Understanding Your Rights as a Photographer

     As many of our customers travel during the summer, many will be taking photographs around the country.  We believe that it’s very important for our customers to understand their rights and limitations when it comes to taking photographs, especially in well-populated and policed cities such as NYC and Chicago.
     The most important thing to know is that it is your constitutional right to take photographs of anything that is:
  1. Plainly Visible
  2. In a Public Place
     This applies to buildings, people, (including police officers,) public art, and general street photography.  There is a widespread misconception that it is illegal to photograph a Federal building or U.S. Post Office, but a 2010 Court Case ruled that individuals cannot be barred from taking photos of Federal Buildings without reasonable suspicion of a crime. 
When I was in Manhattan in 2015, I was approached by two police officers who told me that it was illegal to take this picture.

They cited the Patriot Act, saying that I needed to stop taking photographs of the Municipal Building and exit the premises. I knew my rights as a photographer, but the question remained: “How should I handle this situation?”  The ACLU has a quick guide on what do do if your are ever stopped or detained for taking photographs, shown below.

  • Always remain polite and never physically resist a police officer.
  • Know your rights and politely discuss them with the officer.
  • If stopped for photography, the right question to ask is, “am I free to go?” If the officer says no, then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave, your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.
  • If you are detained, politely ask what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

With this in mind, I discussed my photographic intentions with the officers and explained to them that I had the right to take photographs of the building.  The officers then allowed me to continue taking photos of the building, but asked that I leave the area in a timely manner.

     Unfortunately, not all interactions are resolved so easily.  In that case, it is important to know that police officers are not allowed to confiscate or view your images without a warrant or reasonable suspicion of a crime.  This applies to both your cell phone and your camera/memory cards; the only exception is “extreme exigent circumstances.”  In addition, police officers are never allowed to demand that you delete any photographs, nor may they seize and delete your photographs themselves.
When Shooting on Private Property:
Upon entering private property, you become subject to the requests of the property owner, so you must comply with orders to stop taking photos or leave the premises.  Always comply with requests (within reason) from staff members, especially at performance venues and museums.
If you are shooting at an abandoned property, always seek approval from the property owner.  Despite the adage, “Better to ask forgiveness than permission,” it is always best to ask the permission of the property owner when shooting on private property. In addition, always comply with posted “No Trespassing” signs, as failure to comply can easily lead to arrest.  If you have permission from the owner to be photographing the property, keep written confirmation of the waiver on your person at all times.
In summary, always be respectful of the people and property that you photograph, and understand your rights before any shoot.  The ACLU and Attorney Bert P. Krages have made available a printable guide to your rights as a photographer, found below.  Don’t hesitate to print it out and carry it with your equipment!
Want more information? Check out our sources:
NOTE: This is not intended to be legal advice; rather a general guide based on well-known sources and court cases.  It does not address specific state statutes: as such, always research local laws and regulations before a shoot.