Can I Take This Photo?
DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. I AM NOT A LAWYER. DO NOT DEPEND ON THIS.
“I was photographing (some place) and a security guard stopped me. He said it was illegal to take photos there. Is that true? What are the laws? Can I take this photo?”
By Andrew Hudson Published: June 7, 2011 Updated: November 26, 2013
Yes, you can take the photo. You have a right to take photos and if you can freely see something, you can photograph it. If a place is open to the public, then you can take a photo of whatever is on view.
You can take most photographs for the simple fact that there are very few laws that say that you can’t. The are no laws that prohibit the taking of photographs on public or private property (except for special circumstances such as airport checkpoints, certain government facilities). Neither the Patriot Act nor the Homeland Security Act have any provisions that restrict photography.
“Absent a specific legal prohibition such as a statue or ordinance, you are legally entitled to take photographs.”
—The Photographer’s Right, by Bert P. Krages II
There are three caveats: privacy, trespassing and publishing. You can’t photograph people who have an expectation of privacy; if the security guard demands that you leave, you must (but you can still take photographs, that’s a different thing); and, although you can legally take a photograph, there are more restrictions if you want to publish that photograph (e.g. sell the shot or put it on the Internet). We’ll cover those caveats later.
Photography And Law
The are no general laws against taking photos. Photography is considered an artistic expression which, if anything, is protected not prohibited.
The laws that do affect photographers are mostly about the subject of the photo. The laws are there to defend the subject’s property and prevent you from “stealing” what is valuable to someone else.
The property in question can be: a person’s image and reputation ( privacy); artwork ( copyright); business reputation ( trademark); land ( trespassing). We know that you don’t intend to steal someone’s property, we just want to make sure that you do so inadvertently.
What Can I Photograph?
If a person is in public view and not doing anything private, then yes, you can photograph them. You can photograph people on the street, in a park, on the beach, in a shopping mall, etc. For more on this, read privacy.
Yes. Children in public view can be photographed (for normal purposes) without permission from the parents.
Yes. Celebrities in public view can be photographed. However, things are different if you wish to sell, use or publish such photographs, see publicity.
Law Enforcement Officers
Yes, even when they are making arrests or at a crime scene.
Accidents, Fires, Crimes
Yes. This is generally deemed newsworthy; “fair use” in the public’s interest.
Yes. Unlike people, businesses do not have a right to privacy. This may not be true, I’ll have to research it. (You can’t, however, photograph trade secrets that are hidden from view, and you can’t reproduce a trademark and infer that It’s yours or you are associated with it).
Yes. Public property belongs to you! You are the public, thus this is your (shared) property. No individual has sole ownership or any right to stop you. (You can be stopped, however, from taking photos of national security places, such as military bases, nuclear plants, and some government facilities.)
Airports, Bridges, Infrastructure, Transportation
Yes, as long as national security is not an issue (airport security checkpoints).
Yes, from the outside. (You can’t use a long-lens to photograph inside as that is invasion of privacy).
You can photograph whatever you can freely see. If the public is allowed to enter, then you can take photographs. This includes shopping malls, the lobbies of office buildings, parks, and shops. If a place is open to the public then permission to enter (and thus photograph) is assumed. However, that permission can be revoked. If you are asked to leave and do not, you are then trespassing, which is a separate issue.
Photography and trespassing are two separate things. Even if you’re illegally trespassing, you can still legally photograph. (You can’t go on someone’s property and use a long lens to shoot into their house, that’s invasion of privacy).
Places With Entrance Fees, such as Ballparks, Museums and Football Games
This is tricky. You may be able to photograph for personal use but publishing and commercial use could be prohibited, since you are giving away what people are charged to see. See publicity. “No photography” may be a condition of entrance. Trademarks can be an issue too.
Public Art, such as Murals and Statues
You can photograph for private use but commercial publishing (making money) may require permission from the copyright owner. See artwork.
What if someone says not to shoot?
They don’t have a legal right to stop you from taking photographs, and they can’t threaten you or demand your camera. Only law enforcement officers (and officers of the court) can do that, and only with a court order or while making an arrest. Anyone else can be charged with a variety of things such as coercion, harassment, conversion, false imprisonment, kidnapping, assault, violation of constitutional rights, or theft. The only thing a private security person can do is ask you to leave the premises.
“In general, it is unlawful for anyone to instill a fear that they may injure you, damage or take your property, or falsely accuse you of a crime just becuase you are taking photographs.”
—The Photographer’s Right, by Bert P. Krages II
What if a mall security guard says to stop taking photos?
This comes down to photographing and trespassing being two different things. If a private security guard asks you to stop taking photos, you do not have to comply; you can still take photos. But if they ask you leave, then you have to leave, as your permission to enter has been revoked and you are now trespassing. However, you can take photos while walking out, and you can still publish those pictures. For more, see trespassing.