Street photography and the law: 7 things you need to know

Street photography and the law: 7 things you need to know

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.

your rights and the law for street photographers 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.

what are your right when photographing people in public 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.

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 a waiter 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.

street photography and the law 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.

your rights and the law for street photographers 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. 

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About the Author:

Sarah Wilkerson is the CEO of Click & Company and also provides mentoring services, teaches advanced Click Photo School courses on composition & creativity, and authors the “Why It Works” series in CLICK magazine. She specializes in low light photography, everyday documentary, and tilt-shift work. A former attorney and Duke graduate, Sarah resides in northern Virginia with her Army JAG husband, four children, and three dogs. Visit Sarah Wilkerson online.
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59 Comments

  1. Stacey Haslem Sep 26 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

    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. May 12 2016 at 11:59 pm - Reply

      “…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.

      • Sarah Wilkerson May 13 2016 at 12:01 pm - Reply

        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.”

      • Noah R. Aug 29 2016 at 10:09 pm - Reply

        [replaces previous]
        May I ask what, exactly, you find “unsettling” about the situation you described?

        Do you fear that merely being photographed by your neighbor somehow poses some threat to your child? How so? Can you articulate your concerns?

  2. Heidi G Sep 26 2012 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Great article Sarah!

  3. czarina Sep 26 2012 at 11:54 am - Reply

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

  4. lifeineden Sep 26 2012 at 11:57 am - Reply

    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!

  5. Lisa Benemelis Sep 26 2012 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    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.

  6. kendra Sep 26 2012 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    GREAT article! Thank you so much!!

  7. Lacey Meyers Sep 26 2012 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    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. 🙂

  8. Tiffany Sep 26 2012 at 3:27 pm - Reply

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

  9. jennifer Sep 26 2012 at 10:43 pm - Reply

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

  10. Police Gear Sep 27 2012 at 5:24 am - Reply

    Excellent job Sarah, and really nice article.

  11. Megan Sep 27 2012 at 7:20 am - Reply

    Great article, Sarah! Your photos here are all amazing 🙂

  12. Marissa Sep 27 2012 at 10:28 am - Reply

    Great article & really good information to know.

  13. Jes Gwozdz Sep 27 2012 at 9:20 pm - Reply

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

  14. Kristin Sep 27 2012 at 11:15 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Sarah!

  15. Pam Korman Sep 28 2012 at 5:50 am - Reply

    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!!

  16. Kit Sep 28 2012 at 9:10 am - Reply

    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

  17. Elle Sep 28 2012 at 8:59 pm - Reply

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

  18. Kathy Thorson Oct 03 2012 at 2:15 pm - Reply

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

  19. jodi Oct 05 2012 at 10:20 am - Reply

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

  20. Mama Monkey Oct 15 2012 at 9:29 am - Reply

    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. 🙁

    • Kimberly Mar 22 2018 at 2:37 pm - Reply

      I was at a park the other day, I saw the cutest boy in the best spot to take a photo, I shaped one when you could not see his face it turned out great, the problem I had was when his mother was nearby for me to ask I asked her if I could take a photo of him she said she would rather I didn’t her friend had a boy there about the same age she was thrilled to have me snap some photos but then she told him and he became a ham, and the photos were not what I wanted. I do have the one of the other boy who did not know I took it. I will use the photo in my portfolio but I won’t post it out of respect most photographers understand if you don’t want your child’s photo taken, I am glad to know that I can take them but I would never use if a parent asked me not to. If it was my child I would not like that.

  21. Nan Kanduth Oct 15 2012 at 11:51 pm - Reply

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

  22. Tish Oct 18 2012 at 6:31 am - Reply

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

  23. Family Law Attorney Chicago Oct 29 2012 at 7:26 am - Reply

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

  24. Sidney Menchaca Dec 06 2012 at 10:15 am - Reply

    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.

  25. Wendy H Jul 06 2013 at 7:11 am - Reply

    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.

  26. Peter P. Aug 14 2013 at 11:10 pm - Reply

    #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.

    • Sarah Wilkerson Aug 26 2017 at 12:20 pm - Reply

      Hi Peter, I believe you are referring to the Right of Publicity, which generally preserves (on a state by state basis here in the U.S.) the degree to which an individual can control the commercial exploitation of his/her name or likeness. I am unaware of any states that extend broadly to require a model release for the photographing of private citizens in general, but if you have statutes or legal cases to share, I’d love hear more.

