The Photographer's Rights

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There is a reason I'm a landscape photographer; People drive me up a wall. My friend Ryan and I have a constant back-and-forth over how boring it is to photograph things that largely don't move vs. trying to capture that fleeting moment in street photography. This weekend Ryan gave me yet another reason to avoid people when carrying my camera -- as we've read on BB, street photographers are still being victimized and harassed. While many of us understand that photography is a right and only under certain circumstances can you be banned from taking a photo in public; surprisingly mall cops, petty bureaucrats and even our own police are constantly over-stepping boundaries and harassing photographers.

Ryan was harassed for using an antique camera in public. He blogged his story here. Someone thought he was taking upskirt photos from a long distance with a Twin Lens Reflex camera. Its pretty impossible. Shortly after sharing his story, Ryan flooded me with examples of other photographers being harassed in similar ways. Blake Andrews, a street shooting colleague of Ryan's, had a near identical experience (except it was children he was accused of inappropriately photographing.)

Anyhow, its wrong. Photographers have rights and if you love to take pictures you should know them. Bert Krages has prepared The Photographer's Rights page and offers a pdf to help you know what is ok to photograph (most everything,) what isn't, and what to do if someone wants to question you. The Photographer's Rights


  1. I had some dudes threaten to break my neck if I pointed a camera in their direction a few weeks back.

    The hostility is out there and it doesn’t just come from law enforcement.. I have a feeling a lot of it comes from the existence of the internet. Once you’re in a photo it’s probably going to end up online, and there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do to prevent it.

    Photographer rights are certainly a fine idea, but the subjects should have rights too.

  2. It’s all well and good for me to know my rights, but that means little when dealing with Barney Fife, be he mall cop or police officer.

    Meaning, the photographer is 99% of the time in a no-win situation when trying to cite the law to these folks. Even if you somehow get through to them and they believe you, it’s in their nature (or training) not to back down. Once they’ve taken the stand that you’re in the wrong, that’s pretty much the final verdict (when standing on the street).

  3. “Photographer rights are certainly a fine idea, but the subjects should have rights too.”

    Echoing this sentiment. With the possibility that you’re going to take that photo, photoshop it til you see fit, and then stick it online somewhere and I’m never going to see you or possibly know about it again creates a bit of an issue. While you might have had a right to take the photo you didn’t have the right to do much of anything with it without my consent, so why draw lines? Ask me if it’s ok to take my picture. If you’re not an ass I’ll agree. Is that too much to ask for?

    1. Except that’s completely wrong. When you go outside into “the public” you are, uhh, public. You have just as much a right to photograph me and write “pickle dick” over my forehead in photoshop as much as I do to you. And you’re wrong again, when I take your photo there’s a lot I can do with it — personal, non-commercial use is a wide, open field.

      That’s the “risk” you take venturing outdoors. Don’t like it? Close the curtains and order your cereal from Amazon for all I care. The real question is, how does my photograph of you picking your nose affect your life in any possible way? Because really, it doesn’t.

      1. How about a photograph you take of his kids at a playground that ends up on a pedo site. I know I’m being extreme but there are some terrible and potentially embarrassing things that people shouldn’t have to be subjected to. The argument that I should have to stay in my house so you can go around taking pictures doesn’t work for me. Note: I really do like photography I just think there could be some kind of balance found here.

        1. You’re right, you’re absolutely right. In fact, right now, I’m going to start a petition online to have that horrible pedo site “Flickr” shutdown. Have you seen how many photos of playgrounds are on that website? It’s a pedo’s wet dream! Won’t SOMEBODY think of the children?!

          Disgusting content, be warned:

          1. Okay okay, I get it. There’s just something creepy about it to me. Shots from further away don’t make me uncomfortable. If it’s some mom or dad taking pictures of kids playing it doesn’t bother me. I can’t help it I just get creeped out by some dude taking pictures of my kids or of me for that matter. I know I don’t have a right to force them to stop. I liked someones comment about about asking permission first or politely asking the photographer to stop.

