Have you ever visited a historic landmark or any other beautiful space only to be told that photography is not allowed? It seems that most, if not all, photographers have encountered this situation. In this brief article I will talk about various types of photography policies that you may encounter and how to deal with them. This article will provide practical advise, not a definition of your rights as a photographer. Please understand that my experiences are not a replacement for a lawyer’s, and that my knowledge mostly pertains to locations in the United States.
First, it is important to understand that, in the United States, intellectual property is protected by an inherent copyright given to the author of a creative work. Copyright applies to just about everything you watch on TV, see on the internet, listen to on the radio, see in a gallery, or read in a book. Copyright law entitles the owner of a creative work to decide who can reproduce such work and under what circumstances.
Sporting Events and Entertainment
Companies that derive their revenue from copyrighted materials have a strong interest in ensuring that their rights are not violated by individuals or other companies. For example, sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, etc) receive revenue from ticket sales and advertisement views. These revenue streams could be interrupted by unauthorized reproductions of sporting events. The same goes for movies and live performances. As such, you will find that most venues that host such events do not allow audio or video recording of any kind, and limit photography to personal use with non-professional equipment.
Museums and Art Exhibits
Art galleries and museums create revenue in different ways than entertainment companies. For example, they can sell the work that is on display, receive donations, charge membership fees, receive government grants, and charge entrance fees. For this reason you will often, but not always, see fewer restrictions on photography at these locations. In general, you should assume that any photos you take at these locations are for personal, non-commercial use only. Check the organization’s website for details before bringing your camera.
Publicly-accessible Private Property
Shopping malls, business centers, and tourist attractions thrive on the presence of people with money. They are generally more concerned with selling a product or experience than maintaining a copyright. As such, you would think that photography is a non-issue at these locations. When it comes to tourist attractions, shoot away! The most likely restrictions will be on flash and tripod photography which can annoy other patrons. Business centers, on the other hand, generally do not allow photography on their premises, citing “security” concerns. My preferred approach in these situations is to keep my camera hidden until I am ready to take a picture. Then, I do so quickly and discretely and move on.
Restricted-access Private Property
Most cityscape and architecture photographers have been tempted by the possibility of an amazing view at the top of a skyscraper. Prior to 9/11 there was little trouble accessing tall buildings in cities across the country, and many had public observation areas. Today it is both difficult and illegal to enter most skyscrapers and other private property for which you do not have a legitimate business purpose. Security is likely to stop you before you reach the elevators; they can tell if you are out of place. Even if you make it to a top floor your access will likely be limited to the elevator lobby. Unless you or someone you know works in such a place I would suggest not wasting your time.
You will be glad to hear that you are free to photograph as you please when on public property. Anything that is in plain sight from a public street, sidewalk, park, or pier is fair game. Strangers may not like you taking their picture, but you would be within your rights. I have heard of building security telling photographers not to take pictures of their building, but as long as you are not on private property you have nothing to worry about. You can use your tripod as you like, but be considerate to not create a tripping hazard.
The United States has a strong history of defending intellectual property as well as defending the rights of citizens to express themselves through photography. There are virtually no restrictions when photographing on public property. When on private property, it is important to understand the restrictions placed on you and how you can operate to achieve your photographic goals.
I was stopped at Paestum (Italy) for setting up a tripod to take a photo of my family in front of one of the temples with a wireless remote. I was told commercial/pro photography was not allowed without a permit. He actually tried to seize all my photographs that I’d taken that day under the pretense that they were taken by a rogue professional. I tried to explain to the guard that I was just taking a photo of my family with what was clearly a travel tripod but he stated there was zero tolerance.
He was willing to allow me to keep the photographs that I’d already taken but at that point in time began to follow us around and not allow me to take any additional photos. When I visited the museum they reinforced their no professional photography rule but told me that the particular guard was out of line for not allowing me to take photos given that it was clear I was just taking photos of my family and the surroundings. They allowed me to go back onto the grounds even though they’d closed and take photos of the 2 temples I’d missed.
