The very first time that I went shooting around town I got confronted by an overzealous shop owner. I had taken a couple shots of his store sign as I passed by, and like a plot device, he immediately barges out and begins pressing me for credentials and IDs.

“Who are you shooting for? Who do you work for? Why are you taking photos of my sign? You need my permission, if you don’t tell me who you’re shooting for I won’t let you publish.”

He kept at it in this vein even after I told him I was just shooting for fun, as if I was lying to him. While I had a feeling that this guy was wrong and I didn’t need to bother dealing with him, I didn’t know my photography rights at the time. I just offered to delete the picture.  With nothing else to claim, the little troll went back under the bridge and I went on my way.

Now even if I knew what I know now, I would still handle the situation the same way. It’s not worth challenging every single person that confronts you while shooting.  To me its more about common decency than legality.

But it was Legal!

This post is about getting to know the laws so you know if you are actually being harassed. If that shopkeeper had gotten more belligerent and started demanding to take my camera, threatened legal action, or refused to let me leave until his lawyer came, with the knowledge that I had at the time, I honestly wouldn’t have been sure I was totally in the right. It was his sign after all. But these types of actions would actually mean that he was harassing and impeding on my photography rights.

Before I go into the details of what’s legal and what’s not, bear in mind two things. Every state has different laws, and townships and districts might have their own ordinances. Its your job to do a quick Google check and confirm that what I’m saying is kosher for your area. Also, I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, just reference material. If you need legal guidance, contact a local lawyer.

Photography Rights: Public Spaces, People, and Events

The rule of thumb to go with in the US is that if you are on public property, then you can photograph or record whatever the hell you want. You can shoot people, signs, buildings and animals, even if the thing that you are shooting is technically private. Anything in view of public areas is considered fair game.

The important point to remember is that not all publicly accessible areas are public property. If you are at a mall for example, the security there can ask you to stop shooting, and you’ll have to comply.

Also you don’t need signed legal documents to photograph people. Model releases are more for doing professional shoots with paid models in a non-editorial, commercial purpose. It’s very complicated, but just think about paparazzi. If they can do it, so can you. Again though, if someone clearly doesn’t want to be photographed, just shoot something else. Don’t be like the paparazzi.

If you are shooting an incident like an arrest or accident, even the police can’t stop you if you’re on public ground. However, if you’re shooting near a highly secure military building, or in the way of some serious police action in a live fire zone, no one will feel bad for you if you get hurt or forcibly removed from the area.

Finally, there are limits to the shooting from public areas rule. For instance, you can’t shoot inside a public bathroom or try to  film someone’s ATM pin and not expect to at least get your ass kicked. In some states this type of invasion of privacy may even be a felony crime.

Keep Calm and Ask Questions

Now you’ll know if your photography rights are being challenged. If people are detaining you, harassing you or threatening you, you shouldn’t feel like you are wrong, or be afraid that you broke the law, you need to realize that the aggressor may be breaking laws.

What to do in these situations? First, remain calm and be respectful. Once you are in control of yourself, gather information. Ask questions like, why are you stopping me from leaving? Why are you taking my stuff? Who are your employers? What’s your name? What’s your badge number?

Once you start down this line, people will generally realize that they are walking into a harassment suit. You’d be surprised how quickly they disappear after this.

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