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NOTE: I'm in the United States so for me this question is mostly about 'is it legal' in the US...

I often drive down to one of the access roads outside the fence line of the international airport in my town and take pictures of the commercial jets taking off and landing, the control tower, the ground equipment, etc. Although my purpose is completely benign (just like aircraft and aircraft related things), I've done this on a number of occasions, and I've never had guys in black Kevlar with H&Ks show up to haul me in for threatening 'Homeland Security,' I have wondered if what I'm doing is actually legal, or if I just 'haven't been caught yet.' Thoughts?

Assuming it is legal, if I were to do the exact same thing taking pictures of the military aircraft outside the fence line at the Air Force base in my town, can I expect a visit from FBI agents sporting black suits, dark sunglasses, and no sense of humor?

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Generally it is agreed that if it is a public area and anyone can look at it freely, you can take picture of it. Military is an obvious exception, but since you ask about commercial as well I think this concept applies quite well to a lot of situations. – Gapton Nov 20 '12 at 14:47
up vote 11 down vote accepted

There's only one thing in this related field that is illegal, so far as I know. It is illegal to take pictures of a military base, even if it's from off that base (Unless there is a special event going on, like an air show). But if the area isn't a secure facility, you should be fine. My rule of thumb would be, if there's any buildings at all, you probably shouldn't be photographing, but if you can't see any buildings, you should be fine.

Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images says that experimental craft and crashes might also be off limits. Actually, this handbook seems to be really good, I might have to buy that book... It agrees with everything I've picked up along the way, and has a lot more details as well.

As far as commercial facilities, there is no law prohibiting it at all, so far as I know. It wouldn't make much sense either.

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Here's a lawyer that says you can't take military base photos as well.… – rfusca Feb 17 '11 at 5:26
A lawyer that uses the term "crazy illegal" would be one to take with a dose of salt in my opinion :) – JamWheel Feb 17 '11 at 7:35
@JamWheel - he's just setting up early for the insanity defense ;) – rfusca Feb 17 '11 at 15:17
What do you mean by "if there's any buildings at all, you probably shouldn't be photographing"? What do buildings have to do with airplanes? I don't understand. Don't basically all airports have buildings? – dpollitt Jan 20 '12 at 1:47
@dpollitt: That refers to buildings on a military base. If you are photographing a military aircraft taking off, it might have buildings, which would probably make it illegal. – PearsonArtPhoto Jan 20 '12 at 1:50

It is perfectly legal as long as you aren't within the boundaries of the airfield, be it military or otherwise. Taking photos of the goings on inside the base probably isn't illegal either but I would avoid doing it personally - the aircraft are what you're after (including them taxying I guess). This may not be true for bases in the US - certainly I know many do this in the UK but then these people are photographing the aircraft rather than pictures of hangars (hangars aren't a secret by the way :) )

Please do remember though, if you're parking on an access road to a crash gate NOT to block the crash gate itself! If the fire crew need to get through in a hurry they don't want to have to stop for a guy with a camera to move, typically they won't even stop to open the gate, they will just drive right through it if the emergency is pressing enough.

Also bear in mind that the emergency vehicles are considerably larger than a normal vehicle (width wise) so what you might think is out of the way by being on the verge might not be - best to keep the vehicle completely out of the way.

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For sure... I actually have 'up close and personal' experience with airport emergency vehicles... I managed to set off the fire alarm while directing a short film on airport property last year... You haven't lived until you've seen the airport fire department, the city fire department, the city police, the county sheriff, and the state police all scramble vehicles and show up at your location because of something you did... (my crew set off a hangar fire alarm with a smoke machine). – Jay Lance Photography Feb 17 '11 at 7:45
Due to a large amount of grace from a whole bunch of official folks I managed to get off with a bunch of groveling and a stern warning... It makes a great story now, but there was nothing fun about it at the time. :-) – Jay Lance Photography Feb 17 '11 at 7:46
To add to this: plane spotting, especially for obtaining accurate planform views, is a very common hobby, and perfectly legal on public property. – lidocaineus Mar 26 at 20:18

In the United States it is completely legal to to take pictures of aircraft taking off or landing without asking for permission from anyone as long as you are on public property when you take those pictures. Pulled off to the side of the road, for example. It is also totally legal to take pictures of military aircraft taking off or landing if you are on public property (not on the base, in other words). Like others have said, it might be a good idea to get permission from the authorities on base if at all possible, though...