In classic Italian fashion the guard in question insisted on buying my whole family ice cream and coffee. My parents lived in Naples at the time and when they visited a year later with some friends the guard recognized them and had the grounds curator give them a personal tour and then more ice cream and coffee was had.
Great story, Pavlos. I’m glad your trip ended on a high note.
I fully understand the concerns of the owners/ guards/ security personnel- tourists with their P&S and mobile phones enjoy the view, take pictures and move, while (pro) photographers behave like the own the place and take their time enjoying the shooting (not the view)
I’ve personally seen more bad behavior from tourists than photography enthusiasts, but my experiences do not speak for everyone.
I don’t own a smart phone with a camera (just a ten-year-old flip phone). Might be the reason I need to buy one (My sister’s iPhone 6 takes remarkably good photos.). What about the DxO ONE or something similar? I suspect it won’t be long before such an iPhone attachment will come with interchangeable lenses.
I’ve seen interchangeable smartphone camera add-ons. I’m not sure how well they work, but somebody is buying it.
I have only once been stopped with my camera.
An theater play was going on in the area that I was visiting and they wanted to protect the copyright. I had with me my new Nikon D750 camera and I said to the guard, “I can see that many take photos there with their cell phones, is that allowed?” “Yes,” she replied, “the ban applies only to good cameras.”
At least that guard was being honest. I see the same behavior most places.
While photography in public places and spaces is generally allowed in most citys, in the US at least, commercial photography in parks requires a permit. And as mentioned above, National Parks require permits for commercial photography as well. I have not personally been stopped while photographing in National Parks, but have seen it happen to others.I have had a friend stopped a number of times because he was using ‘what looks like professional gear’, ie. tripod and a 600mm lens, while the stupid tourists were walking up to the animals trying to get a shot with their smartphone…
Also, while photography is allowed on sidewalks, as soon as the tripod comes out or you start using flash on stands, have an assistant, model, etc. you’ll more than likely need a permit..
The United States has no ban on “commercial” photography anywhere, much less in parks. Nearly all parks require advertisers to get a permit, and generally charge quite a lot for it; if you don’t get a license and are using an assistant or a model or multiple lights, prepare to get kicked out.
But you can take all the pictures you want with as fancy a camera you want on as big a tripod you want without a license, even if you plan to sell them, even if you have a client under contract. I mean, does a reporter need to spend a week and big bucks to get a license to cover a breaking story? You still have First Amendment rights even if you are not an amateur.
That said, if you have a client under contract you should always contact the venue and make arrangements. Usually they come out to help you. If they start maundering on about a license get a price and take it to your editor. It’s then his/her decision to proceed or cancel.
If you are shooting stocks (or anything else on spec), do not contact in advance and do not admit to shooting for money. “Are you shooting professionally?” “No sir.” “Then why are you using a tripod?” “To control tremor.” (Everyone has tremor at some shutter speed.) “It’s bright daylight.” “I have it stopped down to 1/4 second to increase my depth of field. I am using a circular polarizing filter to do this.” (Babble on like this. Nothing like technical gobbledegook to get an officious busybody to go away.) You will note that every statement here is true.
You are mistaken, although it varies somewhat by city in the US, but in every city I have shot, if you are doing photography for commercial reasons of ANY kind in a park, you need a permit. While most people view parks are public areas, they are owned by either the city, county, or state and as such they have their own regulations about permits. Shoot, almost every park in the area have signs stating commercial photography is only allowed by permit. Yes, years ago you could take all the pictures you want in parks, but that has changed a lot over the past 5 – 10 years.
Good insight and advice from all. My main source of disgust is the aforementioned ignoring of smartphone photography. On two occasions I’ve been asked not to take photographs (using my DSLR) while in the same venue smartphone users (even one with an iPad) were snapping away. My appeal would not be for no rules, but rather for the same rules applied to everyone who takes photographs with any kind of camera.
