Behind the Lens: Know your rights as a photographer

Sunday, September 1, 2013

I’ve been asked recently about photographing people in public places. One photographer said they spotted an interesting scene where an elderly gentleman was riding an old bicycle. Should she ask permission before taking the photograph?


I spotted this young girl enjoying a field water sprinkler. Recognizing an interesting photograph but not wanting to disrupt the scene, I photographed her before approaching her. As a photographer you have the right to photograph people on public property or on private property when given permission. When and where to photograph people often comes down to opportunity and your willingness to engage people.

The basic rule of thumb for all photographers is that you can take pictures of anything you want if the subject is in a public space. You can even take photographs of people on private property as long as you are on public property or on private property with permission.

But the moment the photographed subject puts a choke hold around your neck, you may want to put your camera away. You may have the legal right but that doesn’t always make it right.

But, regarding what’s legal, here’s a line from the ACLU’s website on Know Your Rights: Photographer: “Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right — and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties.”

If this single privilege were taken away, my job would almost cease to exist.

Every day I photograph people in public spaces. As a working photojournalist I usually photograph first and then approach people to talk or get identification. In this way, I can capture the scene and subject as I first encounter it without disrupting the subject.

If the subject sees me photographing, then I approach and explain my interest. Very seldom is this a problem for people out in public. When photographing people on private property, I often engage the person before photographing, especially if I wish to step on to the same property to get the photograph.

In some situations I may photograph someone on private property, from a distance, just to capture a specific moment or visually interesting scene first. Afterward I will talk with the subject and explain my reason for the photograph.

Some scenes are not fleeting moments, and I may just want to hang around to see if a photograph develops. For example, let’s say I see a couple sitting on a porch swing. I could photograph them from off their property, but it might seem awkward or they might see me and get suspicious.

The best option is to explain my desire to photograph and then, if they agree, I can access their property and create a better photograph. In most photographic situations I find that a simple wave of a hand or holding up your camera with a smile is all you need for permission to photograph.

A downloadable flier with photographer rights explained can be found at