Street Photography and the Law: 7 things you need to know

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Venturing out onto the streets with your camera can be an intimidating prospect. Beyond the anxiety that people often feel about photographing strangers (or even being observed by strangers while shooting), many photographers aren’t quite sure what their rights and responsibilities are when engaging in street photography. While specific regulations vary nationwide, let’s take a look at some general standards for street photography in the United States.

street photography and your rights by Sarah Wilkerson

1. Model releases are generally not required…

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about what is required when photographing people. Granted, it never hurts to obtain a release, and if you intend to use or license your image commercially, then it’s much easier to get a model release immediately before or after photographing a subject than it is to try to track down a stranger for a waiver after the fact. However, simply photographing a person in public view — including children and law enforcement officials — does not require either a model release or expressed consent.

knowing your rights as a street photography by Sarah Wilkerson

2. … but use common sense.

There are certain exceptions to the above generalization, most of them related to a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” For example, if you’re shooting from a public street into someone’s bedroom or bathroom window, you may be crossing an ethical and even legal line. Shooting under public bathroom stalls or up the skirts of passersby is also likely to get you into trouble. Texas even has an “Improper Photography” statute that makes it a felony to photograph a subject “without the other person’s consent … and with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”

If someone waves you off when you try to photograph him or her, you may be well within your legal rights to take the shot, but ask yourself if it’s worth the verbal or even physical altercation that it may yield. Confrontation aside, I’d always advise being respectful and considerate towards your subjects, and if they express that they’d rather not be photographed, I’d suggest simply moving on.

your rights and the law for street photographers by Sarah Wilkerson

3. Your rights as a photographer are broadest in public places.

For the most part, that means that as long as your shooting position is on public ground, you can photograph whatever you wish; this includes subjects situated on private property but within public view, such as a couple sitting on a restaurant patio that you can view from the street or the man in the image below, who is taking a smoke break on his employer’s back step. Similarly, contrary to popular belief, you do not need to obtain parental or guardian consent to photograph children on or visible from public property.

the law for street photographers by Sarah Wilkerson

4. Just because a property is open to the public doesn’t make it public property.

Keep in mind that locations often thought of as “public,” such as shopping malls, amusement parks, airplanes, theaters, and performance arenas may be subject to restrictions imposed by property owners once you enter onto their property. You are legally obligated to comply with property owners’ requests (or that of their agents, such as an employee or security guard) to cease photography or even to vacate the premises.

Military bases, crime scenes, airports, museums, energy installations, courthouses, public hospitals, and certain government facilities — while technically property owned by taxpayers — may also be physically (and sometimes photographically) off limits to photographers or subject to significant limitations for security, privacy, or logistical reasons. While there are typically signs present advising as to whether photography (or your presence) is permissible in such locations, if you have any uncertainty, do your homework or ask for permission directly before you make plans to shoot there.

public photography and the law by Sarah Wilkerson

5. There may be restrictions on photography that interferes with others’ enjoyment or use of a public area.

For example, even broadly accessible public areas — such as public streets and sidewalks — may be subject to restrictions on the use of certain equipment, particularly tripods, supplemental lighting, reflectors, and similar. If your setup is likely to disrupt the general flow of traffic, interfere with administrative activities, or cause a safety hazard, there’s a good chance that you need a permit to conduct your photography as planned. In particular, I’d suggest checking policies and regulations for high traffic areas such as subway systems, train stations, urban bridges and roadways, and protected or historical sites (including some parks and preserves).

In Washington DC, for example, photography is permitted but tripods are prohibited on the Capitol grounds, national memorials, most Smithsonian museums, and the Metro system (other than the Pentagon station, where photography is prohibited entirely).

the law and photographing people in public by Sarah Wilkerson

6. Concerned parties have the right to approach you and inquire about your activity.

If confronted, be calm, respectful, and prepared to explain yourself. We live in a relatively fearful society, particularly post 9/11. Accept that most approaches – whether they come from a private citizen or a law enforcement officer – are probably coming from an honest place of fear, defensiveness, or concern. Confidently and honestly explain to those who ask about your activity that you are a professional photographer, a photographer taking part in a photo walk, or a photography student completing an assignment (even if it is self-assigned). Any one of these explanations is very likely to defuse the situation.

