Taking Photos In Public Places Is Not A Crime

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has a piece in Popular Mechanics about the growing trend of cops bullying photographers who take pictures in public places, and why officials who believe such photography is against the law are mistaken.
photo_phobia_0710-md.jpgI believe there is a good case to be made that having lots of cameras in the hands of citizens makes us more, rather than less, safe. Here's how bad it has gotten: Not long ago, an Amtrak representative did an interview with local TV station Fox 5 in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station to explain that you don't need a permit to take pictures there--only to be approached by a security guard who ordered them to stop filming without a permit.

Legally, it's pretty much always okay to take photos in a public place as long as you're not physically interfering with traffic or police operations. As Bert Krages, an attorney who specializes in photography-related legal problems and wrote Legal Handbook for Photographers, says, "The general rule is that if something is in a public place, you're entitled to photograph it." What's more, though national-security laws are often invoked when quashing photographers, Krages explains that "the Patriot Act does not restrict photography; neither does the Homeland Security Act." But this doesn't stop people from interfering with photographers, even in settings that don't seem much like national-security zones.

Taking Photos In Public Places Is Not A Crime: Analysis (popularmechanics.com, Illustration by Rui Ricardo, courtesy Popular Mechanics)


  1. Glenn Reynolds, huh? I suppose it’s good to be reminded that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

  2. Seems like there’s a deeper issue here — security guards (and to an extent, cops) need to be better trained on the law.

  3. When ever I bike over NYC bridges there are signs saying that photography on the bridge is specifically illegal.

  4. Thank you so much for this helpful and reassuring piece. I’ve been an amateur digital photographer for only 7 years and have encountered sour security guards and good samaritans who enjoy telling me I’m a bad person for taking photos.

    My problem is that I don’t think quickly on my feet, so therefore often cave into such pressure and often agree to put away my camera or leave certain areas

    I would like to find out more about te differences between public and private spaces.
    Thank you again and god bless us photographers!

  5. While at present I assume the laws are (nearly) at parity between the US and Canada, these articles never make it clear. Has there been a version of this from a Canadian perspective?

    1. In Canada, the laws for photographers are very similar to those of the US. (except for Quebec, which has some major differences)

      The only thing you can’t shoot is anything national-security related.
      My understanding is: If a member of the RCMP asks you to stop for reasons of national security, then stop and delete, otherwise, you can legally keep on shooting. (but the officers might not be too happy about this, they get angry when citizens know their rights)

      While shooting on private property, if someone asks you to stop, and you don’t, it’s trespassing, but you still own the photos.

      Another difference, (hardly significant for amateurs, but might be big for companies and pros) in Canada, the rights to an image belong to the owner/purchaser of the film (with digital, it’s fuzzy whether the copyright belongs to the person who bought the memory card or camera owner)
      What this means is: if you own a camera, and you pass it around at an event, and someone else takes a cool shot on your camera, in Canada, you own the image, not them.

  6. Anon #4, its probably illegal so as to stop people from stopping and taking pictures, which is quite understandable. I would doubt there would be a problem with a passenger in a car taking a photo while moving in traffic. But, it’s NYC, so …

    I’d also like a Canadian perspective. I talked to a lawyer before the G20 with regards to forced deletion of photos and confiscation of footage, which is illegal of course.

  7. #8, I’m quite sure BP knows where it’s legal to take photos. They’re only trying to prevent more bad press.

  8. There is also the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. I doubt that a general prohibition on taking photographs would even be legal. At minimum, I can’t imagine how they could bar photos taken from public property of things important to the public debate for presentation in the media (say, for example, a BP refinery). If the First Amendment means anything, it has to mean that the government can’t stop the public conversation this way. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private security guards operating on private property, but then the photographer is trespassing anyhow.

  9. If you have a halfway decent camera you are a ‘professional,’ and if you are photographing someone with a pulse they are a ‘model’

  10. I’m an oil painter who shuns the use of photography (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the work of good photographers, mine is simply an issue of being able to prove my skill as an artist).
    I find it ironic that the same police and security people who might otherwise harass photographers for taking pictures in public often stop to remark about my art, although the only issue I am ever reminded of is about making sure I don’t restrict public pathways when I’m working.
    If it came down to it, I could draw something as recognizable and accurate as any amateur photographer, though it would take a little time.

    A side-question for NYC residents: Do they allow plein-air artists to work at national landmarks such as Liberty Island’s Statue of Liberty, or are there restrictions? I’ve seen a professional photo shoot there once, but am not sure about public photography.

    1. I sincerely doubt there are any restrictions on Liberty Island, as it is a national monument. You’re actually even allowed to bring guns to the island (but not into the pedestal):
      http://www.nps.gov/stli/parkmgmt/lawsandpolicies.htm Photography there is certainly permitted and allowed, even inside of the structure of the Statue.

      So I say come, give me your plein air, your easel, your huddled paints, yearning to breathe free.

      Oh, I’d probably skip the painting at some of the other monuments: Roosevelt’s Birthplace, Federal Hall, Hamilton Grange (closed right now anyway), but Ellis Island, Governor’s Island, Liberty Island and Grant’s Tomb would all be just fine with you painting I imagine. Get forgiveness, not permission.

  11. Through all of these discussion I seem to recall that NYC has ‘tripod’ qualifier in the law that requires one to have a permit from the City to film/photograph if using one. Other than that, it’s all fair game.

