July 20, 2022


Sony and Minolta SLR Weblog

Street photography: are you licensed to photograph in public?

Has anyone ever tried to prevent you from taking photographs in a public place? I’ve read about other photographers who have been harassed while they were capturing images even though they had every right to do so. For the last thirty years, I could say that no one had ever interfered with my photographic endeavors. After last week, that is no longer the case.

I had been asked to photograph a corporate Christmas event in Charlotte, NC. That went off without a hitch. It was a fun, festive event, but I was tired and hungry by the end of the day. I wanted to go home, eat something an relax before I started post processing my RAW images.

As I walked across the courtyard to reach my truck, I just couldn’t resist hauling out the camera to shoot the Christmas lights. The place was wonderfully decorated, and even as tired as I felt, I noticed a number of interesting photo opportunities.

Assault on freedom — the first guard

After about ten minutes, however, a uniformed security woman appeared.

“Sir, you cannot take pictures in this area.”

I was rather surprised — the property owners had gone to great expense to decorate the area with thousands of lights, a 80 foot artificial tree and dozens of lighted topiary plants that looked like dancing bears. Yet they didn’t want to allow photographs of the scene? So much for the “joy of the season” thing.

I wasn’t completely sure that they actually had the right to prevent me from taking photos in a public courtyard where the public is invited to visit shops and a food establishments. Still, I was on their premises, so I meekly packed up my camera and left.

About a 150 feet away, however, I found myself standing on a sidewalk. A public sidewalk, paid in part by taxpayer dollars. Out came the camera again. It was not as convenient as shooting from inside the courtyard, but I was able to capture some nice holiday light images.

“Sir, you cannot take pictures in this area.”

Security guards: two — Freedom: Zero

A different security guard, standing within the courtyard, started yelling at me.

I ignored her.


Sigh. I don’t know which bothered me more; the fact this woman was haranguing me or that a security guard working in the United States of America actually thought she had the right to prevent me from taking photos of a lighted building while standing on a public sidewalk.

I am not a lawyer, but I have been taught through the years that in the USA, a photographer has the right to photograph nearly anything while in a public place. The only exceptions are certain military and nuclear facilities. Otherwise, no one has the right to prevent you from photographing while in public.

The problem is that the security guards I ran into probably never read any of this material. They had obviously been instructed that photographs were not allowed, and were zealously attempting to carry out their duties, failing to realize that they had no right to prevent me from photographing anything I could see while standing on that sidewalk. In fact, strictly speaking, they were breaking the law.

There rather large gray area when it comes to a photographer’s legal rights. Most photo books I have read on the subject insist that (in the USA) a photographer has the right to photograph in any public place. Some even claim that if someone invites the general public into a place — such as a shopping mall — they can’t prevent a photographer from taking photos in that place.

Gray areas allow private guards to violate photographer’s rights

I’m not altogether sure about that. This is were the law gets rather gray — most concerts and theaters have restrictions against photography. I suppose you could make the argument that these events are not “public” since only those who buy a ticket or receive a pass from the owner can attend.

Still, the law is rather clear about photographs in true public places such as streets and sidewalks. Under federal law, no one has the right to prevent you from taking pictures in these areas.

States, counties and cities probably have the right to pass ordinances preventing street photography, but very few have done so. Unless there is a specific ordinance of this nature, no security guard has any legal right to keep you from using your camera while in a public area. But it appears that many guards and property owners are unaware of this fact.

The anti-photo law that made photography legal in New York

Ironically, the clearest rule about photography in public came about when the City of New York attempted to prevent photos from being taken in the NY Subway system. Citing security, the city was set to enforce a strict law that would have required a permit to photograph anywhere in the subway.

Fortunately, there was great hue and cry and the city quickly backed down. In doing so, they made it abundantly clear that all photography or cinematography was permissible in the subway, provided the camera user does not interfere with those using the subway. Thus, because NYC attempted to block photography, then reversed themselves and made it clear it is legal, everyone, including security and police officers now know that a photographer has the legal right to use his camera in the subway. There is no gray area any longer, the city has gone on record that it is legal.

Despite this victory, I am becoming quite concerned about photographer’s rights in the US. Unless photographers speak up and challenge those attempting to make photography a crime, it might become accepted fact that many places are off limits to cameras. The freedom to use your camera in public will be greatly curtailed — creating a great void in the photographic record of US life.

Thomas Hawk’s DIgital Connection blog has a series of lively posts on photographer’s legal rights (or lack of them).

An older post, archived on BoingBoing, describes a freelance photographer’s encounter with security guards in San Francis’s MUNI public transit back in 2005.

Bert P. Krages II, Attorney at Law has prepared a guide entitled Your Rights and Remedies When Stopped or Confronted for Photography

Has this happened to you?

Has this happened to you? Have you ever encountered a security guard, police officer, property owner or anyone else who attempted to prevent you from taking pictures when you had a perfect legal right to do so?

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