If you are advised that your activity (or use of equipment) is prohibited, feel free to respectfully ask for clarification as to the relevant policy, regulation, or statute and its terms. Broadly speaking, private citizens may not detain unless they have witnessed a felony, and law enforcement officials may detain only if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity afoot. Neither private citizens nor law enforcement officials have the authority to require that you delete your photographs or relinquish your equipment (including film or memory cards) except when acting in accordance with a court order or in conducting of an arrest.

street photography and the law by Sarah Wilkerson

7. You are allowed to display and even sell the images that you’ve photographed.

This is another point people tend to get hung up on. If you had the right to photograph a subject or scene, generally speaking, you also have the authority to display the photograph as an illustration of art or news – and that includes showing those images on your blog, in print, in news media, and in your photography portfolio (print or online). Indeed, you can even sell prints or digital copies of your street photography. Things start to get more complicated when “commercial use” (typically tied to advertising) comes into play, which is the reason why stock agencies that license images for both personal and commercial use tend to require a model release for any photos that they agree to manage which contain a personally identifiable individual. If you are in business, this may also become relevant to you as you put together your own promotional materials, in which case you will need to ask yourself if your image of an identifiable subject suggests some sort of endorsement, advocacy, or sponsorship of your work — or whether the inclusion of the subject is simply a matter of illustrating your art.

do i need a model release for street photography by Sarah Wilkerson

Happy Shooting!!

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice, nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. The information contained herein is no substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your state and may or may not be applicable to your specific situation. You are strongly encouraged to consult with local counsel to discuss your individual circumstances. 

Sarah WilkersonSarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | Click Photo School Instructor
website | facebook | twitter | pinterest | instagram
Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CPS’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.

Read all photography tutorials by Sarah Wilkerson.

43 Comments

  • Thank you so much Sarah for sharing this. These are answers to questions that I have always had concerning street photography. Your images were a huge treat too!

    • Dan M. says:

      “…you do not need to obtain parental or guardian consent to photograph children on or visible from public property.”

      So, if the positions were reversed, what then? My neighbor across the street from me was taking pictures from his front porch of 4 children in our cul-de-sac, one of which was mine. This is a tad unsettling.

      • Hi Dan, Unfortunately the law doesn’t always protect us from situations that may be uncomfortable or unsettling, but even when there is not a legal remedy, often a friendly conversation is sufficient to address like this; one would hope that a reasonable neighbor would respect a parent’s wishes in this scenario, even if they are not legally obligated to do so. With that in mind, while technically he may have the legal right to take the photos, you certainly also have the right to request that he stop, to obstruct his view, to wave him off, or to remove the children from public view altogether so that he cannot continue to photograph your child. And you’ll note above that I recommend the following to photographers: “I’d always advise being respectful and considerate towards your subjects, and if they express that they’d rather not be photographed, I’d suggest simply moving on.”

  • Heidi G says:

    Great article Sarah!

  • czarina says:

    Thanks for this Sarah. Right in time for the photo walk this weekend. And congrats on the new baby!

  • lifeineden says:

    this couldn't have been more timely, as an organization I was working with was discussing photo usage (particularly of children) Thanks for the background!

  • Thank you Sarah. I often wondered about many of the situations you covered. Perfect timing with this weekends ClickinWalk. :) Your images are always a treat to view too.

  • kendra says:

    GREAT article! Thank you so much!!

  • Lacey Meyers says:

    This is so enlightening! I felt restricted in my misunderstanding of several of these points, and now have a bit more confidence in street photography! Thanks for clarifying all of this, Sarah, in such an easy to follow way. :)

  • Tiffany says:

    Wow, this is seriously one of the best posts I've seen from this already fantastic blog. Thank you for sharing, Sarah!!

  • jennifer says:

    Sarah, your work is always so incredibly inspiring. Thanks for sharing you street photography information.

  • Police Gear says:

    Excellent job Sarah, and really nice article.

  • Megan says:

    Great article, Sarah! Your photos here are all amazing :)

  • Marissa says:

    Great article & really good information to know.

