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Street photography laws and etiquette, pt1

The photo that launched this conversation
Sunday we held a workshop on the Waterbury green in downtown Waterbury, CT. It was a bright day with clouds that threatened rain. The workshop was on how to properly meter harsh and mixed lighting situations, using aperture priority and modifying it with exposure compensation and exposure lock.

The workshop went well and soon I released everyone to practice what they had learned in a real-world exercise; street photography. While it was something new for most people, it afforded everyone the chance to immediately practice the lessons under the same light the workshop was presented with in an environment that afforded both room and content. However, the lesson soon changed from how to use a camera to how to defend your rights.

Once I released the group to the streets I decided to do a sweep of the outer edge of the green to see if there was anything of interest to photograph. I had taken maybe four frames before encountering this fellow eating from a paper cup (in the photo above). It was a quick shot but it did not go unnoticed as you can see the girl's reaction in the image. The photo itself is lousy, slightly blurred and not very interesting. The guy inquired as to why I was taking pictures and I told him I was running a workshop. I then showed him the photo and he gave me a little nod.

The girl (Erin as I later learned her name) told me not to take her picture. "Okay," I replied and started walking away. I was about ten paces away when I her her yell at me. "Delete that picture," she protested. I ignored her and kept walking. "Hey!" she exclaimed louder, "Delete that picture. Do you hear me?" This is when the fun started.

She came up beside me and started to tell me that it was illegal for me to take her picture without her written consent and that I had to delete the photo I had taken from my camera. I then informed her that, "One, I took a picture of the guy sitting next to you, not you and two, I don't need your permission as this is a public park. And, no, I don't have to delete anything." However, this did not bode well with her and she started to school me in the laws governing photography in open places. How it was illegal to take pictures of people without their written consent.

Erin is trying to convince the group that it is illegal for us
to take pictures of people without their written permission
By this time I had taken a few more pictures of my surroundings and was quickly approaching the rest of the meet up group. The first emotion that came over me was embarrassment. As event host I thought it may not look well having a pedestrian harassing me about something I just sent everyone else out to do. That quickly changed to a feeling of opportunity. How better to explain the rules of street photography and how to deal with irate subjects than by having one right there. It was obvious to me she wasn't giving up on her agenda.

The ensuing confrontation provided some humor, a lot of annoyance and finally an exasperated "I give up" as Erin refused to hear anything but her internal argument. She even went so far as to say the basis of her knowledge came from the "American Law Book" (go ahead and chuckle, you have my permission) and if you think she may have a point, go ahead and look up "American Law Book", there is no such entity. Erin even went so far as to call the cops who, sadly, never showed up. So what are the rules and how do you handle these situations?

First, there is no one place to start as the rules and regulations about what and where to photograph are spread throughout many law books, not just the "American Law Book" (sorry, couldn't resist). Rules are covered by copyright laws, national, state and provincial laws and finally by moral laws.

Copyright Laws govern ownership of intellectual property and enters a realm of ambiguity when it comes to recording intellectual property through photographic means. Some artwork and buildings can be copyrighted that limits the photographing of said property. The same goes for certain items of clothing or costuming. Encountering these however is rare for the casual photographer.

National laws (U.S.) state you can photograph anyone or anything that is public property or from a publicly accessed area except for certain government or military installations that pose national security issues. You can not, however, photograph anyone or anything in which a sign is posted prohibiting such activity. This includes any private property that is considered open to the public such as shopping malls, tourist attractions, amusement parks, etc.

State and municipal laws pretty much follow the national laws but can append additional restrictions and you need to be aware of those restrictions.

Moral laws are not legal laws but rules of conduct that govern us as human beings and separate us from animals. Moral laws are open to interpretation and can vary from place to place. Moral laws can go to court as 'torts' and are punishable in civil court. Most of these cases revolve around the "reasonable expectation of privacy" rule and are difficult and expensive to fight.