  27. Satya Iyer Aug 16 2013 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    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.

  28. Cesar Barroso Sep 06 2013 at 3:53 pm - Reply

    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

  29. David K. Sutton Mar 05 2014 at 3:30 pm - Reply

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

  30. parkysan May 22 2014 at 10:13 am - Reply

    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.

  31. Jodee Weiland May 22 2014 at 11:15 am - Reply

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

  32. Dana L. Daggett May 22 2014 at 2:41 pm - Reply

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

  33. angela Dec 26 2015 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    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.

  34. Wendy Jan 14 2016 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    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?

  35. Ray Schwartz Feb 01 2016 at 8:20 pm - Reply

    Just be respectful goes a long way

    • Sarah Wilkerson May 13 2016 at 12:03 pm - Reply

      I completely agree, Ray! Common sense and simple respect will lead us the right way in most situations.

  36. Jay Jun 27 2016 at 9:40 am - Reply

    Thanks for the text.
    Suppose I’m taking pictures with my cell phone people in the streets and subways of NY. All images are in public environments. Could in the future make a book of this stuff ??
    Thanks for listening
    Jay

  37. vern Jul 02 2016 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    Some photographer had the nerve to photo me today as I was literally bent over placing marker flags on the courthouse lawn in preparation for the upcoming holiday festivities. She literally took a photo of my ass! When confronted, she claimed she was some sort of an artist. I was so upset, I could have easily became enraged!

    The law may give these freaks the right to photograph in these places and of whomever they like, but show a little respect!! Photographers like her are pariahs and next time.. I don’t think I will be so nice!!

  38. Marinna Cole Jul 14 2016 at 11:43 am - Reply

    Good article. Although part of your opinion is actually contract with what I know.

    First. about the model release, there is a brief summary of what needs to be done on wiki: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Photographs_of_identifiable_people. The general believe is even when you take a photo of people on the street you might still need a release to use that image commercially. (and to be honest it’s only fair since you are making money from them) and even without any commercial use this right is still restricted in various occasional as you and this wiki mentioned.

    There was a famous and very scary case a while ago while a stock photographer being sued for $500000 by a model he shot with release form and payment to the model, together with explicit approval from the model for specific photos to be used. (http://petapixel.com/2015/01/11/help-sued-nearly-500000-model-photographed/). The case was withdrawn later but this just a painful reminder how complicate it is when your photo has human being involved.

    There are a lot of similar discussion I had with other photographers about this but as when I try to google it I am still not sure what exactly is the law saying yes and no for different situations. After all when it becomes legal using your common sense is simply not going to have you covered.

    • John henry Sep 08 2016 at 8:04 pm - Reply

      Thanks for writing this. Im new to stock photography and reading about that photographer being sued by the model is scary. Why was it dropped?

    • Sarah Wilkerson Aug 26 2017 at 10:56 am - Reply

      Hi Marinna! You are absolutely correct — commercial use introduces a different set of considerations. As outlined in Item 7, “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.”

  39. Jarrett Jul 25 2016 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Great information! I have an additional question I was hoping someone could help me with. I have been asked by a local company here in Florida for a Canopy Road photograph that they will use for the front page of their news letter. This will be sent to thousands of customers in Florida. I already have a few photographs and in one, there is a fence which sits on private property. Its a small portion of the photography and it was not taken on the property but from the middle of the road. Is there a release required for something like this?

    • Sarah Wilkerson Aug 26 2017 at 10:52 am - Reply

      Hi Jarrett! Generally speaking, photographers who are shooting from public property may photograph subjects and scenes within their view, including those subjects situated on private property. That said, I am not a Florida attorney and am unable to provide specific legal advice; it is always wise to consult with local counsel if you have specific concerns about your present situation. Best wishes!

  40. Bailey Photographer Aug 01 2016 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Since this article was written some time ago I wish there was a update on it.

    • Sarah Wilkerson Aug 26 2017 at 10:46 am - Reply

      Hi there! The general standards outlined above remain relevant to date!

  41. Ms.T Stavich May 14 2017 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    There is also freedom of speech, but we don’t cry fire in a crowded theater. Cameras have become the biggest abomination I have see when adding the cheapness of digital photography along with insensitive photographers who do not have the sense to ask first before photographing others and parents children.

