With the smartphone boom and the commoditization of digital cameras, more people than ever are recording their daily lives, both at home and in public. The quality of photos ranges from blurry snapshots to true fine art, but the fact is that we increasingly live in a world where virtually everything is being photographed at all times. And that makes some people—on both sides of the law—very nervous.
The end result of this surveillance culture is that amateur photographers are under greater scrutiny than ever before—typically from law enforcement, but also from everyday citizens. When you're out shooting with your shiny new DSLR and someone demands that you put it away, or tries to confiscate it, it can be difficult to know how you should react... especially if they're wearing a badge.
But when you actually examine the law, the picture becomes quite clear: Generally, and with surprisingly few exceptions, you can take photos of anything you see. Though taking certain shots might land you in some serious hot water regardless of their legality, every photographer should be aware of his or her basic rights. It's important to know when you're legally in the clear, and when your constitutional rights are being violated.
Before we get into this, remember that although these are general laws that will apply to many situations, you should not take any of this as legal advice. Always defer to your best judgment, and if you've been arrested or sued for taking a photo, get a lawyer.
The Golden Rule
The one question you need to answer when you're not sure if photography is legal: Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy?
If there is, then you usually can't take the shot. If there isn't, then go to town.
Public places are fair game
This one is pretty basic, and derived directly from the Golden Rule. If you are in an area open to the public, such as a street, sidewalk, or park, you can take a photo of anything you can view from that area. This includes pictures of areas that aren't open to the public, as long as it can be seen from where you're standing.
It also means you can take photos of people standing in those places, though that might not always be a great idea. Paparazzi have been convicted for photographing people who were on private property, albeit only in cases where they were taking extreme measures (supertelephoto lenses, hot air balloons, etc) to get the shot. In essence, if the subject has an expectation of privacy, photographers can be at fault even if they're on public property when they press the shutter.
Other exceptions are also based on the expectation of privacy. This means even if you're in a bathroom that is open to the public, you cannot photograph the people in there. By the same token, you'll also be in trouble if you try to take naughty photos of women at a park.
Private property is up to the owner
If you are on private property, and are told not to take photos by the property owner (or an agent of the owner, such as a security guard), then that's the end of the story. No pictures for you. Posted signs are just as binding as a verbal warning.
Even if you do end up violating the restriction, be aware that you haven't committed a crime (with a couple potential exceptions). The worst the property owner can do is ask you to leave the property, though you could be arrested for trespassing if you fail to comply.
The Gray Area
So what if you're on private property that's open to the public, like a mall? Again, the Golden Rule will guide you.
Since the mall is open to the public, there is no expectation of privacy: You can snap away. If there are signs posted explicitly prohibiting photography, then put the camera away. And if you're being a jerk and taking photos of mannequins in compromising poses, you can expect to be asked to leave.
Fires, accidents, crimes in progress
As long as you are in a public space and not interfering with emergency workers or law enforcement officers doing their jobs, you're good. You may be told to step further back for safety reasons, but they can't order you to stop taking photos. And unless they have a reasonable suspicion that your activity is somehow connected to the crime/accident/fire at hand, they can never order you to surrender your camera.
One important thing to note if you do get your gear confiscated:
Police may not delete your photos or videos under any circumstances.
Other things you can legally photograph
• Oil refineries
• Power plants
• Law enforcement officers
Sensitive government buildings such as military bases and nuclear facilities might have restrictions on the grounds of national security. But except for those rare cases, you are legally in the clear as long as you are on public land and not interfering with law enforcement or emergency services.
Sources and further reading
[Hero image: Flickr user "gagilas"]