Can anyone with a camera shoot whatever he wants? Is there any license or permit that is given to a photographer? Or should a photographer take the permission of the subject he shoots (if it is a person)? Let the country be US.

  • 1
    This is not an answerable question without knowing the location you are asking about. Local law would apply. – Stevetech May 7 '12 at 7:53
  • 1
    You'll need to be more specific about where and what. Local and international law will apply. – Håkon K. Olafsen May 7 '12 at 8:16

Short answer: no. You can't just take pictures of whatever you want.

As others said, you need to contact the local jurisdiction for where you are going to take photographs. And you need to be specific in any request. For example, it is generally considered acceptable for a person to shoot a casual shot or two in Venice Beach. But if you're doing paid work or setting up a crew, etc. you need a permit. In general, private property always requires the permission of the owner. In general, public property in the US is open access except where the local ordinances require a permit. Military and sensitive locations are generally considered off limits. Additional restrictions may apply in some places (such as power plants, power lines, railroads, etc).

It is the photographer's responsibility to have all the legal issues addressed before starting any commercial work. And whatever is true in one place does not mean it is true anywhere else. Some people operate by the "ask forgiveness rather than permission" principle. And often that works but when it doesn't work the consequences are usually worse than if they went through the process at the beginning.

Also keep in mind, in the US since you mentioned it, that model releases and property releases may be required for any commercial use. That has to be arranged with the people involved. Compensation may be required.

  • 1
    I don't actually believe this is true. See my answer above. If you are in public in the US, you can shoot whatever you want, even on private property (unless there are signs posted). However, on private property, the owners have the right to ask you to leave, and it's generally considered common courtesy to ask permission first. Furthermore, I do not believe that it is the photographer's responsibility to sort out legal issues (at least w.r.t. model release/property release), it is the publisher's. Sometimes these are the same, but more often they are not. – David May 7 '12 at 15:34
  • 1
    No, that is not true. You can't just shoot anything anywhere in the US. The fact there are local (and up) ordinances for photography shows this to be the case. Even so, it is a responsible photographer who asks permission when on private property before brazenly taking pictures. And it is the photographer's responsibility in every case except when they are a covered employee. If they are acting as an agent or independent contractor they are directly responsible and not covered by an employer's legal umbrella. – nwcs May 7 '12 at 18:32
  • I think maybe we're saying the same thing -- in the US, private property and public property are different matters, and as far as I'm aware, there are very few things on public property that cannot be photographed. Of course it's common courtesy to ask beforehand, though. – David May 7 '12 at 20:49
  • Wrt model releases, this is a quote from the Dan Heller website I link to in my answer: "As stated above, the photographer has no control over what the buyer does with photo they acquire. It's also not possible for a photographer to know or to guarantee that a release would be required. The responsibility lies solely with whoever puts the photo into publication. The photographer is not (and cannot be) in a position to assume the responsibility for how someone else publishes his photos." This seems to imply the opposite of what you are saying, unless I'm interpreting incorrectly. – David May 7 '12 at 20:50

This question has a lot of nuance to it, and is something I've done quite a bit of research on. I still don't have a complete understanding of the picture (ha ha), but here's what I've been able to gather so far (note that any answers in this question are only applicable in the US). There are basically two things you have to consider -- what can you legally photograph, and what can you do with the photos once you've taken them? I'll talk about both (keep in mind that IANAL, but I'll try to provide references and citations where I've found them).

The first question is, "What can you photograph?" The key standard for what you can take pictures of in the United States falls under the "reasonable expectation of privacy" domain. The basic rule here is that if the "average person" has a "reasonable expectation" that he won't be observed, you cannot photograph them. What this boils down to is the following -- if you are out in public, you can be photographed by anybody at any time, and the photographer does not need to ask permission. Even if you are on private property, but it is generally considered a public place (such as a shopping mall), photography is allowed unless the property owners specifically state otherwise with signs or markings.

This means that, in particular, as long as you are in public, you are permitted to take pictures of whatever you can see, including any people at all. You may even take pictures of people's houses, if you are on the street, and even inside people's houses if they have large windows open that are visible from the street. (Generally speaking, a person's home is where he has the most expectation of privacy, but if the person does not make an attempt to conceal himself in his home, by closing his blinds, then he can be photographed inside his house).

