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Can I take pictures of people in public? | 31 Days of Photo Tips, day 3

The answer is yes… and no.

The simple rule is that you can photograph nearly all public places and spaces. You can also photograph people in public as long as it falls under editorial content.

What is editorial content in regards to photographing people? How does it differ from photographing people in another manner?

Editorial content tells a story, shows an environment, records an event. The subject matter is the image as a whole – any people in the photograph are a component of the story. They are not the story itself. This is different from portraiture. In portraiture, you are photographing a person as the subject matter and the photograph is meant to capture her likeness.

Consider the following images:

editorial content vs work which requires a model release

Both images are street photography. Both have minor child(ren)/teen in the images. But one is clearly editorial and one is clearly a portrait. The left would not require model releases. It is an image showing the street, architecture and occupants of a Havana, Cuba street scene. The one on the right is a portrait and requires a model release.

Think about National Geographic magazine. They often photograph intimate images of people. Those images are created with the premise of sharing cultures, their people, their customs and those images are created in the context of editorial content (illustrating how people dress, they way they look, where they live, etc.). National Geographic does not need any special permissions to photograph or publish those images.

Everyone recognizes the Afghan girl, copyright National Geographic, photographed by Steve McCurry:
Although an intimate image of this girl in 1985, she became the face of Afghan refugees in a story about her country’s current political and economic struggles. She made us feel compassion for her people.

All of these following examples are perfectly acceptable and legal for you to photograph:

  • crowded Times Square or city atmosphere
  • people participating in a parade, demonstration, fair, or concert
  • a couple holding hands, walking in the park at sunset
  • students leaned over piles of books, studying at your local public library
  • neighborhood goings-on, if taken from the public sidewalk
  • a portrait of a woman, only okay if used in the sense of “editorial content.”
  • an accident or event you stumbled upon (even with intention to sell to the media)
  • public figureheads – president, governors, senators, famous people, shot from public property

If you are on public property: parks, sidewalks, the middle of downtown, libraries, you are allowed to photograph the environment, ambience and situational events as long as they are not government buildings, military property, or nuclear power plants. It is perfectly acceptable to photograph public bridges, and buildings (even if people tell you otherwise, such as “architectural copyright”), statues, public outdoor art, fountains, beaches, churches, etc. as long as you do so while on public property. Signage will usually not allow photography at TSA screen checkpoints, but officially it’s legal as long as it doesn’t interfere with safety.

There is a precedence of “reasonable expectation of privacy”. ( <--- fancy legal speak) This means you cannot photograph people in a situation in which they would normally expect privacy. You cannot photograph in dressing rooms, in public bathrooms, or motel rooms. Most schools also require prior permission (and a darn good reason!) before you take pictures on property or of students. (Want to see how fast the cops are called if you’re the creeper taking photos of school children on the school property playground???)

Here in the US, if the subject in the photo is identifiable and you want to sell the image commercially, you will need a signed model release. Model releases are easy to draft, and a quick Google search will provide you with a template. If you are a photojournalist-style photographer, print several and keep some in your camera bag.

Have you ever been questioned in public or gotten in trouble for taking photographs? Tell your story in comments!


  1. Re the Afghan girl, there’s a bit more than her newsworthiness. National Geographic used her amazing picture to promote *themselves* for decades. I haven’t heard a clear answer re her model rights for that commercial promotion, although NG did locate her (Sharbat Gula) recently and priomised to set up a “special fund to assist in the development and delivery of educational opportunities for young Afghan women and girls”. See http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/enlarge/afghan-girl-before-after_pod_image.html for the before-and-after and http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/03/0311_020312_sharbat.html for the fascinating story. I think she would be entitled to considerable compensation for becoming practically synonymous with NG. Did they persuade her to sign it away?

    The article: “Asked if Sharbat would benefit financially from her famous image, Matson said she was “being looked after.”

    “Clearly she has become a symbol that National Geographic has used to illustrate the circumstances of refugees like her, and many people have inquired about her,” he said. “She stood for an entire group of refugees, not just Afghan refugees. She has helped us with our mission of educating people about other cultures and regions—and she’s helping us again by drawing attention to the lives of Afghan women and girls in general.””

  2. Misty S says:

    Thanks for this article. It helps clear up some answers I had. I’m still a bit unsure of how someone like the guy in this article (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2014/03/07/this-photographer-made-15k-in-one-day-on-instagram/) can take pictures of people in public and just sell them. According to the story, it seems he just walked around with his phone and a camera and took pictures, so I doubt he got any signed model releases. How can he make thousands of dollars off people who (I’m assuming) either didn’t know they were being photographed or who had no idea these photos would later be sold for a profit? Aren’t there legal parameters around something like this?