7 Legal Photos They Don't Want You to Shoot

How to avoid getting placed on a government watch list.


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Controversy has been swirling around the concept of photographers' rights for as long as cameras have existed. But while the preceding two hundred or so years had been relatively tame, photographic freedoms have been thrown into more serious question since the inception of the "War on Terror."

Despite the uptick in angry YouTube photogs harping on the Bill of Rights, the laws actually haven't changed: You can check our handy guide to your rights for the full details, but the biggest thing to remember is that you're free to photograph anything in plain view from public land.

Unfortunately, not everyone is quite as well-versed on the laws of photography as you now are, and in some circumstances being on the right side of the law won't prevent your day from getting ruined. Photojournalists might be prepared to put up with overenthusiastic law enforcement, but you and your family would probably rather avoid sticky situations altogether. With that in mind, here's a list of photo-ops you might want to pass on.

Airports and Train Stations


[Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Jnpet"]

Is it legal? Yes.

Unless you've served in the military, it's likely that the only kind of airport you've ever visited has been of the "public owned, public use" variety. Photography in such airports is 100% legal at all times. Technically, you don't have to put your camera away if the TSA asks, you don't have to show them your pictures, and you certainly don't have to delete them.

But then again, they don't have to let you on the plane.

While standing in a public airport, you're within your legal right to use a camera however you want, and law enforcement agencies are well within their legal rights to keep you and your family on the ground indefinitely.

While standing in a publicly owned airport, you're well within your legal right to use a camera however you see fit. On the other hand, the TSA and other law enforcement agencies are well within their legal rights to keep you and your whole family on the ground indefinitely. Vacation over. Call Mickey: There's a vacancy at the Magic Kingdom.

Ultimately, it's probably better not to push your luck on this one, and all it takes is a little common sense to avoid trouble. Snap away in public areas, don't try to take shots in more sensitive ones, and put the camera away if an official asks you to. After all, the TSA screening line isn't terribly photogenic anyway.

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Bear in mind that a tiny fraction of smaller airports are privately owned, and like other private properties photography in these places is entirely at the owners' discretion. Keep an eye out for signs prohibiting photography and act accordingly.



[Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Michael Gil"]

Is it legal? With permission, pending legislation.

Yet another sign that American society is sliding slowly toward a dystopian future: It's the act of recording animal cruelty—not perpetrating the cruelty itself—that's fast becoming the more severe crime, as Richard A. Oppel Jr. notes in this excellent New York Times piece.

While it's true that photographers on private property must respect the owner's rules (and if you disobey a request to leave then you're guilty of trespassing), a dozen or so currently pending bills go way further than that. They're known colloquially as "Ag-Gag" bills, and many are modeled after the insultingly titled "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act," which called for clandestine farm photographers to be placed on a "terrorist registry."

For now, you're free to snap shots of farmland, farm animals, and farmers themselves from public roadways, but we wouldn't recommend going much further. And keep an eye on the news for any news on the pending legislation.

Government Buildings

The Pentagon

[Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force"]

Is it legal? Yes.

The Department of Homeland Security clearly could not care less about your Flickr portfolio, but it still wants police and other government agents to know about your rights. A 2010 memo distributed by the department to law enforcement agencies nationwide upheld the pre-existing law that officers and security personnel must allow individuals to photograph the exterior of federal facilities from publicly accessible spaces.

That last part is key: You have to be standing in a publicly accessible space. No marching into Area 51 and demanding to photograph the aliens, sadly. Also sad: The fact that Homeland Security has to remind law enforcement about what the laws are. Speaking of which....

Cops on Duty


[Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Ciar"]

Is it legal? Yes.

True: While standing on public land, you're free to photograph anything in plain sight.
True: Police are typically not allowed to confiscate your equipment without a warrant.
True: Police are never allowed to delete your photos or videos.
Also True: Cops are only human, and they have guns. Don't end up like this guy.

Ultimately, it's a small minority of police officers who will make headlines for their misconduct; the rest are there to protect and serve. But before pressing your luck by getting in an officer's face with a camera, ask yourself how much your rights are worth to you in that particular moment.

A founding father might say, "My rights are my life!" That's cool and all, Ben Franklin, but most of us would really rather avoid jail today, regardless of who's at fault legally.

Oil Refineries

Oil Refinery

[Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Walter Siegmund"]

Is it legal? Yes.

Don't you hate it when you're on vacation photographing the local oil refineries, and all of a sudden the police throw you in jail?

Oh, that's never happened to you? Weird. Apparently this sort of thing is common. Just ask amateur photographer Bill Medeira (thrown into a squad car and jailed), news photographer Sander Wolff (arrested), an unnamed Texas City photographer-or-maybe-al-Qaeda-sleeper-agent (sought for questioning, never found), Daily Kos user "Androsko" (detained), California citizen Daniel Saulmon (interrogated), or teenagers Wiley Miller and Jeramy Harrison (detained).

We don't get it, oil refineries have to be the least photogenic subjects we can possibly imagine. Why risk a few touchy cops crying terrorist? For what, smokestacks? Yuck.

Retail Stores


[Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Sven"]

Is it legal? With permission.

Remember the Black Friday riot footage everyone was getting worked up over last week? Remember how outraged we were when Walmart kicked that amateur videographer out of the store for daring to document the madness? Just where do they get off? What happened to our freedoms?

Welllll, as it turns out, Walmart would be well within their rights to kick you or anyone else out of the store, for any reason. They own the building, simple as that. Don't feel like leaving? That's trespassing, and it's illegal. Sorry. If Walmart comes to your house one day, you can feel free to kick them out. But until then, we're afraid the law is clear.

(However, you are not required to surrender any photos to store security, or even to police if they're called.)

Native American Reservations

American Indian Pow Wow

[Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Bjoertvedt"]

Is it legal? Oh boy...

The fragmented tapestry of American Indian reservations—and whether or not each individual plot of land is recognized as public or private—is the subject of ongoing legal and political headaches. By extension, so is whether or not you're technically, legally allowed to snap photos on-site.

But one thing's for sure, the legality of photography on reservations is secondary to respecting the customs of those who live there. The Hopi tribe, for example, generally doesn't even allow you to sketch portraits, much less whip out your Canon 5D Mark III. Always ask permission first, and don't be a jerk.

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