There are some things that can't be photographed (some military installations, inside airports, etc.), but these are few and far between in US law. For more information on this, see this post by someone who claims to be a photo attorney, this Wikipedia article (which has at least some sources cited), this blog post by Bruce Schneier (who generally knows what he's talking about), and The Photographer's Right document, which you can print out and carry around with you, detailing what you are and are not allowed to do with your camera.

Of course, it (hopefully) goes without saying that what you are allowed to photograph legally and what is a good idea to photograph are two entirely different things.

Now I'll talk about the second part of the question, which is what you are allowed to do with your photos once you've taken them. If the photo doesn't have a person in it, you can do whatever you like. Sell it, plaster it over Facebook, etc. If the photo does have a recognizable person in it, things become a little bit murkier. It's a big question of "Do I need a model release form to sell/display/print a photo with someone in it?" Again here, generally speaking the answer is "No!" The only time you need a model release form is when the photo is being used in a commercial application -- i.e., for advertising purposes. If you want to post the photo on your blog, you can do so with no repercussions. Even if you sell the photo as a photograph (not to be used in advertising materials or on websites, etc.), I believe you're generally ok without one.

Furthermore, usually it is up to the publisher of the photograph to determine when a model release form is necessary, not the photographer. If the publisher needs one for a photo that you take, and they don't have one, the publisher will be liable, not you. The only situation in which this is different is if you, the photographer, claimed to have one, or used one that is not applicable. Then it is possible that you will be held liable instead.

You can find out a lot more information about model release stuff at this website, which is horribly-formatted but has a ton of very detailed information.

  • Publisher/photographer model release responsibility: not in my experience. The publisher expects you have permission to use (sell) the photo, and you may be required to show that proof. – Dan Wolfgang May 7 '12 at 15:37
  • 1
    If your photo has a trademarked item in it then be prepared for a legal battle if the trademark owner decides to pursue a case. Just because a McDonald's is on the road doesn't mean you have the right to sell a print with a McDonald's is the subject. That's the whole point of property releases which is just as important as model releases for commercial work. – nwcs May 7 '12 at 18:37
  • This is an interesting point which I hadn't heard before, but makes sense. However, I would think that the same rules would apply for as for photos. If I take a picture of McDonalds on a street, and sell it as a part of my portfolio, this is subject to different rules than if I'm using this for an advertisement or website banner. I don't believe, at least based on the links I cite in my answer, that I need a property release in the former case. If this is incorrect, could you provide a citation for me to read? Thanks! – David May 7 '12 at 20:45
  • For the finer points of law a consult to a copyright attorney is a good idea or anyone. What I have repeated is from reading the various legal things on NAPP. – nwcs May 8 '12 at 1:32

That would depend (even for the US) on who/what you're shooting, as well as the purpose the photos will be used for afterwards.
For example it may not be allowed to photograph military installations. Photography of/at security checkpoints at airports is illegal. Same likely goes for nuclear powerstations.
When in doubt, ask the owners/persons involved. It's only common courtesy (though for personal use except in national security sensitive things as I mentioned there's almost certainly no need to, but IANAL).


In most cases, if you plan use the photographs commercially (used for profit in its vastest meaning) you will be subject to the following:

  1. You’ll need the permission (a model release) of the subjects (person/tutor) photographed if you intend to use commercially the images, as long as they’re not deemed to be newsworthy.

  2. For the same reasons, you will also need the permission of the owner a property (a property release) if you photos contain discernible private property if you intend to use them commercially, as long as they’re not deemed to be newsworthy.

  3. There are certain places that you’re not permitted to photograph, doesn’t matter the use you intended to give the photograph, use unless an explicit permission is granted or they’re deemed to be newsworthy and thus covered under the First Amendment.

P.S. Many pro-am photographers don’t get the proper releases and normally nothing happens. But their are doing it at their own peril but they can be sued by the subjects or property owners pictured in the photographs if used commercially and the courts deem that they’re not newsworthy.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy