Thursday, September 20th, 2012 08:25 am GMT -7 Thursday, September 20th, 2012 08:25 am GMT -7Thursday, September 20th, 2012 08:25 am GMT -7
UAV Quadcopter with camera

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are revolutionizing the art of photojournalism. Be careful and make sure you stay on the right side of the law.




Duchess of Cambridge

It briefly hit the news a couple of days ago that the topless pictures of Kate Middleton had been taken with the use of a UAV. That is not the case. The photographer has said that he personally took the pictures while standing at a public highway.

But what if he had used a UAV? Would he have broken any additional laws? As it is, the photographer has been sued and a preliminary injunction forbids further publication of the pictures (at the time of writing).


A photojournalist is simply someone that tells a news story through the use of photographs or video. Photojournalists that take pictures of public figures, popularly known as paparazzi, are in a very cutthroat business. They are usually standing elbow to elbow with other paparazzi. Getting an exclusive photograph of a public figure in an unusual situation is the key to a successful career.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

UAVs seem tailor made to meet the needs of the paparazzi. They are relatively inexpensive, very portable, easy to control, and capable of taking high quality pictures. They are also quiet and small, allowing discreet points of view that can easily go unnoticed.

I am using the term UAV in a generic sense. It really does not matter exactly what it is that you are flying. It could be a UAV, or an FPV (first person view) vehicle, or even just a plain old RC airplane or helicopter. Heck, it could even be a helium balloon with a camera hanging down from it. In years past, full-size airplanes were used for this type of photography.


Of course, I am not a lawyer. But when you get a game changing technology like a UAV coming out of left field, suddenly the laws in the books start to look inadequate.

I know that in many jurisdictions a cornerstone of privacy laws is the concept of “expectation of privacy”. In a nutshell, it asks whether you had a reasonable expectation of privacy before the picture of you in a compromising position was snapped.

If you are lying out on a public beach, you better have no expectation of privacy. If you do not want anybody taking a picture of them, you better keep your privates private. But what if you are laying out in your backyard that is surrounded by a high fence? Is it reasonable to expect that a UAV will not be high above taking pictures of your unmentionables?

I do not know what the answer is, and that is exactly my point. You do not know either.

Mr. Private Citizen

The law makes no distinction between Britney Spears and any other private citizen walking down the street or sunning in the privacy of their own home.

Say you get hired to shoot a video of a house that is for sale. You pick a beautiful sunny day to go. You find the perfect vantage point and start shooting. Suddenly you realize that the next door neighbor is into nude sunbathing. You think it is funny and decide to post the video on YouTube.

All of a sudden, you could be facing a massive invasion of privacy lawsuit. Whether you would win or lose the lawsuit is besides the point. You can claim all you want that you were just doing your job. Few judges are bound to have any pity on you.

In the eyes of the law, it probably does not matter why you were there shooting video. Again, I am not a lawyer. Maybe it was just a beautiful sunset. Maybe you are working on a documentary for a school project.

Moral of the Story

Be careful. The laws are changing quickly. Ignorance of the law is not much of defense. For example, the FAA declared a couple of days ago that any UAV flying in the District of Columbia (Washington, DC) is now illegal.

If at all possible, ask permission before flying over private property and shooting video. This is just common sense.

Always ask yourself, would I be upset if somebody took a picture of me right now? Use the same litmus test when taking aerial pictures or video of others. If in doubt, ask your subjects to sign model release forms.


Some of the videos below contain graphic language. Parental discretion is advised. In particular, the two Full Throttle videos are quite graphic in their use of language.

Domestic UAV Use Raises Privacy Questions (web article)

EPIC Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Drones (web page)

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