    • Sarah Wilkerson Aug 26 2017 at 10:45 am - Reply

      The fire in a crowded theater analogy was actually part of a 1919 Supreme Court opinion commenting on necessary limits on Free Speech protections; the point in that case was that the First Amendment does not, in fact, legally protect speech in all forms. At the time, the Court held that the First Amendment did not protect speech that constituted a “clear and present danger” (and falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater was one Justice’s example of how the Constitution did not intend to protect speech that would instantly provoke life-threatening panic). Today, legal limits on free speech remain; severe & pervasive harassment and incitement to immediate lawlessness, for example, are common examples of speech types that are not constitutionally protected.

  42. Eldar Aug 30 2017 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    Hi Sarah – Thank you for the article.
    I have a question – I went to a festival and photographed a lot of people in the crowd – they posed for me and exchanged their social media accounts. I compiled a mini-book from the best photographs and decided to put on my website’s store. But one day I was reached out by an agency representative/lawyer of one guy who I photographed saying that although his client only wants a book, he (the agent) is interested in legal matter towards me. I didn’t credit anyone in the book because I normally don’t do it but other books that I did are about street photography and I do not communicate with the subjects, unlike in this book it was still public place and photographs were taken with their permission, I got confused when I received this message. Since the person is not a model and agreed to be photographed (hence, his image to be used by me in any form), does this agent (representative) have any right to send me threatening messages like that?

    Thanks in advance,
    Eldar

  43. David Nov 02 2017 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    Great article and excellent answers to follow-up questions. Thank you for taking the time to share this information.

  44. George Johnson Nov 27 2017 at 12:29 am - Reply

    It’s always good to see these arcticles with clear common sense about street photography. Too many people have over inflated expectations of their privacy in public places and that somehow photographer is simply a byword for voyeur. I feel with today’s paranoia stirred up by the media that we’re losing the gentle innocence of street photograpy, by that I mean the work of people like Dosineau, simply to satisfy 21st Century fears. Street photography ettitquite is a matter of common sense a lot of the time, be aware of your surroundings at all times and be able to rapidly size up any moral consequences of the shots you’ve taken. It’s digital, so if for any reason you have doubts about a shot, simply delete it yourself and move on. In any urban environment there are hundreds of shots an hour to be had so deleting just once uncomfortable shot is no loss. I find street photography is one of the best ways to practice understanding composition and use of light and shadow, you’re moving at such a pace, I often shoot 300-400 shots an hour on a city shoot and you have maybe half a second to size up a shot and grab it before it’s gone. It’s huge rush as you “run and gun” with your camera and it’s superb exercise too!

  45. Ben Chan Jan 04 2018 at 11:16 am - Reply

    Great article. I’ve been in photojournalism for some four decades. My rule of thumb is that even if the law is your side, be courteous and respectful when you explain your right. You win over doubter or ignorance with good communication skill. If the other side becomes civilized just walk away. It’s not worth it. Turn around and come back minutes later, this time from across the street and use a long focal lens. As long as youl get what you want who cares. Be street smart.

  46. David Murray Jan 27 2018 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    Street Photography is on the rise. What is needed is a foolproof technique and I have it:
    I use a Leica model 111, made in 1935, with a 3.5cm (35mm) f3.5 Summaron lens set to a distance of 15 feet. Shutter speed is 500 for Ilford XP2 Chromogenic film at 400 iso. I keep the camera in my jacket pocket, attached to my wrist with a homemade wrist strap made of cord. Camera is wound on, with aperture set f5.6-8-11. Walking along, when I see my shot and I’m around 10-20 feet away, camera comes out, click, and back in the pocket. I’m still walking and I walk away from the scene of my shot. Seldom does anyone notice me. Never any problems from police, security guards, interfering old bags, curious youths etc.

  47. Jamie Feb 11 2018 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    Photography is about reputation and often about people; that being said, Doingthe legal thing in this case crosses ethical boundaries when it comes to privacy.

  48. Julie Mar 03 2018 at 6:11 am - Reply

    We have a client that wants to do a senior photoshoot with a group of teens sitting on a sofa near a fountain. (Like Friends TV show). How do you bring a sofa onto public property and not get kicked off? We are thinking of a town square setting where there are lots of people who are in open areas, but is that legal or do most places require permits for that?

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