A Guide to Taking Pictures Without Breaking the Law

updated May 7, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.

If you’ve ever been asked by mall security to put your point-and-shoot camera away, you’ve probably questioned what US law governs photographers and taking pictures. The truth is, there is no single rule to live by as a photographer at any level. Whether you’re a family-historian amateur or a journalistic pro, the question of when you can and cannot take pics is a slippery slope. Check out our quick guide, and decide for certain whether or not it’s OK to snap a picture of that gorgeous outdoor theater in your neighbor’s backyard.

We’re not legal experts, and you shouldn’t consider this legal advice. But we have scoured the web for some helpful guidelines for casual photogs to know their rights:

  • The main rule to keep in mind when you’re shooting people is to ask yourself if the person in your shot has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Consider a businessman walking down a sidewalk vs. the lady in the window across the alley. Somebody walking through the mall food court vs. somebody changing in the dressing room.
  • If you’re standing on public property, you can shoot anything you’d like, including private property. Exceptions to this rule include shooting sensitive government buildings like military bases or using a zoom lens to shoot beyond someone’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • Even if you’re inside private property, if that place is open to the public, you’re allowed to shoot. Many malls and office buildings are open to the public. If you have permission to enter, you have permission to shoot. Keep in mind, though, that shooting pictures and publishing pictures are two different legal beasts (check the last bullet)
  • There’s a caveat, however. These establishments are allowed to keep their own rules (as long as those rules are lawful). If a mall states that photography is banned, even though you can’t be arrested for taking pictures, they are allowed to ask you to leave the property. If you return, you’ll be trespassing and welcoming criminal charges against you. Photography inside a mall is not illegal, but refusing to leave when asked is.
  • Nobody can take your camera or film from you, aside from an officer of the law with a court order. They can demand it, but you don’t have to give up the goods. They could be charged with theft or coercion.
  • If you’re inside private property that’s not open to the public, you need the owner’s permission to shoot. If you anticipate problems, it’s best to get the permission of the property owner (and anyone in the photos) in writing.
  • Legally, “publishing” happens when you show the photo to another person. It doesn’t have to involve a newspaper or even a blog. But as long as the photo doesn’t reveal private facts (No publishing photos from an AA meeting), place a person in a false light, or use a person in a commercial use without their permission (like an advertisement), you’re good.

If you want to read more about your rights behind a camera lens, check out Bert P. Krages’ printable guide to photography law, The Photographer’s Right or the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Photographers’ Guide to Privacy.