Photographers: Know Your Rights

Am I allowed to photograph buildings? People in public? How about police officers?

Yes, in the U.S., in public areas, you have the right to photograph police, buildings, passersby, and pretty much whatever you want. I’ve heard many accounts recently of security guards telling people they can’t photograph buildings, but of course this is nonsense–it’s forbidden to photograph city skylines? But keep in mind, though you have a right to shoot in public spaces, there are limitations to what you can legally do with the photos. For example, you can run into legal problems if a portrait you shot is used for advertising without a proper model release signed. The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) has some guidelines about privacy and libel here, and info about model and property releases here.

Also, hopefully it goes without saying, but don’t be a jerk. Be respectful of other people, stay out of their way, and don’t treat anyone in a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated. In addition to the legal issues surrounding street photography, there are thorny ethical issues that photographers should consider before taking and sharing street pictures.

Photographing in public is a constitutional right

On their website, the ACLU has valuable information regarding the legal rights of photographers shooting in the U.S. A few highlights:

“Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties.”

“When you are on private property, the property owner may set rules about the taking of photographs.”

“Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant…and may not delete photographs or video under any circumstances.”

The ACLU has advice on what to do if you are stopped or detained for shooting pictures here. They suggest being polite: just because you’re behaving lawfully doesn’t necessarily mean that a police officer or security guard can’t make things difficult for you. It’s important to stand up for your rights, but wise to choose your battles: being right doesn’t mean you’ll get your way.

Things are different in the European Union

According to Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, some European countries, including Belgium and France, have significant restrictions on the use of photographs taken in public places, while most other EU countries enjoy “freedom of panorama,” a provision allowing photography in public places, without copyright infringement even if a building or sculpture is visible in the photographs.

However, things could get much more restrictive for photographers in the EU soon, due to a proposal introduced by French European Parliament member Jean-Marie Cavada. European Pirate Party member Julia Reda supports freedom of panorama and is fighting against Cavada’s proposal. Her take on the situation can be found here.

UPDATE: The proposal described above was rejected. Also, I recently learned that in Hungary, photographers are not allowed to take pictures of people in public without their permission.


Further Reading


3 Comments Photographers: Know Your Rights

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