment of others. Again, as your mentioned, someone will be offended – common sense is really is not that common anymore; uncommon sense might be a better description.

    Currently, I’m at my granddaughters tap-dance class, I and one of the other parents has overbearing-obnoxious perfume that it seems like the swam laps in. Against the rules? Perhaps – nothing posted though – breaks uncommon-sense rules? I’d say so. Where is a National Park Service bureaucracy when you need it.

    Simply, apply some uncommon-sense to the situation.


  8. Kryn Sporry Avatar
    Kryn Sporry

    Brilliant article! Loved it! And I totally agree with the author, on every single point. ??????

  9. Nick Britsky Avatar
    Nick Britsky

    My laziness is paying off!?!

  10. Priska Wettstein Avatar
    Priska Wettstein

    Why did I even read this…cause of articles like this one and people who think it’s okay to do whatever all these restrictions exist in the first place. But hey, you’re cool.

  11. Jared Kotil Avatar
    Jared Kotil

    It’s not that there are too many laws but I think this speaks more to how entitled people are to everything and assume there are not laws protecting “X”. How people also don’t understand what “collaborating evidence” is baffling.

    It can stink contacting local park officials or offices and get costly permits, but more than once I have had those offices help me and even point me to a better shot, unknown area or have granted access to areas I never would have thought to ask about. I found it far more worthwhile to take the extra time and steps to do so.

  12. bassalop Avatar

    This is the new way to make money from photography and I think it is only the tip of the iceberge to come.

  13. Caiti Weiser Avatar
    Caiti Weiser

    Totally agree with your point. (Wish I remembered whose theory of morality ranked “ability to see and negotiate in the gray areas” as more evolved than the “black and white only” mindset.)
    What I find so ironic is the growth of the anti person-with-a-camera attitude seems to have paralleled the growth of security cameras everywhere. I guess there are a lot of people who trust government and businesses to record every second, but fear any individual who attempts to capture a single moment (or several moments) with similar tech?

  14. catlett Avatar

    Interesting timing of this article as I have been thinking about this a lot lately. These days, to get more pictures that most people don’t get it often requires going to places that most cell phone users wouldn’t go. (Despite what many would have us believe having a better camera and lenses or course helps too).

    Recently there have been some instance where I might have gone into areas that were there was a posting that I should not go there. I don’t know for sure if actually going into these places was illegal. I don’t know if taking photos there was actually illegal. I don’t know if someone might come after me for posting these photos. Posting photos generally isn’t illegal though someone could come after you with a civil suit.

    I do know that making sure there was no GPS data it would make it much more difficult for anybody wanting to cause me troubles to prove any of that. Somebody could go to all the trouble to try to get my phone records to figure out when and where I was but it seems very unlikely for the vast majority of photos. When something is posted I also don’t brag about whatever I might or might not have done to get the photos. It’s akin to the old adage that the only way to keep a secret is not to tell anybody else.

  15. Steve West Avatar
    Steve West

    This summer, I vacationed in Wyoming. While driving, I saw my first ever oil refinery. Naturally, I thought I’d drive in and take some pics from a closer vantage point. I ended up on refinery property, and soon security came out. I certainly understand their concern. We had a nice discussion for about a half-hour, and then I departed from the area. It became clear to me not to do that again! But I did get some nice shots with nice cirrus clouds in the background. I love pics of industrial areas, and someday it might be nice to do a photo tour in the ‘rust belt’. The pig iron factory in Alabama is another one of those real cool places. It’s too bad that wondering around with a big FF camera gets negative attention.

  16. Tó Avatar

    How do you edit or delete the metadata?

    1. JML Avatar

      If you use Lightroom, you can set the export to strip EXIF data.

  17. Susanne Avatar

    Interesting article, especially since I frequently take photos in (Italian) national parks, and in Italian towns! Apart from Positano, how am I supposed to know if it’s ok or not to take photos in towns and national parks? I’ve never seen anything about photography prohibits anywhere in those places… and also the Italian law says you can take photos in public places. (apart from Positano, apparently)