Legal Rights of Photographers

Even before 9/11, pho­tog­ra­phy had been under siege. Anyone with a cam­era larg­er than a cell phone was con­sid­ered some sort of threat, and since 9/11 it’s only got­ten worse. 

There’s an incred­i­ble amount of mis­in­for­ma­tion about what rights pho­tog­ra­phers in the United States have. People have writ­ten to me about how they were told, “You can’t take pic­tures of police,” and “You can’t shoot chil­dren with­out their par­ents’ per­mis­sion” and “You can’t take pic­tures on pri­vate prop­er­ty with­out permission.” 

None of these are true. 

Photographers have been harassed, threat­ened, and killed — all for cap­tur­ing a moment on a mem­o­ry card or on film. Images have been delet­ed or con­fis­cat­ed, police have been called, and inno­cent peo­ple have had to deal with know-noth­ing guards, cops, and ordi­nary folks. 

In 2005, I was a news­pa­per reporter. Many of us car­ried point-and-shoot cam­eras, but our pho­to depart­ment couldn’t give us defin­i­tive guide­lines of what we could and couldn’t legal­ly shoot. So I set out to learn. I read, sent e‑mail, and made phone calls until I was sat­is­fied. (My list of sources is at the end.) 

It didn’t take long for a clear con­sen­sus to emerge, from peo­ple who know these things, about what’s legal and what’s not. So I wrote it all out in a doc­u­ment called “Legal Rights of Photographers.” 

I wrote it to sat­is­fy news­pa­per edi­tors who want­ed, not sur­pris­ing­ly, a detailed list of sources and a legal argu­ment. The end result was a bit clunki­er than I would like. And since its pub­li­ca­tion I’ve had a lot — a lot — of ques­tions sent to me, which demon­strat­ed what I left out of that first document. 

So here it is again, eas­i­er to read with a bit broad­er cov­er­age to address the ques­tions I got. I hope you find it useful. 



View/download v. 2 of Legal Rights of Photographers (500 KB PDF).