Exactly! My only explanation is that nobody feels threatened by a tiny camera, while a big one seems “professional” or exploitive in some way.
Another thing that is not covered in this article, but should be, is taking photography in a historical reproduction in a state park. In West Virginia, it’s illegal to take photos during a historical reproduction or event taking place in a state park. I was stopped by park rangers while I was shooting senior portraits and asked to leave my camera in the car. Apparently, it violates the authenticity of the reproduction and distracts from the visitors experiences. Even taking photos of the events for personal use was forbidden. When asking further in Pennsylvania, this is a national law that is not often enforced. So bring a telephoto and shoot from a distance.
That’s an interesting piece of information; thanks for sharing, Jonathan. I never would have imagined such restrictions were in place. That is pretty much why I wrote this article, because I’m always surprised at how people attempt to restrict photography.
One thing not covered here is photographing people.
I am in the UK where to my knowledge, it is legal to take photographs in public places.
I recently was shouted at by a stall holder at an open market who I snapped while he was serving colourful fruit and veg to customers. He yelled that I must ask permission first – which isn’t true and also would ruin the photo turning it into a pose rather than recording something spontaneous.
This aspect is troubling when trying to capture the old fisherman mending his nets or people generally going about their day….asking for a photo can be counterproductive.
Even more problematic is photographing children which in the UK has turned anyone appreciating picturing kids having fun, into a child molester!
As a former journalist I generally adhere to the rule that if anybody ventures into a public place then they must in the interests of the freedom we hold dear, accept that if they can be seen by everyone, they could be photographed.
A new Mexican restaurant opened in my hometown recently full of colour and with patrons encouraged to wear sombreros. It made a great photo but after taking one shot a manager stopped me and said it was a house rule that there should be no photography.
The thinking, I gather, was that people going out for a private meal, have the right not to be pictured – especially if out with somebody’s else’s partner!
This perhaps seems reasonable but who out with friends at a restaurant hasn’t asked the waiter to take a photo? And what if in the background there are other customers who wouldn’t want to be in the photo?
I welcome discussion in this matter which isn’t just monochrome!
You’re totally right, David. People have no reasonable expectation of privacy while in public, yet many will complain if they think they’re being recorded. I’ve always been afraid to try street photography for this reason. In fact, I was chased by a crazy man just a week ago because he saw my camera and thought I was recording him!
Snuck a couple of photos inside Southwark Cathedral in London even though photography was not allowed.
The building and interior were gorgeous and we enjoyed the Evensong service. Feeling guilty I erased the photos and made a contribution to their fund for the homeless (in Brit speak, people “living rough”). I decided that no photo is worth upsetting good people or violating their privacy if they are just going about their lives.
” I decided that no photo is worth upsetting good people or violating their privacy if they are just going about their lives.”
Or spending an extra decade in Purgatory! Seriously, you are right. Respect these places.
I have gotten permission to shoot inside numerous British cathedrals, typically by buying a permit for five pounds. I have been refused only at Westminster, but I got some good shots from the sidewalk. Village churches are good subjects. They are usually unlocked and unstaffed, so you can walk right in. Leave a pound in the poor box.
Many museums and historic sites in Europe are adopting a policy of paying a fee for a photography permit, but flash is almost always a no-no. When faced with a strict policy of no photography of any kind I put the lens cap on and give up. Once, however, in the Musée D’Orsay, I took out the camera and took one photo in the central hall, and was instantly told by a museum employee that photography was not allowed – this while dozens of people with smartphones were snapping away. I didn’t bother trying to point out the discrepancy in enforcement. Apparently, the rule of no photos in the D’Orsay is because they show works that still have active image copyrights, while the Louvre generally does not.
I’ve had similar experiences where smartphone photography is overlooked while “real” photography is banned. I think people get freaked out by big cameras.