Photography permits are a tricky subject to work with; this is true in part because it seems as if every location has unique rules for when you do and do not need a permit. This impression is not far off base. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, there is no such thing as a universal photography permit.
So, when exactly do you need a photography permit? Amateur photographers often do not need permits. Professionals require permits when they are going to disturb the natural order or are in some privately owned locations.
This answer is notably vague because the situation depends so much on specifics (which we’ll get into below). Keep in mind when reading these specifics that they only apply in the United States! Other countries will have their own unique set of rules for where you can and cannot photograph. For the most part, when you need a permit, how much permits cost, and what they allow you to do depends on who you are and where and what you plan to shoot.
When Do You Need a Photography Permit?
To determine if you need a photography permit, there are a few common questions to which you will need to know the answers.
- Who owns the space?
- Does the owner consider you a professional photographer?
- Will your shoot disturb the space?
- Do you require access that is not normally granted to the general public?
The answers to these questions will determine whether or not you need a permit in most scenarios. Exactly which questions matter the most depends largely on the location and the extent to which the answer is yes.
In general, however, if you answer yes to the three last questions, you probably need a permit. If you have one or two no’s you might not. It all depends on the exact specifications of your location and your shoot.
If you suspect you will need a permit, the first step is to figure out who owns or manages the place where you plan to shoot. This is an essential step as it will also help you understand whether or not they see you as a professional photographer.
Do You Need a Photography Permit on Public Lands?
If the space you plan to shoot in is owned by the public, that is great news. The United States government is not too hard to work with if you are a photographer. They often will not require permits to take still shots.
This level of cooperation is true on both a federal and state level. It is always a good idea to check with the local municipality, but many shoots on state lands are free of permit requirements.
In my home state of Florida, for example, it is not uncommon to find both professional and amateur photographers on the beaches taking photos of couples and other scenery. But that's easy to say for a state like Florida though.
What about somewhere else less touristy, like Utah. Reminds me of that bit from comedian Frank Caliendo:
Anyone ever been to Utah on purpose?
In Utah, it is not uncommon to find both professional and amateur photographers on the hiking trails around the city taking photos of couples. These photographers are nearly all paid for their work, but none of them need a license. Once you start to upset the nature of an area or are in a more ecologically sensitive area, though, this leniency changes.
National parks are a beautiful setting for shoots. They also are some of the easiest sites to work with when determining whether or not you need a permit.
The following requirements are pulled directly from the website for the National Park Services. If you have more questions about these requirements, visit their website.
Still, photographers require a permit only when:
- The activity takes place at location(s) where or when members of the public are generally not allowed; or
- The activity uses model(s), sets(s), or prop(s) that are not a part of the location's natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities; or
- The park would incur additional administrative costs to monitor the activity.
There are other requirements for if you intend to film commercially, so if that features into your work, it is worth addressing that question separately. Unless that is the case, however, or you intend to hold a photography workshop in the park, there are no other requirements to determine if you need a permit.
Why Hold a Photo Shoot in a National Park?
The national parks are a great place to hold a shoot because not only are they naturally beautiful backdrops. They are:
- Relaxed as to when you require a permit.
- When you do need them, permits are simple to attain.
- The permits are relatively inexpensive. For 1-10 people, the cost per day is $50. If your shoot requires more people, the price increases, it maxes at 30+ people for $25 per day.
How to Obtain a Permit to Photograph in a National Park
To obtain a permit to photograph in a national park, you will need to find the exact park you intend to shoot at and reach out to them. Oftentimes, the forms will be easy to find. The National Park Service requests that you fill out the forms as far in advance as possible to allow for processing time.
If what you plan to do is unusual, requires assistance, interrupts the park’s daily flow, or requires you have access to closed parts, the National Park Service recommends setting up a consultation with the local park staff to:
- Help the staff understand your needs and can expedite the process.
- Give you a sense of what limitations might apply and if the park has any special requirements or concerns to note.
For state parks, it is also a good idea to check what the specific park requires. Each state and national park will have specific requirements for what you can and cannot do in the park. These rules differ dramatically between states and from the federal regulations. Because of these differences, it is best to check with the local government and park administration before assuming you know what to expect.
A Note About Drone Photography
There are also specific rules for conducting photography with drones in certain parks. With the popularization of drones – and the sophistication of the drones available to the common citizen, the FAA has upped regulations and restrictions in many facets of drone use.
Photography is no exception.
The Professional Photographers of America dedicate space to this on their website. And you don’t have to be an aerial photographer for it to matter to you. If you are a wedding photographer and working an outdoor wedding with beautiful scenery, the families may want drone shots. If you sell your photography to newspapers, you may find yourself getting requests for aerial views.
There are the FAA rules, and then certain locations may have their own rules about what is allowed. Check this out if you are considering drone photography.
For example, you can check out the rules for photographing in Florida's parks here and Utah’s parks (with and without the use of drones) here. These sites provides the information you will need before conducting a shoot at popular destinations such as Escalante Petrified Forest and in the Wasatch Mountains.
I never thought I'd be doing research on Utah and now I actually want to visit!
