Know Your Legal Rights As A Photographer :: Digital Photo Secrets

Know Your Legal Rights As A Photographer

by David Peterson 11 comments

Or: How To Avoid Getting Into Trouble With The Law

As a photographer, you actually have quite a few legal rights. In fact, it’s more than you would expect. It’s important to know your legal rights for several reasons. To start, you’ll want to know when the authorities do and don’t have the right to confiscate your photography equipment and images. You’ll also want to know what can get you into trouble with law. In this article, I've give you a primer into your ights as a photographer.

Disclaimer: I am not a laywer and what I describe here are based on the United States laws. Your local laws and interpretations may vary. Consult a lawyer to be sure.

If You Are On Public Property, You Can Usually Take Pictures

That includes people you don’t even know in person. If you’re on public property (or private property open to the public), it’s fair game, and the offending party has no right to prosecute you in court. You can also take pictures of people and buildings that are on private property while you’re standing on public property. Doing so does not violate the law.

Bear in mind that if you take enough pictures in public, someone will eventually get angry. People will confront you, and they will tell you that what you’re doing is against the law. Some police officers might even attempt to confiscate your photography equipment. If this happens, be polite, and ask them if they have a legal reason for doing so. If they don’t, they can’t take your equipment.

There are some exceptions. You can’t photograph somebody who has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” (ie in a bathroom or dressing room). Ask yourself: “Would the average person expect privacy?” If so, don’t take a photo. Also, voyeuristic photos are not legal under any circumstance. The consequences for these are very severe.

Sensitive government buildings like military bases are also out of bounds. Even if you are standing in a public place. Be safe and don't even try. Also, if you are on private property that's open to the public, they have the right to make up their own rules as to if photos can be taken.

Selling Your Photos And Using Them For Commercial Purposes

You are allowed to take as many public photos as you want, but it gets more difficult (and interesting) when it comes to selling and using those photos. The big thing to be concerned about is commercial use. Whenever you use a photo of someone else to advertise your services or a company’s products or services, you need to have that person sign a model release (sample here).

Everything else is fine. That means if you’re out on the town, and you spot an interesting character, you can take a photograph and sell that photo on consignment at your local coffee shop with no legal consequences. You don’t even have to tell the person being photographed that you plan on selling the image.

But if one of your buyers plans on using your image for advertising purposes, you’ll need to get a model release. Thankfully, most companies are aware of this, and they almost always make you provide a model release upon purchasing the commercial rights to your image.

Check Your Local Laws When Building Your Photography Portfolio

A photographer’s portfolio serves two purposes. It’s a way to show people the work you do, and it serves as a mini-advertisement of your services. Because of this, you need to be careful. Depending on where you live, you might need to have model releases for every image you use in your portfolio. Check into your local laws before you begin to put your portfolio together.

Even Though Your Actions Are Completely Legal, You Still Need To Respect The People You Photograph. Yes, it’s legal to take pictures of anybody in public. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to like it. Some of them will get angry, and a few might even try to start a fight. I’m not going to tell you what to do in this situation, but I will say there are times when holding onto a photo and refusing to delete it simply isn’t worth the trouble. Respect the wishes of others, and they will respect you. Bert P Krages has an excellent downloadable pamphlet on Photographer's Rights. It's handy to print out and keep with your camera to refer to or hand out when confronted.

If the police get involved, be cooperative but also know your rights. They don’t have a right to tell you to stop taking pictures. And they can’t take your equipment, so don’t let them. Politely tell them that they need a legal reason to confiscate your equipment, and most of them will back off. Remember to be polite!

Have you ever had any trouble while you were out taking pictures? Do you have an interesting story to tell? I want to hear it! Post your story in the comments.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Chris W. says:

    I am an enthusiastic photographic hobbyist, 70 years of age, married with an extended family. On Saturday 8th. September I went to Mississauga's (near Toronto) beautiful Celebration Square to capture on my camera, some shots of the sights, colours and laughter of families relaxing at this great new public facility, on a hot summer evening. After just a few minutes, before I had even time to complete set-up of my camera, I was approached separately by two men who stated that they were fathers and who objected to my taking photographs of their children. They stated that I was acting as if a pedophile. My accusers demanded my camera,---I refused. For my own protection, I demanded that Peel Police and City Hall security guards be called. One of the fathers threatened to throw me and my camera into the fountain pond.
    Peel region police declined to send an officer and explained to the complainant on the phone that the property is public space & photographs are permitted anywhere, any time on public property including Celebration Square. The City by laws officer stated that I did NOT require a permit to take private use photos on public property in Peel and was free to photograph at Celebration Square. I found this confrontation to be humiliating as it was enacted in public before an interested audience.
    Noteworthy, my accusers took multiple photos of me during this inter-action to which I did NOT object. Celebration Square is public property and they were merely claiming their constitutional rights.
    The City might help avoid these types of ugly confrontations if it posted several Non -Commercial Photography Allowed signs around Celebration Square to remind all visitors that they are on public property and not in their own (private) back gardens. Let us be more respectful of each others rights.

