3 Jun 2024

Compulsive Photography

Most of us are smartphone owners, which means that we are walking around with a camera in our pockets. For many of us, compulsive photography has become second nature: to record striking or memorable sights or special occasions, to act as an aide-mémoire or form of visual record-keeping, as a means of looking up information online, and sometimes simply as a way of tracking the mundanities of everyday life. Many of our photographs form a private archive, some inevitably find their way onto social media where they reach a wider audience, attracting reactions, comments and even further dissemination.

How does our photography impact the people around us? Are we being considerate or intrusive? Is our compulsive shot-framing a major annoyance and are we invading people’s privacy? We need to formulate a new code of etiquette around photography to ensure that an innocent desire to record our lives is not turning us into crass and self-obsessed boors, who show no regard for our fellow humans.

General Rules of Photography

•Be discreet

You take photographs for your own entertainment, but it is important to remember that it is not all about you. Wielding your phone as a camera does not give you the right to barge people out of the way, muscle in on private moments, or block other people’s point of view.

•Ask permission

If you’re photographing other people, whatever the context, it is always polite to ask if they’re happy for you to do so. Even if your photograph is mundane and spontaneous – a snap of a group of friends around your dinner table for example – it is always worth just clearing it with them first (“Would it be okay if I just take a couple of quick photos?”).

•Ask before sharing

Even if people are obliging about letting you take photographs, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want the images to pop up the next day, unannounced, on your social media. Just taking a few seconds to politely ask if they’d be happy for you to share the picture online will make all the difference.

•Prioritise experience over recording

Obsessively snapping and looking at your screen to assess the results is going to mean that you’re effectively disengaged from many social occasions and interactions. Your desire to get great photos will set you apart – nobody will care about your photos as much as you do and they will merely feel annoyed about your lack of participation and engagement.

Bearing all the above in mind, we’ve looked at a number of specific scenarios where photography can be problematic:


Most couples will have hired the services of a professional photographer, and you really should check beforehand if they’re happy for you to take photos as well. It is certainly sensible to refrain from taking photos during the actual ceremony, which will probably be documented by a professional photographer – apart from anything else, perpetually bobbing up and down at key moments is going to be extremely distracting and irritating for fellow guests. Some couples will be perfectly happy for you to take photos during the reception, but here the general Rules of Photography apply; this is, first and foremost, meant to be a joyous occasion, and you are privileged to be invited to join your friends in their celebrations. Becoming distracted by recording the wedding will mean your focus is on your device rather than your friends and relations, and that’s just rude.


Long-lost friends and family come together at funerals and some people feel an overwhelming temptation to record this rare event; some people even take selfies to record their own participation, which they subsequently post online.  In most cases, it is entirely inappropriate to take photos at funerals, and there should be no question of doing so. Photography is extremely intrusive, it invades mourners’ privacy, and encourages subjects to pose for the camera at a time when they should be contemplating the loss of the deceased or comforting the bereaved.

Some families may request that photos be taken, or even organise professional funeral photography, and their wishes should be respected. However, it is always safest and most considerate to default to the no-photography rule.


For most of us, a restaurant is a place where we can enjoy good food, attentive service and convivial company. So, it can be intensely annoying to find yourself sitting next to a table of social media addicts who spend the entire mealtime photographing their food, and sometimes going through distracting distortions (even standing on chairs) to get that perfect shot.

It is fine to take a discreet photo of your exquisitely presented main course, as long as you do not use intrusive flash, or start rearranging the table or the furniture. If you have any anxieties about the appropriateness of doing so, just check it out with a waiter first. If you have been taking photos and you are approached and asked to stop, just do so with good grace – you are really in no position to make a fight out of it. Above all, make it snappy; the food is there to be enjoyed and your dining companions will soon lose patience if you spend ages setting up the perfect shot.

Concerts and Performances

Nobody is going to appreciate a compulsive snapper at a concert or festival gig because it’s just distracting, but we all accept that most people will take a photo or two, or even a shakily shot video at some point.

Aspiring camera operators tend to hold their phones up high, blocking other spectators’ view and even distracting performers. This is particularly the case when the flash is deployed and it is worth noting that a camera’s weedy flash will contribute nothing to your photography – it’s much better to grab a shot when the onstage lighting is bright.

Accept the fact that most people will find looking at your photos and videos extremely tedious and consider living in the moment, enjoying the performance without being distracted and foregoing the urge to record your every experience for posterity.

If you must take photographs, do so for a limited period only, then put your phone away for the duration.

Museums and Galleries

Check the photo policy first; many modern art galleries ban photography because they do not want people taking pictures of the artwork without consent. Or they may specifically ban flash photography because it can damage the artwork.

If you have established that it is acceptable to take photographs, your first and foremost policy is to be respectful of other visitors and not to block access to artwork or exhibits because you are spending ages setting up your shot. Do not take photos of other visitors without their consent.

If you follow all these rules, it is quite acceptable to take photos of artworks and to record information panels for future reference. Just remember: speed and discretion is of the essence.

Churches and Cathedrals

The policy about photography can change from place to place so it is worth checking it out first. If it is allowed, be a stickler about following the rules, which may include specific restrictions on the use of flash, tripods or selfie sticks.

Above all, respect the atmosphere. Churches and cathedrals are sacred spaces for many people, who use them for worship and reflection, so it is very important that your behaviour does not intrude on their privacy. Ignoring sanctions about private areas (eg side chapels) to get a photograph will always be seen as disrespectful.


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