          2. If someone asks me to not photograph them, I don’t. I’m not enough of a jerk to ignore their requests. If I want a photograph of a kid I’ll ask a nearby parent. Most of the time, however, I’m photographing people at a distance: playing games, walking down the street, taking photos of someone else, etc. If I want a portrait, I’ll ask — and remarkably, people rarely turn me down. People, for the most part, seem genuinely happy to stand still for a complete stranger. And when people see me taking their photograph without asking, I fess up: I wave, I smile, I say hi, I say have a good one, take care. People don’t seem to mind. I’ve only once had a run in with a security guard, and he was exceptionally nice (and I was apparently on state property, where photography was prohibited. I took ten steps to my right and was “legal” again).

            The fears of having your child exploited by having them photographed in public are insane (no offense). But most cases of children being abused in some way happens from within the family or close, trusted friends. It’s not a dude on the street corner with an SLR. Be more concerned that your kids are getting their vitamins, looking both ways before crossing the street and learning not to fear the world.

            I appreciate the concern people have over photography, but we’re not the bad guys — it’s those damn kids with their skateboards nowadays.

          3. We’re living in an age where…

            1) …parents think they can send their kids to school and the school can take full responsibility for nurturing and education

            2) …people are taught that it’s ok to express yourself/explore any/everything anyway you want, regardless of any consequences, civil/social etiquette, or respect for oneself or others

            3) …the internet has become more influential to kids than parents themselves

            4) …music/media with content which encourages anarchy, violence, rebellion, disrespect, etc. is being exposed to kids without restraint or responsibility

            5) …a society which worships piracy, gangs, violence, anarchy, rebellion, disrespect, irresponsibility, decadence, etc. has become the norm.

          4. Internet meme #104:

            “Get off my lawn!”

            If you honestly believe that this society is any worse than in the past couple of thousand years for most of your points you need to get your head examined.

            1) At least a child can get an education, instead of working in the fields, or coal mines/factories or being physically abused by a teacher for looking the wrong way..

            2) That’s flat out ridiculous and you should know better.

            3) That’s the parents fault, not the Internet. It’s a tool. Are you afraid of the novel? Corrupting those kids minds, I tell ya!

            4) Yes, those damn Viennese Waltzes stir the blood of our youth! Damn that Strauss!

            5) And…there was any other society in history that doesn’t that the “rogue” element in it? The element which probably progresses civilization further than any other part?

            Or would you rather have a completely locked down society, say like the one in Germany in the mid-last century? I heard they don’t like novels and free thinking either. ;)

        2. “How about a photograph you take of his kids at a playground that ends up on a pedo site. I know I’m being extreme but there are some terrible and potentially embarrassing things that people shouldn’t have to be subjected to.”

          Even assuming this happened, how exactly does this affect those kids? It’s some pixels on a screen. “Terrible” things only happen when photographs are taken specifically for pedophiles, the children are likely victims of other abuses. That’s why possession of CP is a crime, because it contributes to harming those children. A photo of some kids playing on a playground did not contribute to harming those kids.

          “Potentially embarrassing” photographs are a different issue, and usually happen when people who are older than 18 take off their clothes and allow someone to take their picture and put it on the internet. I don’t believe a picture of some kids on a playground could be “potentially embarrassing” if found on a pedo site because the audience is too small and select. If someone comes up and says “Ha ha, I saw your kids on xxx pedo site! Aren’t you and your family so embarrassed!” they are A. stupid, and B. going to prison.

      2. Just because there’s no expectation of privacy doesn’t mean a photographer should ignore the effect they might be having on people.

        We live in a society, which is composed of all kinds of ideas about what behavior is acceptable or not. You don’t fart in a waiting room. You don’t throw food in a restaurant. You don’t sing on a plane. There’s probably not any specific laws preventing these acts, but everyone is still aware it’s “wrong”.