    • Rick Haggett says:

      Hi Chris you did the right thing and did nothing wrong. The men here were the ones in the wrong when they threatened you, and you could have put charges to them. Some people jump the gun today and with the camera's of today looking bigger and blacker then they ever have, some folks can find it intimidated. A local photographer and professional I know, was once told not to photograph children on the Merry Go Round as the local fair. He was told this by the staff and not the parents. He stopped photographing, left, then went home to find out his rights. He quickly realized he too, did nothing wrong. When I spoke with him I told him that in todays crazy world, it doesn't hurt to know a bit of self defence, in case you run into a hot head. When you have thousands of dollars around your neck in gear, you want to protect it, especially when you know you have done nothing wrong.

    • David Peterson says:


      Thanks for your story.

      Unfortunately, that's a common occurrence nowadays.

      However, if someone doesn't want their photo taken (including in public) then I would immediately apologize and delete the photos in full view of the person who complained. Even though you are within your rights, I feel it's better to get on people's 'good side'.

      Alternatively, ask for permission first stating your intentions ("I'm here taking photos of the crowd. Do you mind if I take your photo?"). Most people are delighted! More on this here:


  2. Pammie says:

    I was in my backyard (on my property) taking pictures of the pond we live on. It was getting to be dusk, so I decided to turn on my flash to experiment with flash photography. The neighbors across the pond had their 5 yr old son out on the public road driving a motorized vehicle (& I do not mean a kiddy battery powered thing - this was gas powered that an adult could fit in). The mom came out & yelled something to me (as I sit in my yard taking pics of the pond, of which my property extends half way out into) & claimed that I can't take pictures because her child is a minor. I ignored her & kept on snapping pics. I was on my property, taking pics of my property, & they were allowing their young child to break the law by driving a motorized vehicle on a public road. You wouldn't mind, but I'm down there practically everyday snapping pics of nature. And I'll continue to do so...

  3. Alex Shipherd says:

    I had an assignment for photography class to capture something with the colors of red, white, and blue with lines. Of course I immediately thought, the American Flag! I went to a legion, it was already dark in the late evening but lights illuminated the background of the flag and I started taking pictures of the flag flying in the wind. All of a sudden some guy (a complete stranger to me) walks out of the legion and hollers, "Hey! You're not allowed to take pictures of the American Flag here!!! Stop before I do something about it." I got back into the car, waited a while and he went back into the building. I'm thinking he was drunk because of how he sounded and walked but scared the living daylights out of me! Anyways, I still was able to get some pictures of the flag. Talk about a scary situation!

  4. Graham "Gabby" McDonald says:

    I'm currently living in Tombstone, AZ. Three days a week my wife and I are in town, in 1880's style dress. There are about eight other couples who do the same thing. We're known as 'board-walkers', volunteers, not working for any of the businesses in town, but there to answer visitors questions, and pose for photographs. Yup, we do get photographed, but some from across the street - hand-held and zoomed. Ouch. If your in a 'tourist' town, and see someone you'd like to photograph, walk up and ask. Three possibilities: "No", "Money", or "What would you like for a background?". A "No" - don't try to sneak a shot, respect the answer. "Money" - sort of up to you and your pocketbook. The third answer - go for it. You might display the shot on the LCD to the subject - some do, most don't. If you plan to upload the photo to the web, have a card or slip of paper giving the URL of where the shot can be seen later. We almost never see how we look to our visitors. Some folk are out there to be photographed - take them up on it.

  5. Keiron says:

    I was asked (by a local life guard) to do some portfolio pics for him while he was working the beach. I have 'model release' forms on hand always, so I headed to the job. Upon arrival, I was confronted with quite a few people on the beach, including kids (usually a quiet beach at 7am). I used my 70-300 lens to capture my subject doing manoeuvres on the Jetski and interacting with the public whilst working. It was later that afternoon, I was approached by police (at my home) stating they had a complaint about "a guy with a big camera and bazooka lens taking photos of everyone on the beach, including the kids". I explained to the cops why & what I was doing there and showed them the pics, still on the camera. There were 3 backpackers (female) of about 20-25 yrs old in ONE shot, they were the one's who complained. Luckily I know one of the cops who turned up and he knows it's 'what I do' for a living, yet, the sergeant forced me to delete ALL 380 odd pics or face prosecution for invasion of privacy. I subsequently lost the job for the portfolio and 2 other jobs for the same guy. I have since informed myself more clearly of the legality of public photography (in Australia) and will NOT give in to the cops again. I now have T-shirts with "PHOTOGRAPHER" plastered across the front and back, sandwich boards to display "Photographer Working in the Area", door magnets on my car, and plenty of business cards to hand out. Fingers crossed it won't happen again.... oh, the fickle minded sheep...

  6. Ted Bendixson says:

    Nice comeback Ann!

  7. Anne says:

    This is great! I just had a run-in with one of my neighbors when I was taking photos of the sky from my patio which happens to face his. He actually called the police and said my picture taking was a violation of his privacy. I told the police that I thought them coming to my house was an invasion of my privacy!

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