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It is also completely legal (under the current state of affairs) for the authorities to visit your neighbors and employer to inquire about your character and the reasons you might have for taking such an interest in their aircraft. Getting permission beforehand saves a lot of awkwardness. – user2719 Feb 23 '11 at 9:44
The problem with asking permission is that often the local base commander won't know for sure what is permitted. His default answer will then be NO. On the plus side it is a good idea to become known to them. One idea might be to send a decent print to the base commander with a nice thank you letter. He will probably be glad to hang it in his office. – labnut Feb 23 '11 at 19:38
@Stan Rogers: Guess I don't mind living on the edge. I've taken lots of pictures from outside the fencelines of military installations over the years. I don't skulk around suspiciously for hours just waiting for them to notice me either, though. :-) – automag007 Feb 23 '11 at 21:06

As long as you are not on the base, it's legal. When I was in the navy working on ASW aircraft, we had nefarious characters taking photos of the planes taking off all the time to see how we were configured. As far as shooting the base from off-base, there shouldn't be anything visible from off base that you can't shoot. ALL U.S. military installations require permission from the C.O. to take photos on base.

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Have you considered contacting the military on the base and asking if they mind? What you are doing is probably legal but if you have their permission then it will also be a wieght off your mind.

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This is a very good approach and offers you peace of mind. If you call and explain your exact intentions and where you plan to photograph from - you can check whether it is ok. Asking what you are not allowed to photograph will probably be worthwhile as it shows intent on your part to abide by the law. Then if anyone does show up and ask you can tell them you had permission from the base itself. Asking if you can check in with the gate staff beforehand might be worthwhile as well – JamWheel Feb 17 '11 at 10:31

It's completely legal, both military and civil.

Taking pictures of military aircraft being prepared for a mission might fall under the espionage act, but only if a prosecutor can prove you did it with the intent to distribute to foreign governments or their agents I think (that said, in the current USA, they'd just pack you off to Gitmo and let you rot there, never to be heard from again, under the "Patriot Act"). But then again, such operations would usually take place out of sight of terrain outside the military installation, so you'd need to be breaking the law already to see them by trespassing on a secure installation.

Do of course always obey any traffic signs. Many airport perimeter roads have no-stop and no-parking signs, and people often get caught for violating those and sent away, then scream that their right to take pictures was violated. Or they trespass on airport property and claim the same when arrested. There's also a group who consistently damage airport fences to make holes for cameras, and/or place ladders against fences to look over them (and sometimes jump over them to get closer to the action, trespassing again). Both are of course reason to get arrested.

And do have the phone number of your lawyer with you. There's a lot of overly zealous rentacops working for airports who sometimes harass and even apprehend photographers on bogus charges and will try to destroy your photos and sometimes equipment unless they're given a legal talking to.

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Good advice to have phone no. of lawyer. His business card as well would be advantageous. – labnut Feb 23 '11 at 19:32

I am in the army and I work as a security officer and so this is in the realm of what I do every day. I can tell you neither side taken in the other answers is totally correct.

It is legal to take pictures of most of a military base from outside the base. If the area you are in does not allow for pictures there will be signs on the fence line saying so and making it illegal.

Also do not be so sure you are on public property just because you are not in the fence. Most military bases in fact own the land up to 100 yards or more from the fence line or have concurrent jurisdiction.

Also just because what you have done is not illegal does not mean people will not show up and question you about what you are doing. The main things that you want to avoid is being anywhere near a gate or location that has something to do with base security i.e. a tower or cameras and taking pictures. I say this not because you may get caught but because we do not want pictures taken of these things.

Last and most important of ALL not one person mentioned the fact that these rules are in place to protect the lives of American service members. Just because you want the photos for benign reasons does not mean someone else cannot view them if posted on the internet and still take advantage of them. So please be careful what you post on the internet, look at the background and think about everything that is in the photo.

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That last paragraph is basically another version of "someone please think of the children." If you took this to the logical conclusion you wouldn't be able to take photos anywhere. – lidocaineus Mar 26 at 20:16

Interestingly, if you find you cannot take pictures of US military aircraft from the US, you can hop on over to England and park right outside the fence at the end of the flight line and take pictures from there. Flight plans are not supposed to be public information, but the locals tend to know because we'll see a whole gaggle of them parked ready for some photos and the concession stands will be open. Kind of bizzare, but funny at the same time.

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