Public places, private places, photography, oh my! Legal tips for photographers

Sep 17, 2012

Topic: General Legal
Time Investment: 5 Minutes
Suggested Product: Property Use Agreement


So you have a contract.  You have a model release.

Now to figure out where to shoot, what your legal rights are, and to get a property use agreement!

Public places have become overcrowded by photographers as many private locations require fees or obtaining special permission.  Below outlines where you can shoot without permission, tips for getting permission, and keeping permission for private property.


Where can I shoot?

Without getting into legal mumbo-jumbo, pretty much anything in plain view within a public place, you can shoot.  As a general rule.  Obviously, public bathrooms, dressing rooms, or even seeing in someone’s window from a public sidewalk are not covered.  In the same way, you go out shooting landscape, tourist spots, etc. that are public, you are not expected to get a model release for each individual.  What someone knowingly exposes to the public is generally free to photograph.


Are all public places free to shoot in?

No, especially when it comes to historical areas and monuments.  For example, in Washington D.C., the monuments are generally thought of as a public place but do require a photography permit.  Most places of this nature require a fee to assist in maintenance and upkeep.  Always double check online prior to a session about parking and photography fees.  It would be embarrassing to show up and be kicked out or refused admittance, especially in front of the client!


What if it’s at a privately owned establishment?

If the property is generally open to the public, you can take photographs unless expressly informed by the owner.  Keep in mind though, if the owner requests for you to stop, they have the right to do so.  One can be held as a trespasser once the invitation to enter land has been revoked (i.e. owner asks you to cease all photography, and you refuse to do so).

If the property is only open for private functions or requires an admittance fee, those are two red flags that you may need special permission.


Where can’t I shoot without permission?

Private establishments that specifically prohibit photography/video, where no trespassing signs are posted, and inside a personal residence.


If I’m kicked out of a property, can my equipment be taken?

The answer is no.  No one, including law enforcement, can take and delete your photographs without a court order.


What if I find land I want to shoot on but don’t know who the owner is?

The county/city has public records that you can request at the appropriate government buildings (County Clerk or County Recorder’s office).  Some places do require a nominal fee in order to secure this information but may we well worth it.


How do I get permission?

You know the saying better to ask forgiveness than permission? NOT in this case! If you find a prime location to shoot in, you definitely want to keep an open and honest relationship with owners of the property.  Always abide by permit application guidelines and fees.  If a private property location has caught your eye, contact the owner and ask permission.  Consider offering a small fee for you to enter their land.  Always have an agreement between yourself and the property owner outlining the responsibilities.


How do I keep access?

Treat the location as though it were your mommas or better.  Keep it as you found it, including all greenery, rocks, etc.  If you find a prime location and secure exclusive access, don’t do anything to ruin it.  You want to keep the owner as amenable to your use as possible.  Send them thank you notes! They are just like clients too – they would like to feel appreciated for contributing to your business.


Tips to Booking a Location

  • Double check parking/entrance fee
  • Double check for a photographer’s permit
  • Check the event schedule of the location


What if I can’t find anything picturesque?

Make it work for you! Locations aren’t always the most beautiful on the surface!


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