So in a nutshell, here is what you can photograph based on national and local laws; (please note these are generally known rules and can vary from place to place. You need to know your local laws regarding photography.)
Photographing children is legal
Photographing them nude is not!
  • People of any age in a public place - Young, old, children, adults and seniors who are in a public place and have no expectation of privacy. This includes public areas such as streets, parks, beaches, walkways, municipal buildings, courtyards and open land-trust areas and any such public areas where photography is not specifically prohibited. You can also photograph any person who is on private property so long as the photo is taken from a public location and there is no expectation of privacy.
  • Buildings and structures not covered under the Homeland Security Act - Exteriors of skyscrapers, factories, airports, warehouses, power plants, city halls, courthouses and private residences. You can also photograph bridges, public memorials, hospitals, rail yards and landmarks. Excluded are some military installations, nuclear facilities or other sensitive locations that can be construed as a threat to national security. Sikorsky is such an example.
  • Events or activities on public property - Contrary to popular belief, accidents, fires, police activities, medical emergencies and military actions can all be photographed so long as you do not create a safety hazard or obstruct the activities.You need to follow all instructions from safety officers regarding safe distances, crowd control and other barricades.
  • On private property when you have express permission - If you are given permission to visually record proceedings or events on private property you have the right to take pictures there so long as you follow the limits of your contract (written or verbal) and adhere to the wishes of the person giving you permission. This includes weddings, concerts, religious events, family gatherings, community events and fund raisers. This permission can be revoked at any time for any reason and you are obligated to stop when told to.
As you see, that is a pretty open ended list. Here are a few situation when you can not photograph;
  • People in public who expect some privacy - Public rest rooms and changing rooms are two places where people expect privacy, obviously. A secluded corner of a restaurant, a quiet corner of a park, at an ATM, at a hospital, church or funeral home are all places people expect a certain amount of privacy also. People on private property who can be viewed from a public place will have an expectation to privacy due to fencing, curtains or other forms of privacy screening and should not be photographed.
  • Posted areas restricting photography - Although some areas are open to the public they could be privately owned. Shopping malls are designed to be publicly accessible but are classified as private property and as a photographer you have to abide by any posted signs to stop taking pictures. The same goes for verbal requests from a representative of that venue and that includes rent-a-cops. Other privately owned public areas may include historical landmarks, concert arenas, theaters, restaurants, department stores, churches, all of which may have specific regulations regarding the use of photography or other means of recording. Some corporate buildings and factories may have similar restrictions within their establishment depending on the nature and sensitivity of the business. However, any of these can be photographed from outside from a publicly accessible area or areas not part of that property. Keep in mind that parking lots for any of these facilities are also part of that property and are considered private property.
  • On private property without permission - Cameras are so common that they are found everywhere. Pictures get posted to social web sites left and right, sometimes without the knowledge of the people in the photo. But most of the time when we see a camera point in our direction we'll send out our best 'cheese' face and we're okay with it. Among friends there is a certain acceptance and we know when we can and can't take pictures. However, if you are among people you don't know it is common courtesy to ask first.
  • Sensitive information - Another thing you can't do is photograph and publish sensitive or personal information. So if for some reason you photograph someone's credit card number, you can't post it on line. Medical records, financial documents, legal forms and other information that is considered as private is off limits.
These are basic rules regarding your rights to photograph and should not be used as a definitive legal guide. Research the law yourself or consult a lawyer for a full understanding of your rights. On top of the legal restrictions there is also common sense and moral responsibility. In short, don't be a jerk about it. If someone is obviously upset or confrontational use your best judgement and etiquette to diffuse the situation.

Continued in part two...

Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is considered to be of a general nature based on journalistic research and should not be construed to be legal advice. To fully understand your rights as a photographer you should seek legal counsel from a qualified attorney.


  1. Good stuff Duck. Hope Erin reads this!

  2. One thing I found when researching this article is there are no laws that specifically allow or deny the rights of a photographer but rather are written to protect the rights of something else. Copyright laws don't deny the photographing of intellectual property they just protect a person's intellectual property from exploitation. Underage nudity laws don't deny a photographer's rights to taking pictures of children, it just protects our children from exploitation. HIPAA rules don't deny taking pictures of medical settings, it protects the confidentiality of sensitive personal information of a medical nature. See what I mean? As such, most of it can seem ambiguous and open to interpretation.

  3. Great information, Duck thank you for the article and the clarafication.

    My question is: Now-a-days taking a picture of children, not related to you, at play in a park, at the beach etc. can cause problems with parents. I can understand their anxiety, especially with unsavory people stalking children. That said how do you approach the parents and ask their permisssion? Use a long lens and avoid the parents all together? Offer the parents a picture via email? Any suggestions?

    1. The more professional and 'transparent' you are the better you will be received. Photographing young children is a matter of gaining the parent's trust. Handing out a business card with your name and contact info is a great way to begin in establishing that trust. Talking with the parents and relating with them on an emotional level is another step. Finally, sharing your images with them would "seal the deal" that you're not up to something sinister. Of course, this may lead to some side work as a photographer once they get to know you.


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