Your digital camera and the law

I’m no lawyer, but as a working photographer, I try to understand the law as it applies to digital photography as best I can. That’s no easy feat: Laws are often confusing, and a lot of people rely on “common sense” when it comes to guessing what’s legal. But sometimes the law doesn’t always make sense.

There’s a lot of confusion about what’s legal to photograph and where it’s okay to use a camera. This has gotten even more challenging in our post-9/11 world, in which some people are suspicious of anyone with a long lens.

Photography’s golden rule

The most important thing to know about your rights as a photographer: In general, you can photograph anything or anyone as long as you are on public property. Public property includes city streets, municipal parks, and national parks and forests. Nonetheless, Internet photography forums are chock full of tales about people who have been challenged or harassed when using a camera in public. Check out dpreview.com for an example of this sort of thing.

It’s important to realize that public property does not include places like the mall, parking lots, churches, or amusement parks. These might appear to be public locations, but they are actually private property—and management can tell you to put the camera away or ask you to leave.

Nonetheless, many interesting events happen on public property. Auto accidents, fires, and crimes in progress are all the sorts of things that we photographers would be thrilled to capture with the camera stowed in the glove compartment. Be smart about how you do this, though: Keep a respectful distance; stay out of the way of emergency responders; and never cross a police barricade.

What to do when challenged

Unfortunately, law enforcement does not always understand your rights as a photographer. Photography forums are also brimming with tales about people who have been stopped, questioned, and sometimes even detained by police when using a camera in public. It’s understandable: Police officers cannot possibly commit thousands of laws to memory, and consequently they have to react to real-world situations using their own judgment. If you’re shooting photos near an auto accident, for example, and a police officer orders you to stop, my advice is to comply. There will be opportunities to lodge a complaint with the police or educate your local sheriff’s office about First Amendment rights. In the moment, though, being obstinate can get you arrested for failing to comply with the direction of a police officer, which is a separate and very punishable offense.

While being challenged by the police can be frightening, being confronted by ordinary citizens can be just as problematic. A friend of mine recently went to see a concert and was told he couldn’t bring his camera inside since he was clearly a “professional photographer.” When he pressed the bouncer for more details, he was told that the camera lens had to be shorter than an inch. The club’s intent was obvious: They wanted to limit photography to point-and-shoot cameras and mobile phones. However, the rules were confusing and unlikely to produce the desired effect. Case in point: My friend put a short lens on his digital SLR and had his girlfriend carry the telephoto lens in her bag.

Of course, the bouncer was within his rights to impose rules for using cameras within the club. One thing he can’t do: Confiscate the camera or your memory card. If you’d like to read more about your rights, and possible remedies if your rights get trampled, visit The Photographer’s Right, a Web page maintained by a real lawyer—so you can trust what he says a lot more than me. The page even contains a downloadable summary of your rights and what to do if you’re challenged. I highly recommend reading it carefully.

There are always exceptions

Even though the general rules about where you can photograph are pretty simple, there are always exceptions and complications. Even from a public road, you can’t necessarily photograph government and military buildings, for example, and local statutes may apply. New York City is embroiled in an effort to limit public photography, for instance. See “Picture New York Without Pictures of New York” for a fascinating look at how photo rights in the Big Apple are changing.

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