        Before opening that shutter, judge the value of the shot. Is good enough to be worth pissing someone off? Could you get the same shot and avoid annoying people by asking permission first?

        Only takes a few seconds to be polite.

    2. Technically speaking if you are in a public area, as a photographer I shouldn’t have to ask. However for myself personally if I wanted to take a photo of you as the main subject I will come up and start up a dialogue before asking permission to take a photograph. But at the same time if I am taking a photo of a wide area and you just happen to be in the frame the moment I was taking the photo I most likely may not ask for permission.

      But yes, even if you do happen to be in a public area and you see me taking photo with the camera aimed at your general direction and feel that I may be taking photos of you, please feel free to come up and tell me (in a civil and polite manner of course) if I could not include you in my photos. I have my rights to take photos, you have your rights to ask me not to include you in my photos, as long as we both are civil things should work out fine.

      The problem is a lot of people I see with cameras in the street do not act like the way I described above. Some months ago I was down by a lake where I live taking photos of birds when a small family comes up to where I was and started feeding them. And I made it plainly obvious I wasn’t taking photos of them, I had a telephoto lens, turning and aiming only at birds (either in flight or on the lake) and yet the mother rudely yelled at me not to take photos of their family. That’s not the type of attitude I accept from anyone who comes up to an area I had arrived earlier and starts yelling at me what to do.

    3. The 1st Amendment doesn’t require your ‘consent’. If you’re in a public space, you (in law) have no expectation of ‘privacy’.

  4. I’m all for photographers rights but people should have a right to not be photographed if they are just minding their own business. I wouldn’t want some guy taking pictures of my kids even if we were walking around in public. I’m not saying the police (or mall cops) should be allowed to stop someone from taking pictures. I’m saying that I might stop someone myself if I had to.

  5. Mostly, lately, I’ve been shooting chickens, not people. But I have a tiny PowerShot that I bring with me everywhere I go. I use it so much, that I can hardly look at anything these days, without analyzing the light and possible compositions.

    I’ve been shooting chickens at fairs and also rides and food but just recently, yes, people. So I do believe I will print out a copy of this bill of rights. Thanks for sharing.

  6. This paranoia can be blamed on several factors:
    1) Over zealous government/official propaganda concerning public security
    2) Bad photographers who abuse the tool and do not follow a code of photographers’ ethics, which ends up becoming a stereotype that effects good photographers
    3) The abuse of the internet by people who use it as a medium to distribute ‘objectionable’ content
    4) Lack of common sense and/or logic
    and I think the list can go on for a few more items at least.

  7. I am in complete agreement with Jason. I photograph (mostly) flowers and (occasionally) landscapes because I would otherwise abandon the hobby due to all the vitriol that rains down on people when they shoot street, including buildings. I honestly don’t think I have the self control not to freak out and get myself arrested if I had to deal with this like street photographers do now.

    It’s my understanding many European countries do give their citizens privacy rights to their own image when in a public space. Honestly I wish we would do the same in America, if only to make the rules more in line with what people want.

  8. Photographers… Ah!

    Listen to me, it should be patriotic duty of every good citizen to catch these criminals who prey on us and give them the beating they deserve!!!

    They’re just soul-stealers, how long are we going to allow them to imperil our immortal souls with their diabolic devices?

  9. The modern *street* photog’s biggest enemies are usually:
    1. The Internet (everyone thinks you’re posting their soul)
    2. The Photographer’s Appearance

    On point two–I KNOW this is going to piss some people off and I definitely can’t speak for everyone, but I do a lot of amateur photography and have a lot of hardcore friends in the business. Some of you make bike messengers look like well dressed upstanding citizens. Maybe take into strong consideration how homeless and creepy you look when you go full-on hipster with crazy beards and tattoos with your big authentically-worn canvas backpack, and how scary that is when “normal” people see society’s rejects possibly taking pictures of their kids. Just sayin’.. one possibility.