National and state monuments are all public land. As a result, the rules for photographing at monuments are largely the same for those listed above. This similarity is particularly true at the federal level. For example, the fee structure is the same in national parks as it is on the national mall.
There are, however, a few noticeable differences:
There are strict and exact rules about which monuments you can photograph and how. Here are those limitations as per the national park service’s website. Here are a few of the restrictions:
- Tripods may not be used in restricted areas with or without a permit.
- Photography is prohibited:
- In the Lincoln Memorial above the white marble steps and the interior chamber.
- Within the columns and the interior chamber of the Jefferson Memorial.
- Within the circle of flags surrounding the base of the Washington Monument.
- The Three Servicemen Statue, located adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is a copyrighted piece and, therefore, may NOT be filmed or photographed for commercial purposes without express permission from the artist.
- The Vietnam Women's Memorial may NOT be filmed or photographed for commercial purposes.
- Due to copyright restrictions, filming within the Korean War Memorial must be done with a handheld camera. Equipment set-up of any kind is prohibited. Any footage must credit the artist.
It is particularly important to know the rules and regulations around photographing national monuments because they are in the most heavily protected areas.
While you should always abide by the permit requirements, it is especially important to follow them in these situations, as you are extremely likely to get caught if you are in violation of them. On the national mall, for example, there are always tons of police who have to stop people from setting up tripods or holding shoots where they are not allowed.
Drones and National Monuments
The jury is still out on whether or not you can use drones to photograph many state monuments. On a state level, you will find that many of the permit regulations do apply to state monuments as well. The specifics of which ones and how, however, depend on the state and the regulation.
Every publicly-owned building has its own rules. The Library of Congress is a great example of this. There is absolutely no photography allowed inside the Library of Congress–no exceptions, no permits. Other publicly owned buildings are a little more lenient.
An outright ban on photography, however, is not all that uncommon, so it is worth investigating before you show up. Again, the specific site will give details about what is and is not allowed. You will often find that common areas or entries are allowed while the “belly of the beast” is off-limits.
Here, the question of whether your shoot requires you have access to areas the general public might not is of the utmost importance. It is vital to obtain permission in writing before you go, as the person who opens the door for you might not be the person with whom you speak about entering these off-limits areas.
Photography Permits on Private Property
Private property always requires some sort of permission to shoot on in the United States. This permission is often not in the form of a permit in the legal sense, but it is not uncommon to pay a fee. In order to determine who to send this money to and with whom you need to speak, you must know who owns the property.
There are some rare instances where private owners have granted free and open access to photographers, both professional and not, but these are rare cases, not the rule.
Failure to abide by permitting rules on private property could make you in violation of trespassing laws, so be careful before entering a space if you are not 100% confident you can be there.
To prevent this accidental law-breaking, it is always best to check with a site well in advance of when you hope to hold a shoot. Proper planning should leave you ample time to meet their requirements and allow for processing. If you reach out with advance notice, you will also better be able to find and adjust to the location’s requirements.
Each location is unique. There are far too many locations for this one post to try to mention. Instead, I will cover the requirements for photography in The National Cathedral since it is a great example of a few key points.
The National Cathedral
The National Cathedral is a stunning place. It is also a common spot for wedding photographs. If a couple asks you to hold a shoot there, however, there are a few things you should know.
- The National Cathedral requires that professional photographers obtain a permit.
- A professional photographer is anyone who is paid to photograph others (at the cathedral).
- You cannot mass produce photos of the cathedral.
- The permit does not grant access to the entire area. With a permit, you are only allowed to photograph the Bishop’s Garden and the Cathedral. You are also not allowed to climb on anything to get a better angle.
To check out these rules in more detail, visit the website for The National Cathedral. It is much funnier than you might expect.
Fine Print for When You Need Permit
Hopefully, the examples of The National Cathedral, national monuments, and state parks have helped highlight some of the key issues when determining whether or not you need a permit for photography.
Here, I will break down some of the requirements more broadly so you can try to apply these principles to any setting with ease.
As stated above, there are four questions to consider when determining whether or not you need a photography permit.
Unfortunately, these questions do not lend themselves to easy or general answers. There are some more broad considerations that might help you better gauge what your answers are. So, while I can’t answer everything for you, at least I might be able to help you ask your questions more specifically.
Are You a Professional?
You might think the answer to this is simple and straightforward, but in this era, it is not so clean-cut. With the introduction of social media and influencers, the line between hobby and job is a little more blurred than in the past.
The National Cathedral really only cares about whether you make money photographing others or in producing “mass” images (again, their site really is funnier than you’d expect). Their definition is linked strictly to the types of photography that often happen there.
This point highlights a helpful way to think about whether or not the location’s owner(s) consider you a photographer. If you plan to profit directly off of the type of photography that their location hosts, in their eyes, you are a professional photographer.
Branded content is a little hard to define. Taking the example of The National Cathedral, you could argue that unless someone is in the photo or you plan to reproduce the photo in many outlets, you aren’t a professional photographer. This, however, is a rough argument to make as you are clearly working for commercial purposes. Branded content in a national park, however, you’re probably fine.
