By Andrew Hudson Published: May 25, 2011 Updated: March 24, 2016

Taking photos is fun. What isn’t fun is getting sued or arrested. To avoid that, it’s worth knowing the legal rights and wrongs of photography.

There are many laws which affect photographers. They sometimes overlap and conflict, and they often confuse. But essentially they’re all about one thing: property theft. Is your photograph, or your use of a photo, stealing something of value from somebody else? If you’re confident that everything in the photo, and the way you’re displaying the photo, is not going to upset anyone in particular, then you’re probably OK. But if there’s someone who could feel offended or robbed, then it’s wise to know where the law puts you.

Property, of course, usually means money. There’s a big line when it comes to making money, or more accurately in legal terms, “commercial use.” In many instances, it’s legal to take and use a photo in some ways (such as for private use, descriptive or factual use, “editorial use", or “fair use” that is in the the public interest), but it is illegal to use that same photo for a predominantly commercial purpose. Similarly, the more people that see your work, and the more money that is involved, the more likely someone is to sue you. So the exact commercial and public use of a photo is important.

Photographers often feel threatened by the law but we shouldn’t be, since it’s on our side. The law — primarily copyright law — is the main thing that allows us to support our hobby. The law protects artists, preventing other people from using our artistic work without consent (e.g. payment). Photography, and other creative industries, couldn’t exist without defined and enforced artistic laws. So “hooray” for the law. We love you, law; let’s learn about you.


Legal Issues of Taking Photos

Next page: Copyright


Reply by Anonymous

March 1, 2016

What about the aspiring commercial product photographer? For instance, he or she is building their portfolio and produces a mock-up advertisement for say, a Coca-Cola bottle. But they weren’t hired by Coca-Cola to produce the image and the photographer is only using it for their portfolio. Does this fall under fair use?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 14, 2016

You could possibly do this for a private, offline portfolio. But an online (or otherwise public) display may not be wise. Publishing something that looks like an ad may imply that you are affiliated with Coca-Cola, which could be a trademark and/or copyright issue. You could add an explicit statement that you are not affiliated in any way with Coca-Cola, but might still get a cease-and-desist letter. A safer approach would be to photograph a product that is not so keenly protected by intellectual property lawyers.

Reply by Anonymous

January 28, 2016

My daughter attends a private school, and the yearbook staff has taken pictures of students who do not wish to have their pictures published in the yearbook. The student handbook has a section that covers ‘promotional’ pictures, but all students must sign the handbook. This is what it states about pictures: “Pictures - I understand that some students appear in school promotional pictures and videos. I give permission for my child to participate if selected.”

What, if any, do these high school students have in determining what pictures the yearbook staff decide to publish?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 29, 2016

Good question.

FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — (20 USC 1232g) is a Federal law that requires schools to obtain written consent prior to the disclosure of personally identifiable information from a child’s education records. This excludes “directory information” such as yearbooks, but parents can deny permission.

Even though the private school has the “I give permission” statement, a parent can opt out, in which case the school has to comply.

“Each year schools must give parents public notice of the types of information designated as directory information. By a specified time after parents are notified of their review rights, parents may ask to remove all or part of the information on their child that they do not wish to be available to the public without their consent.”

U.S. Deptartment of Education

“Any educational agency or institution making public directory information shall give public notice of the categories of information which it has designated as such information with respect to each student attending the institution or agency and shall allow a reasonable period of time after such notice has been given for a parent to inform the institution or agency that any or all of the information designated should not be released without the parent’s prior consent.”

— 20 U.S. Code § 1232g (a)(5)(B), Family educational and privacy rights (FERPA)

Note that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Reply by Anonymous

September 18, 2015

Someone took a pic of me at work. He said he is going to hand it in to management. He took it without my permission. What are my options?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 12, 2016

You could complain that the person is harassing you, or interrupting your work.

At work, you can be photographed by other workers for internal use (unless you are in a private place such as a bathroom). If you can be seen by others, you can be photographed by others. But if a photographer is being a nuisance then you can make an issue out of that.

Reply by Paige

April 21, 2015

What should my friend do if someone has a video of you doing sexual things without your permission and that you had no idea the lad was taking it? She’s very upset and it has now lowered her confidence as he is also showing people?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

April 21, 2015

Hi Paige,

Sorry to hear that.

This might be an issue of privacy law. I don’t know what the privacy laws are in the UK. Perhaps you have a friend who is a solicitor who could help.

Good luck,


Reply by Anonymous

October 22, 2014

Where do I go to in order to copyright my photos? Because I feel like someone has a hold of one of them.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

November 3, 2014


You already have copyright on your photos, it is automatic. To enforce your copyright, you can get websites to remove offending usage by submitting a DMCA Takedown Notice. All image-hosting websites offer this service (as it is a legal requirement of them). Look for their legal section.

If you know who has a hold on one of your photos, you can ask a lawyer to send a cease-and-desist letter. Threat of legal action usually gets attention.

Good luck,


Reply by

May 1, 2014

I have some photos of my daughter that I took on my facebook page. I have privacy settings on my page to protect her rights. Her dad and I are divorced but he has taken my photos without my permission and posted them on his page. Is that illegal? I understand that he is her father and it has to do with public posting, so I don’t know where the law lies in this situation. Do you have any information on such a situation?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

October 8, 2014


That sounds like a difficult situation.

You own the copyright and your ex is infringing your copyright. You can get Facebook to remove the photos from your ex‘s page. Here is the link: Reporting a Violation or Infringement of Your Rights (click on “Copyright”). Companies are required by law to provide a quick removal, under a procedure called “DMCA Takedown Notice.”

Best wishes,


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