  10. This was an issue for me and my ex a number of years ago in south side chicago with an old bellows style polaroid camera. We were actually detained by the police for photographing old sailboats!

  11. Are landscape photographers invading the privacy of trees? Are nature photographers invading the privacy of squirrels and butterfly?

    Photography is important. Not only is it an art, when done well — but it plays an important role in documenting historic events, landscape, architecture and even crimes.

    1. And let’s face it, the average human lifespan is 80 or so years. That’s nothing compared to the age of this planet, or the solar system, or the Universe. And deep down in our subconscious we all are aware of that. That’s why since the dawn of time we have done any and everything in our power to make sure our insignificant lives are remembered countless ages in the future. Photography is just one way of making ourselves ‘immortal’.

  12. If you are in a public place (park, street, sidewalk, any kind of government property or building, unless restricted (most are not) this includes airports, libraries, etc., or even if you are in your own home but can be seen, and therefore photographed, from a public place, you have no right to privacy. Period.

    Also, don’t forget about the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

    So as creative artists or journalists or even hobbyists, we have the right to take pictures in public and from public spaces. Period.

  13. People aren’t logical, legal or consistent. People can be real assholes. The best thing to do is adapt, conceal your camera if you have to, pretend to be apologetic if necessary and have a thick skin. A friend of mine always offers copies of photos after taking one of people. Most folks are flattered, especially if you mention how beautiful they are. Fear is everywhere in our society and it isn’t going away anytime soon.

  14. The irony here is that these people that object so strongly to being photographed on the street by an individual photographer had already been photographed a dozen times that same day by: the bus they rode, the 7-11 they visited, the camera atop that red light they ran, the other cameras deployed by local law enforcement, the Google Maps satellite, some CIA-operated satellites…who knows?

  15. Guess I should have said that to those heavily armed soldiers who came out of nowhere while I snapped a photo on a residential street in Northern Ireland years back. A tank parked in front of a charming cottage made for an interesting juxtaposition. Would love to have that roll of film (mostly landscapes) back.

  16. The problem with asking for permission is that after asking permission you get posed photos instead of candid photos. They’re not the same thing.

    1. That’s why you make a value judgment. Decide if the value of the photo is worth the risk of pissing someone off.

      And once you’ve taken the photo, hustle over to the subject and discuss it with them.

  17. If you look at the really good street photography that’s out there, absolutely none of it would be possible if the photographer asked first. It just wouldn’t work and defeats the purpose, which is to capture people in an interesting un-posed moment.

    That said, the bulk of what people consider “street photography” is absolute dreck. Browse through flickr looking for these kinds of photos (and they’re easy to find since they dump them into every street photography group they can) and you won’t last long because they’re boring and/or just bad photos.

    I used to sometimes take these kinds of photos, I admit. You can see them in my flickr stream if you go way back. However, I never had the audacity to call them street photos along the lines of e.g. Henri Cartier-Bresson. I also don’t ever purposefully look back on those photos, because they’re not very interesting. And furthermore, in retrospect it wasn’t even very fun or interesting to take those photos. I realize other people find taking those kinds of photos fun, but they’re also the easiest kinds of photos to take, and the least rewarding. A total waste of time, in other words.

    Actually so I don’t eat my words I just looked through my recent photos on flickr to see if I’d taken any of that type of photograph recently, and I have, in Bangkok. And you know what? Those photos have the least amount of views, and are the least interesting. Sometimes I guess we are compelled to do it, but if I had spent that time focusing on more interesting photography I would have been much better off.

    1. Well, Cartier-Bresson’s stuff is so good, it’s little wonder that other photogs can become discouraged:

      P.S. Check out the price per print!!

      It is worth noting that Bresson used a small pocket Leica, enabling him to shoot unobtrusively, and in one smooth motion:

      I’ve personally known since at least the early 1970s that a camera is an offensive weapon when wielded in public, and that it therefore must be used carefully.

  18. I can confirm that there are people out there who just get off on harassing photographers. The more people, the more elaborate your camera, the more unwanted attention you get. Setting up a view camera in an urban setting virtually guarantees some sort of confrontation.

    The only solution I know of is to have two or three assistants with you- then people leave you alone.

  19. Honestly, I just don’t like to have my picture made – even at family events I’d rather be the one with the camera, taking pictures instead of in them. And if you’re going to take a picture of a scene that happens to have me in it, at least let me know in advance so I can suck in my gut and run my fingers through my hair.

    But I think another reason photographers have a bad name is the paparazzi. I couldn’t care less about most celebrities, but I have some pity for them that there’s always some asshole with a camera every time they walk out the door. I know there’s a difference between paparazzi and ‘real’ photographers, but honestly, who wants to go around holding his belly in all the time?

  20. No one worries when someone is holding up a cell phone. No one worries when there is an obvious privately operated surveillance camera. Few people even worry when someone is using a small snap-shot camera. All of these can take photographs that may embarrass you. All of these except the surveillance camera could easily be used for an upskirt photo. All of these except the surveillance camera are suitable for terrorist reconnaissance. Somehow, however, only SLRs and other professional cameras seem to draw fear police scrutiny. These are the least suitable for anything that anyone seems to worry about, simply because they are the most conspicuous. I’m not sure what’s going on, although some of it is an apparently innate reaction to large lenses.

    If you wander in to one of my shots, chances are that I’ll Photoshop you out.

  21. In fairness to the mall cops, malls are nearly always private property. I’m pretty sure you have no legal right to take photos at will in a mall, and the rent-a-cops there probably have been told to stop people from doing so to the extent they can, if only because most customers have an attitude similar to that of most commenters here about having their picture taken.

    1. In the US, yes: If you own property, you can restrict the behavior of people on it, and require that they leave if they don’t comply with your restrictions, and if they don’t leave then they’re trespassing and you can call the cops. But in some other countries, if you open up your private property for unrestricted public access (such as a mall) then your private property becomes a “public space” and there are actually certain behaviors (like photography) that you may not have the authority to restrict (as long as entry onto your property is uncontrolled).

      And in response to the debate in general, I’m with #28 and #40. On the one hand, I have a right to photograph anything I can see from public property, and people in public have no reasonable right to privacy. In general I hate it when people (especially guards and cops, but other people do it too) pretend to have some authority that they don’t have, or that I have to follow some rule that doesn’t actually exist. As a photographer, I’ve had encounters with unreasonable enforcers of non-existent laws and illegally restrictive rules. BUT, on the other hand, I do feel a little guilty when I take a picture of someone without letting them know, because people would prefer to act more deliberately when their behavior is being recorded. I take pictures like that very rarely, because they make me uncomfortable (and when I do take them, it’s in part for the thrill of dealing with that discomfort, the feeling that I got away with something I shouldn’t have). When it’s someone I know I always show them the picture, and when it’s not someone I know I almost never publish the picture online (unless it’s a public figure or a performer doing their thing), just because I might not like it if someone did it to me. Golden rule, folks.

  22. as with so many things in our society, just because you have a legal right to do something doesn’t mean that everyone should or will just let you do it whenever you want.

    many of our social norms are not legally enforced. a LOT of people are uncomfortable with a stranger taking their picture. just because you’re a photographer doesn’t somehow mean that you don’t have to be considerate of others’ preferences and feelings.

    it’s one thing to argue photographers legal rights when it comes to law enforcement. i’m ALL for photographers not being harassed by law enforcement. cops should stay out of it unless it’s really illegal.

    it’s another to feel entitled to just do whatever you want and since you’re “being creative” other people should just lighten up about it.

  23. Kudos to lolbrandon (and a couple of others) for breathing some common sense into this discussion.

    But the elephant in the room that no one cares to mention (or maybe I missed it, if it has been), is that, particularly in large cities (I’m a native New Yorker), the police can — and do — photograph and videotape EVERYONE ALL THE TIME, with hardly a peep from the same misguided vigilantes who’d rage and want to snatch an average joe’s camera if the shutter is released within earshot of this would-be Charles Bronson.

