Flavorpill’s Guide to Your Rights as a Photographer


The words “photographers’ rights” get thrown a lot these days… and sometimes, so do photographers, as in the case New York Times freelance photojournalist Robert Stolarik, captured on video being pushed down World Financial Central Plaza atrium steps by an NYPD officer and blocked by another from trying to take pictures of arrests of protesters. There have been many recent cases of police or other authority preventing the citizens from photographing one thing or another, but it’s not always this confrontational. Sometimes it’s just “Hey, you can’t photograph here!” So, what are you legally allowed to photograph? Let’s go down the list so you can say, “Hey, actually, I can!”

Can I photograph public buildings?

NYCLU clarifies: If you’re on a public sidewalk “you’re entitled to take pictures of anything you can see — period.” If it’s in plain view, you can photograph transportation facilities and federal buildings. The Department of Homeland Security even had to issue a special notice to federal employees and security personnel to stop telling people it’s a crime. It’s not. Snap away. That said, we’d advise against climbing around in there for a better view.

Can I photograph on private property?

Once you enter private property, the rules are set by the property’s owner. You can be ordered off and arrested for trespassing. That is the law. Respect the law. Of course, without a few instances of trespassing and covert picture taking, we wouldn’t have seen, for example, nightmarish cases of animal abuse at farms. No wonder they tried to up the punishment for such farm photography into a felony offense.

Can I photograph inside art galleries and museums?

That depends on the photo policy of the art gallery and museums and their specific exhibits. There are some reasonable restrictions. You generally won’t get arrested, but you might be asked to leave.

Can I photograph people?

If you are on public property — streets, parks, libraries — you’re allowed to photograph people as long as it falls into “editorial content.” That is, you can capture people as part of their environment. There’s a difference between leeringly zooming in some couple making out and taking snapshots of a couple getting cozy on a bench in the public park as pigeons fly by. Easy, right?

Should you ask permission? Use your judgement, even if pointing to your camera and waiting for them to nod might ruin that defining moment. You need a signed model release form to sell the photograph commercially or you can get sued. Go ahead and take pictures of famous people, car crashes you’ve walked into, crowds, parades, etc. Just don’t go into a public restroom and start snapping, not where people have “reasonable expectations of privacy.”

Can I photograph the police?

Yes. You can photograph the police. You can photograph police arrests. Tip: Don’t harass the cop, but don’t let the cop harass you. Cops can tell you stay on the sidewalk, but not to stop recording their activity, unless you’re directly interfering with it. That last bit is subject to scrutiny and how they express it varies based on their degree of professionalism. It gets tricky with video.

Despite laws and the “constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public,” it doesn’t always apply to audio, so be aware of the anti-wiretapping laws in your district.

What if I get in trouble?

Don’t resist arrest. You cannot be detained unless you’re being suspected of committing a crime or are about to commit one. Photographing the police is not a crime, so feel free to let the officers know. Being polite helps in this case. Generally, police officers cannot confiscate or view the contents of your camera without a warrant, unless you’re arrested, although that’s still currently a grey area. They can if you’re suspected of having visual evidence of a crime committed by someone other than the police. Under no circumstances can the police delete photos or videos on your camera.

What if I don’t care?

You’re not alone, but hey, that’s on you.

Do you have any tips to contribute? Leave them in the comments below!

Main image courtesy of Vincenzo D’Alto.