The High-Wire Act of Getting Photo Permits


I’ve had a number of posts, email, and even phone calls from friends, asking about when they would need a permit to shoot, and how to go about getting one.

This isn’t an easy question to answer, because every city and every location has its own set of rules (or lack thereof) and most times the biggest problem isn’t getting a permit; it’s finding out whether you need a permit or not in the first place.

Who needs a permit?

Again, there is no hard and fast rule about who needs a permit, but generally if you’re shooting in a city, from the sidewalk, with a handheld camera (even a professional DSLR), you don’t need a permit. However, the moment you decide to unfold a tripod, in most big cities, it instantly becomes “permit time,” because now this has just gone from a tourist with a nice camera, to a commercial photo shoot.

But here’s the catch:
Let’s say you’re not using a tripod at all; you’re just hand-holding a DSLR, and you’re on a public sidewalk talking photos as you walk around the city–that’s not a problem, right? Well, it depends on what you’re shooting. If you’re on the sidewalk, but shooting a commercial building you can almost bet a security guard from that company is going to come out and ask you to stop. I’ve even heard them demand that you erase the shots you’ve taken of “their building.”

Now, this opens that whole, “Does he have the right to stop me from shooting a building out in public view while I’m on a public sidewalk?” debate. Well, of course not (perhaps), but that won’t stop them from trying. In fact, try this sometime; stand outside a downtown building in Chicago, Detroit, LA or New York and start taking photos and take a look at your watch to see how long it takes for a security guard to come and tell you, “You can’t shoot there!” So lets say you pitch a fit, tell him he has no right to stop you, and demand that he call the cops (which probably won’t take much convincing by the way), and then the police arrive at the scene.

Will the policeman know what the local guidelines are for shooting private buildings? Are there even local guidelines for this at all? So, at the end of the day; it’s going to be up to this police officer who answers the call to decide whether you continue or not.

The Small City Blues

What got me thinking about this is a talk I had with a friend who has a studio in a medium sized midwest city. He wanted to do a portrait shoot outside his studio, just outside of downtown, so he searched the Web for any clues to whether this city required photo permits or not. He couldn’t find anything saying yes or no, but he told me, “Ya know, if I go and set up a light and tripod, how long will a bit before a cop shows up and tells me to “move along?” My guess? Not long.

If he were to call City Hall and ask the operator who answers the phone, “Do I need to apply for a permit to do a photo shoot?” would she even know where to send him? If he were in New York, Chicago, LA, or any city where commercial ads are often shot, they surely would. But what about in Valdosta, Georgia or East Liverpool, Ohio, or Naples, Florida? In smaller cities like that; you know who will ultimately decide whether you can shoot or not? The first policeman who sees you shooting. And what do you say when he inevitably asks, “Do you have permission to shoot here?”

The Big City Blues
Now, if you live in a somewhat larger city and want to avoid the whole security guard/police man intervention thing, the first thing to do is a Google search for your city + “Photo Permit.” For example, I wanted to do a shoot in downtown Tampa (with a tripod and a light on a stand) and I Googled “Tampa” + “Photo Shoot” + Permit and a few seconds later I had found a reference to the “Tampa Bay Film Commission” (I had no idea this even existed). Once on their site, I was able to dig around until I uncovered how to apply for a permit, who needs one, and once we applied, I was granted a permit with no problem. They were great.
Another thing I’ve found, is that at first glance it may seem like you need proof of $1,000,000 in liability insurance to be approved for a permit (and the permit needs to list the local municipality as the co-insured), but so far, after looking carefully, in each case that’s only applied to video shoots, and not still shoots (even though local photographers warned me that’s the case, so far I haven’t actually run into it). And now you’re seeing another side of the problem; there’s so little information, or misinformation, it’s hard to find anyone with a real grip on the rules, and if there is such a person; don’t worry–they won’t be available when the cops come up, you show them your permit, and the cop says, “How do I know this is legit?”

That’s another problem; I doubt the local Film office distributes a copy to every police officer in town, so they know what the permits look like.

Making Your Case for a Permit
If you do decide that a permit is the way to go (in other words, you’re going to use a tripod), one thing they will want to know is, “What will the photos be used for?” They may ask if they’re going to be used for commercial purposes, educational purposes, to be sold as postcards, etc.

For example, on my recent trip to New York, we contacted the observatory at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center to request a permit to shoot the New York Skyline at dusk from their observatory (which would require me setting up a tripod). They had a page on their site for photo permits, and who to contact, etc. and so we followed their instructions. Unfortunately, we were turned down because we were going to use the photos in one of my books, which they felt was a “Commercial Purpose” so our request was denied.

We also contacted the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and they had a request for photography permit section as well, and they were pretty clear and adamant about the fact that both the exterior and interior of the Guggenheim were copyrighted, and tightly controlled. Despite several calls to the department that handles photo requests, we were never able to reach anyone, and they never called us back, so we were out of luck.

Where to Start
If after a quick search for your city and “Film Commission” and then your city and “Photo Permit,” etc., my next stop would be to contact (by phone), the local Convention & Visitors Bureau. They are usually pretty clued in to rules and regs for their area, and they might be able to send you in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the worst possible scenario is that there is no formal permit, and the person at city hall tells you, “Oh, it’s OK—you don’t need a permit to shoot here,” because when the security guard, police officer arrives and you say, “Cindy at City Hall says I don’t need a permit,” what you might as well say, is, “OK, I’ll pack up my stuff.”

If you want to shoot at private location (like a business, or commercial building, etc.), I’d start with their Public Relations dept. (you can usually find their direct contact info on the company’s Web site). Again, be prepared to let them know why you need special access to their building, and also let them know how unobtrusive you’ll be during your shoot (unless you’re actually going to be obtrusive).

In most cases, the PR folks, and Film Commission people have been very friendly and eager to help. They just want to know who you are, and what you’re doing, and that you’re not going to disrupt their city (business) and you’re not going have people tripping over your gear and suing them.

The bottomline
You’re basically relying on the kindness of strangers, who really don’t have any real burning desire to help you with your photo shoot, other than they like you, so be really, really nice.

I wish I could offer more help, and secret insights, but because each city is different, and apparently there are no set rules, you just don’t know what you’re going to come across out there, so be prepared to be really, really polite when you’re out shooting, because at some point you’re probably going to have to convince someone to let you keep shooting.

  1. I would beware shooting in federal parks. I was ticketed recently for shooting without a permit! Carried a $1500 fine. I didn’t have a tripod with me nor any quadras, portable lights other than a Nikon speed light! I did have my 60″ umbrella which the park ranger told me was a lot of gear….
    Bottom line in my opinion if you are shooting for fun go out and enjoy if you are making money look for the old mob ways of paying off everyone!
    We shall see what the judge says…..

  2. This is an old post but a good one. You know what’s the hardest part to follow? The last part. Being really really nice to someone who really really doesn’t want you to shoot. Good advice, nevertheless.

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