    1. Only on private property (Rock Center, especially, but they let you monopod). But tripod on public sidewalk? Not an issue as long as I’ve been shooting here.

  12. There was a law passed in Canada 20 years ago that allowed people to sue photographers who published pictures of people without their permission – it could be someone standing in a crowd. Not sure how that works today.

  13. Does anyone have a link to that Amtrak rep interview where the security guard stops them? I tried searching for it but couldn’t find it. I’d really like to see it!

  14. @ Anon • #4 “… NYC bridges there are signs saying that photography on the bridge is specifically illegal.”

    Photography ON the bridge, or photography OF the bridge?

    1. Nope. Photography ON the bridge. OF the bridges is perfectly legal and unopposed, only those actually on the bridge, taking an image of the city (or the bridge itself or one’s Aunt Sophie and her little dog Munchkin, who’s having a wonderful day in the city stopping in for a Pooch-ini at Shake Shack before enjoying the walk across the East River, etc.)

      Yeah, it’s a little weird, right?

  15. Wifi-enabled SD card in your camera + Verizon Mifi in your pocket = photos safely emailed to a distant server faster than you can say, “Oh I’m *so* sorry Mr. Rent-a-cop, I had *no* idea photography was illegal here. Please, let me save you the trouble and delete them right now. Here, watch.”

  16. Theoretically, a Federal law telling the police they need to obey existing laws and court decisions and the Constitution on this issue could help, but in practice it’s risky, because the people who brought us the PATRIOT Act and other abominations would be sure to “improve” the law with terms about “except for national security or critical police protections or blah blah blah”.

  17. “I believe there is a good case to be made that having lots of cameras in the hands of citizens makes us more, rather than less, safe. ”

    Cameras are the new guns! A surveilled society is a polite society? They won’t stop us for fear we’ll organize on Youtube…

    …and so on. I’m torn between liberty and gun-nuttiness.

  18. Clearly not every representative of authority would be thinking this way, but it’s possible that police officers are trying to include the idea that photography is suspicious in the arsenal of “reasonable suspicions” that they can use to justify “stop and search” tactics.

    That is, if they can reasonably claim that the activity of photography is itself suspicious then they could be justified in having documented interactions with individuals in situation where they might not otherwise be legally permitted to so.

    (Please note that I don’t think that the claim “photography is suspicious” is reasonable, I’m just suggesting that this is a potential argument and that there may be real motivations behind making that argument.)

    For some of these people (security guards, most notably) the demonization of photography is clearly motivated by the usual craven fears and abuses of authority. In other instances it could be a Trojan horse that is being used to deteriorate the rights of citizens.

    This is all very depressing, but I am heartened by the idea of the U.S. Federal government passing legislation that explicitly makes photography a protected right of the individual as much as the right to free speech and the right to bear arms. That would be great!

  19. Would it be naive to suggest that someone create a “photographic rights” card, citing laws that one may (politely) show to overzealous security types and police? Something you could keep in your wallet, perhaps?

    Obviously, the first guy to try it might not get anywhere. But perhaps if it becomes common enough, it might make a difference.

    1. It’s not at all naive, in fact it’s already been thought of. Here‘s a link to a UK version. I know there are US versions around, but my Google is failing me at the moment.

      1. That’s the beauty of this internet thingy, you think it and go out to find that someone has already realized it for you.

  20. On the first anniversary of 9/11 two friends of mine and I were having a little memorial ceremony on an public island across from the Pentagon (actually, a national park). I was videoing the event. Soon two jeeps appeared and the military man in charge told me I had to stop videoing. While I put down the camera as he told us this I continued to record the conversation.

    Afterward, the head of the park, who had witnessed the interaction thanked us but also added “You didn’t have to do that. This is public land and they have no jurisdiction here.”

    Film at 11.

  21. Recently returning from a family trip in Washington DC, I was dismayed at the number government buildings that strictly prohibited photography. Who wants a picture of the lines forming for the capitol tour? Take some pictures of some old capitol documents behind glass? Nope, not allowed I wanted pictures of the house and senate floors. I could understand if they were in session as constant tourist camera flashes would be distracting, but the senate and congress weren’t in session. Why can’t I take a picture of 2 empty rooms?

    One of the other many instances that stand out was keeping people from taking pictures of “Old Glory.”

    I was certainly disappointed as to how many points of historical interest couldn’t be photographed.

    1. Generally, the reason they don’t want you taking photos of old documents is that the constant exposure to the light from flashes over time degrades paper, fabrics, etc.

      Unless they’re just being assholes, that is. Why they don’t want you taking pics of the House & Senate chambers, I have no idea. It isn’t as if they’re some secret area that don’t have tons of photos out there already.

  22. Harassment of amateur photographers taking pics. in public has been rife in the UK of late with police literally making up new “laws” as they go along or, in one instance that was recorded, saying they didn’t need a law! One unfortunate near me was actually arrested under the terrorism act after refusing to give ID to council officials who had no right to demand it in the first place. The arrest was afterwards deemed “unlawful” under the complaints against the police procedure, so I smell a lawsuit a-coming! All this, despite guide-lines and clarification being handed down from senior ranks. The law is much the same as the USA as far as I can see. Public areas are fine. Police have no power to delete pictures (as as happened to foreign tourists). A court order is the place for that. It’s about time the police were educated about the laws they are supposed to be upholding.

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