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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
- 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.
(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!