The legalities of shooting professional photography “in the wild” are an endlessly complex and confusing system to navigate. But sometimes, your product photoshoot requires a shot on location, outside of the studio.
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You might’ve already seen a few of the headlines that discuss photographers getting in trouble for shooting in places they shouldn’t:
- Photographer arrested for taking pictures of town hall
- Staff photographer handcuffed and patted down for taking photos of a military-owned facility
- Dallas photographer busted for taking pictures files lawsuit
But the photographers in those examples are press photographers. The laws for journalistic use and the laws for commercial use vary greatly. And if you don’t follow the rules, you risk facing a hefty penalty or, in some cases, even jail time.
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It would be nearly impossible to compile an exhaustive list of all the rules pertaining to commercial photography — all over the world. But, if you use the following guidelines and examples, you can take the proper steps to make sure your next photoshoot won’t come with the added expense of a costly fine.
Public places refer to areas like the street, a local park, library, hospitals, museums, etc. — essentially, any large area that is easily accessible to the public. In some areas, this also includes restaurants or retail businesses with large capacities.
The biggest consideration for commercial photographers when shooting in public places is to make sure the likeness of individuals are not captured. And if they are, those photos must be edited to remove the ability for someone to recognize the identity of the person in the shot.
If you do capture someone’s likeness, and editing them out isn’t going to work, you may get their permission through a signed release form, or waiver. The document should cover the commercial usage of the photos and the individual’s likeness.
Additionally, if a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, you cannot shoot their photo — for personal or commercial use. This is the case in the U.S. (by law) and in many European countries (per the European Convention on Human Rights), as well as several other countries.
Scenarios that constitute a reasonable expectation of privacy include restrooms or dressing rooms. Areas like a park, shopping mall or the sidewalk typically aren’t considered places where individuals should expect privacy.
It gets a little trickier when you introduce props and set materials — anything beyond a camera and a tripod. In the case of the product photographer, set styling and props are essential. This is when you would probably require a permit.
To determine whether you need a permit, pro photog Chase Jarvis suggests asking yourself these questions, and if you answer yes to at least one, you likely need a permit:
- “Is this a commercial shoot?
- Will your filming disturb traffic or pedestrians?
- Will you need to use tripods, dollys, wires, a generator or other equipment on sidewalks or streets?
- Are you using the public space in a special/different way than it is intended?”
In some areas, permits are free, whereas others charge a fee.
How to get a permit to shoot in public
You can obtain a permit for shooting in public on your own if you choose. Contact the local municipalities to find out what the process and requirements are, as well as any associated fees.
In some places, you can apply online. New York City, Sydney and Berlin are just a handful of cities that have information and online applications if you’re in need of a permit. In London, for example, each borough has its own Borough Film Service.
You can also ask the professionals for help. There are many location-scouting agencies that are experts in finding locations for commercial photographers to shoot. They’re also well aware of local laws and restrictions, so they’ll be able to offer advice if you’re unfamiliar with the area.
Be careful not to choose just any agency, though. You don’t want to put your business at risk because of someone else’s mistake. Find reputable recommendations from colleagues or others in your industry.
Places open to the public
Private properties that are open to the public — such as brick-and-mortar shops, banks, movie theaters, etc. — typically have similar rules as public places.
The rules surrounding the idea of likeness and sharing a person’s identity apply to businesses, too. Generally, there can be no business names, logos or pictures of a recognizable building without permission of the property owner.
Some public places don’t allow any commercial photography at all, such as London’s Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square Gardens.
Parks and nature
In Australia, you can check out the permits, licenses and leases section on the Department of the Environment and Energy website, which spells out the process for each of its National Parks and National Botanic Gardens, as well as where to get more specific information for shooting on Commonwealth marine reserves.
Some of this property is controlled by smaller, local governments, too. California State Parks, for example, has its own set of rules — as well as a process to obtain a permit to shoot. Some parks might also be controlled by the city, so it’s always best to check with the local municipality too.
Public transportation technically falls under the “places open to the public” category, but there are several modes of transportation, each with its own set of guidelines.
Much like with shooting in public, it’s always best to check the local government website for the latest and most-important information. In London, for example, Transport for London issues permits for photographers wanting to shoot on buses and on the roads.
Airports are considered private property, so it varies again. Denver International Airport requires photographers first contact them with detailed plans of the shoot. They also charge $200 USD/hour for shooting on the property.
Private property (not open to the public)
Private property owned by an individual or a business, which is not open to the public, don’t require permits. But that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. If you want to shoot on private property, you must acquire permission from the property owner.
If the photos feature the property in an identifiable manner, then you might also need a release. If you’re shooting for your own product-based business or for a single client, you probably don’t need it. But if you’re planning to sell the photos to others to use, such as on a stock photography site, you will likely need a signed release form.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to provide legal advice. The information contained herein is no substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your area and may or may not be applicable to your specific situation. We strongly encourage you consult with local counsel.