    So someone can have their picture taken “officially” about a dozen times between 7th & 8th aves. on 34th Street in NYC — but somehow a photographer taking a shot on the very same street, of the Empire State Building at night with a tripod, is sinister — as if a terrorist, who’d presumably want to be somewhat stealthy, would take the time to painstakingly erect a tripod, use a shutter cable release for maximum quality, etc. etc. — instead of relying on one of the million+ images of the ESB ALREADY on the internet…ditto the NYC subways, statue of liberty, etc….as though a picture is a mandatory pre-requisite for a random act of terrorism (some will doubtless contend that officialdom’s 24/7 monitoring is for our collective safety. Well if you think that NO official pictures, whether they’re street shots or naked body scans from the new airport scanners, don’t end up on the internet in shady chat rooms and/or smut sites, then you’re hopelessly ignorant about these technologies and their myriad abuses).

    This speaks to the heart of the authoritarian mind, where so many people mindlessly live in cognitive dissonance when it comes to governmental instrusion — the government’s doing it, so it must be okay (indeed, it’s probably GOOD and for nothing beyond our very protection….thank you big brother/father/mother); but if an average citizen does anything close to that, even on an infinitely more minute scale, then it’s heretical and quite possibly terrorist, pedophile-esque, etc. etc. Btw, for those more worried about the potential pedophilia of some random person on the street or in, say, Central Park, the recent news of the Pentagon pedophile scandal probably comes as somewhat of a shock (just search engine “pentagon pedophile scandal” — turns out the place is lousy with kiddie pervs) — i.e., a shock to those able to understand its implications and stop worrying about their neighbors and fellow denizens….stop playing into the media-generated paranoia, which is targeted directly at weak-minded, under-informed people who routinely fall for this kind of social control and attempt to steamroll dissenters through sheer force of ignorance.

    Every court in the land has acknowledged that THERE IS NO EXPECATION OF PRIVACY IN PUBLIC (that applies to law enforecement as well). If mini-Rambo with an aversion to other people taking pictures in their midst in turn thinks it’s within THEIR rights to confront law-abiding photographers with physicality, then woe betide the person who picks on the wrong photographer (me, for example). Of course conventions of “common courtesy” may dictate that a person ask — IF the very subject is that individual. But more often than not, the wannabe vigilante just HAPPENS to be in the frame, and takes offense (and in many cases somehow thinks that a failure to adhere to their standard of common courtesy affords them the right to, say, attempt to snatch someone’s camera or worse). Well it doesn’t. It’s like saying it’s okay to slap someone who accidentally bumps into you and, either through discourtesy or pure accident doesn’t say “excuse me.” He’s certainly not legally obligated to apologize for bumping into you (although most would agree that would be optimal — in a perfect world); and the one doing the slapping is the one violating the law.

    I for one will be placing in each of my camera bags the PDF re the NYPD’s Operations Order (“Investigations of Individuals Engages in Suspicious Photgraphy…”) and I thank the author for sharing it.

  24. if you use the new internet camera it sends and stores each photo on the web, so seizure is redundant…

  25. Note to all the photographers in this discussion – if I’m in public I agree that you have the right to photograph me, but remember that I have the right to flip you my middle finger or yell at you that I think you’re a jerk.

    1. @#45
      Well, sure.
      I’ll just PS you out and then there’s your chance of posterity gone. So yah boo, sucks to you too.

  26. I’d just like to add my voice to those complaining of being photographed in public places.

    I deeply resent people taking my picture, photoshopping it so that it clearly doesn’t represent the real me, and then posting it on the internet with millions of other photos to somewhere I and my friends will never see.

  27. Sure, sure, as long as you don’t take a picture of me and put it out there somewhere without me knowing. I don’t want to be the next mustachio guy…

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