  • Jes Gwozdz says:

    Thanks for putting this together, Sarah. Great timing with ClickinWalk just around the corner!

  • Kristin says:

    Thanks, Sarah!

  • Pam Korman says:

    Since embarking on my “One Bench” series, I have often wondered about the legalities of street work. Thanks so much for clarifying and answering all my questions!! Awesome article, Sarah!!

  • Kit says:

    Your comments are worth making. But try not to spend too much time worrying about the law. It'll get in the way of your pictures. Too many photographers get paralysed by this. Just go out and shoot.

    Kit

  • Elle says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this (and your images!), Sarah <3 Very helpful!!

  • Kathy Thorson says:

    Very interest blog post. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you Sarah.

  • jodi says:

    great, practical information here, sarah! thanks for sharing your tips and your inspiring photos!

  • Mama Monkey says:

    Great article! We recently took a trip to Dallas and random people took pictures of our kids on the train with their iPhones. It really bothers me when people take pictures of our children without asking first!!!! But now I know they have every right to. :(

  • Nan Kanduth says:

    Very good post. I definitely love this website. Keep it up!

  • Tish says:

    Thank you! What an informative article. It’s nice to have clarification on some of these issues!

  • Family Law Attorney Chicago says:

    WoW, that sure is pretty cool,I hope others find it helpful and educational as i consider it to be.

  • Thank you for the guidance. I enjoyed examination it. It makes a group of since but I at times I meditate it is just plain torpidity.

  • Wendy H says:

    I have never felt drawn to take pics of people in public, with few exceptions. Thank you for the info. I will armed with knowledge, should the need ever arise.

  • Peter P. says:

    #1 is incorrect, sorry. There is legal demand for written permission, if you take onto pictures someone else’s likeness. That individual has the property right to his or her likeness. That is fact and there is also legal precedence for this.

  • Satya Iyer says:

    Quite a good article, though I am not from the United States, I believe some of the points can help me in India as well. Thank you very much for sharing.

  • Dear Sarah,
    Thank you for the precious advices.
    Last year I came back from Paris with hundreds of good street photos. At the end, I chose 150 of them. I may print a book with them.
    Would you be so kind to tell me if I can print a book in the US with images taken in a foreign country whose laws about the matter I am not aware of?
    Thanks in advance for your answer.
    Best,
    Cesar

  • This article is a great starting point for those dipping their toes into the art of street photography. Thanks

  • parkysan says:

    I live in the UK and carry a card in my wallet from the Royal Photographic Society which should help if and when you are asked about taking photos in public. The card states:

    POLICE STOP & SEARCH RIGHTS UNDER THE TERRORISM ACT
    We all need to be vigilant against terrorism and support the police where possible as well as protect our rights to photograph in a public place.

    The Royal Photographic Society advises as follows:-

    Every person has a right to photograph in a public place.

    It is not against the law to photograph a police officer undertaking normal duties.

    The police do have a duty to investigate incidents which may give rise to suspicion.

    If stopped by a police officer remain calm and polite

    You are not required to give any personal details unless driving a car or you are arrested.

    Officers may stop and search and view images if they believe they could be used in connection with terrorism.

    Officers have no power to delete images

    PCSOs may not search without a police officer present.

    You must be provided with a copy of the Stop & Search slip which will include the officer’s identity.

  • I had some questions about some of this, but now those questions have been answered. Good information to have…thanks for sharing!

  • Thank you for this valuable information. You have answered a number of questions that I had been wondering about.

  • Hug E Bear says:

    Hi Sarah; I am a amateur photographer and this the one thing that has kept me from photographing people in the street. This article has helped me out a lot. Thank you!!!!

  • angela says:

    Thanks for clearing up a lot of questions I have. I’m just getting into photography. I always wanted to for quite some time, now I’m acting on it. Have my new Canon SL1 and I’ll be headed downtown to Atlanta to takes some photos. This is great information to know.

  • Wendy says:

    Helpful, but what about the events (like fairs) where it may not technically be “public” property, but the organizer has no established policy one way or the other?

  • Ray Schwartz says:

    Just be respectful goes a long way

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