Are You Going to Disturb the Natural Setting?
If your shoot means you are going to disturb the natural order of the location, talk to someone. You might not need a permit for the location, but as a courtesy to other visitors (or nature), do whatever you have to do in the least intrusive way possible. Don’t try to stop traffic on pretty roads. Don’t venture off the trail on a hike. Generally, abide by the rules of civil society, and you will be fine.
The following example is not only important in determining if you need a permit, but it is also there to help keep you safe.
In Yellowstone National Park, for example, the permit to photograph off the trails is crucial due to the potential to interact with wildlife. Almost every year, someone is gored by a bison. Don’t let it be you because you wanted to step just a little closer. If you do not have the proper zoom lenses, you will need to get very close to bison to get detailed photos of them.
Park rangers there will tell you that this is a bad idea. The trails were built to get you close to the animals without getting in the way of their food, water, and shelter–so stay on them. Yes, sometimes you could theoretically touch a bison without ever leaving the trails, but this is still disrupting their natural order and thus a bad decision even if it technically isn’t totally out of line with your permit.
Where Are You – Is Photography Appropriate?
As mentioned earlier, the country of the location you plan to shoot in is extremely important. In Russia, for example, it is illegal to take photographs of federal buildings. This law even applies to airports (though that is rarely applied to the insides of a terminal). The ban, however, covers professional and amateur photographers alike.
It is also not easy to get around the ban with a permit–especially if you are a foreigner. The Russian government sees federal buildings as part of the country’s strategic infrastructure. Taking photos of buildings with tactical significance is considered intelligence-gathering, ergo the ban.
Schools are another place where all the rules above completely go out the window. Unless you have very specific and detailed permission to practice photography at a school, do not go to schools for photography purposes. While schools are often publicly owned, they are also often filled with kids.
Do not take photos of kids without written permission from the parents or guardians. There are strict laws around protecting children. It is best to avoid situations in which you might accidentally photograph kids.
How to Be Sure Whether You Need a Permit or Not
Ultimately, there is only one way to know for sure if you need a permit–ask. Any location that frequently hosts shoots or caters to photographers will have the information readily available on their website. Often times, if they require a permit, they will link to the permit and tell you how to submit it.
When you ask, it is helpful to remember the four questions laid out in this post and to address them directly in your inquiry. Covering the topics promptly will help whoever answers you provide a more specific answer faster.
Any request that requires a little extra assistance from the location is also worth reaching out about. If you have a specific need for your shoot (like off-trail access), consider explaining or at least be ready to answer questions about why you need this request met, what your qualifications are, and if you have done something similar in the past.
Obtaining a Photography Permit
The steps for obtaining a permit differ depending on the location. There are three key parts of any permit, however, regardless of where that permit is for and who issues it.
If you have answers to all three, you should be able to get a permit without too much confusion.
Determine how much a permit costs. It is important to consider if there are graduated prices for the number of people or type of equipment you plan to use. In general, the more obtrusive the shoot, the more it can cost. This level of intrusion is often dictated by the impact you will leave once the shoot is done.
If you are photographing others on hire, it is important to address where the shoot will take place before providing a quote. You do not want to end up footing the bill for a permit if you underpitched the project, thinking that there were no permit fees. You also do not want to spring a permit fee on clients after agreeing to a price as this will come off as unprofessional or underhanded.
Locations do not care who pays the permit fee, just that it is paid. Clarify any costs associated with the shoot with clients or companies prior to providing a quote.
Once you know who owns a location, it is easier to tell who has the proper authorization to grant a permit. For parks and public buildings, make sure you check if the space is state or federal land.
If your shoot includes any art in the background, check to see what copyright requirements apply. Think back to the long and specific list for photographing national monuments; you do not want to accidentally infringe on another artist’s art.
Authorization can be held by more than one party. A permit does not give free rein to photograph anything any way you would like. Instead, it is a limited authorization to work in a specific area.
In addition to checking the authorization and abiding by those specific requirements, there are general limits to what a photography permit will let you do.
You might only be granted access to certain areas. A photography permit does not grant free-license to alter a setting for a shoot. Do not break or move things without permission. Do not climb on things for the sake of the shoot.
Generally, the limitations on photographer behavior are the same as those placed on a general guest. Unless you have clear permission to proceed otherwise, act as everyone else should in the space.
Read the fine print of any permit you receive. Make sure that the location you want to photograph is included in the allowed areas. Check the permit for time limitations or an expiration date.
Remember that a photography permit might be only one of many documents you need. If you plan to photograph in a national or state park, for example, you will also need a parking pass and maybe a camping permit. Check each permit to see what it allows you to do and do not include accessory activities on that list.
There you have it. Many reasons why a photography permit may be necessary and a few tips on factoring the costs and limitations into your photoshoot.
Depending on your needs this may raise more questions than it answered, but the examples provided should supply you with a framework on how to apply it to your situation. Let me know what you learned by commenting below!
Oh, and I may actually visit Utah now. How about you?