Skip to content

Street Photography and The Law

Street Photography and The Law (in New York)

There seems to be some misinformation out there about the constraints the law places on street photography. I am here hopefully to clear some of them up, particularly as the law relates to photography and New York. Of course, in this rather litigious society we live in, I do have to say now that none of this should be construed as legal advice in the formal or informal sense of the word. And, despite anyone’s knowledge here that I am an attorney does not create in any way shape or form an attorney-client relationship. So: to avoid any confusion, please be advised that none of what I say should constitue either legal advice or create any sort of attorney-client relationship. Consult your own attorney for questions.

1) If you want to take my picture, you’ll need to get my permission first: As a general matter, you do not need any permission to take anyones photograph with a normal camera so long as you are in a public place that you have authority and permission to be in.  This means in plain english that if you’re on the street, and your subject is on the street, it’s fair game.  You might start asking, ‘But what about those written releases?’  Those releases you see some photographers giving to their subjects are commercial releases.  It’s essentially a waiver that the subject signs so that you won’t later sue the company if your photo shows up on a commercial.   But if you’re not seeking to sell the work commercially (defined not as simply selling your artwork at a gallery but rather as large scale distribution like commercial products not defined as art) or it’s for news purposes, there’s no reason to seek a permission/waiver from your subject, because you already have it if you are in a public place that you have authority and permission to be in.  See Hoepker v. Kruger (2002); Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia (2007).

When you are in a private place, like a store or museum, then your “rights” as a photographer are more limited depending on the internal rules.  Some photographers believe that any restriction of freedom is a violation of “rights.”  In the United States, and in New York, the law recognizes a balance between the rights of individual and the interests of society.  When it comes to rules about photography in private places, your scope of photography taking can be curtailed.  The more interesting issue comes up in public forums where other types of free speech is allowed.  That’s a whole another series and beyond the scope of this limited post on street photography.  The long and short of it, though, is that if you define street photography as a type of speech and expression that was envisioned by the first amendment to protect, the government has a high standard, a compelling one actually, to establish any curtailments of that right.

2)  It’s against the law to take photographs of kids on the street: Within the framework of normal street photography, there is nothing against the law at all of taking photographs of kids on the street.  But like anything else, the law recognizes reasonableness and notions of common sense.  In other words, if you go around following a child and taking pictures, you are going to get the wrong kind of attention and, more particularly, the police, within the standards of legal interactions on the street as governed in New York by People v. Debour, will have the right to inquire about your activities.

3) You can’t take photographs in the New York City subway: You most often hear this from cops and MTA workers.  This is complete hogwash.  Here’s the MTA rules regarding photography:

Section 1050.9

Restricted areas and activities.

  1. No person, except as specifically authorized by the Authority, shall enter or attempt to enter into any area not open to the public, including but not limited to train operator’s cabs, conductor’s cabs, bus operator’s seat location, station booths, closed-off areas, mechanical or equipment rooms, concession stands, storage areas, interior rooms, catwalks, emergency stairways (except in cases of an emergency), tracks, roadbeds, tunnels, plants, shops, barns, train yards, garages, depots or any area marked with a sign restricting access or indicating a dangerous environment.
  2. No vehicle, except as specifically authorized, may be parked on Authority property.
  3. Photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted except that ancillary equipment such as lights, reflectors or tripods may not be used. Members of the press holding valid identification issued by the New York City Police Department are hereby authorized to use necessary ancillary equipment. All photographic activity must be conducted in accordance with the provisions of this Part.
  4. No person may ride on the roof, platform between subway cars or on any other area outside any subway car or bus or other conveyance operated by the Authority. No person may use the end doors of a subway car to pass from one subway car to another except in an emergency or when directed to do so by an Authority conductor or a New York City police officer.
  5. No person shall extend his or her hand, arm, leg, head or other part of his or her person, or extend any item, article or other substance outside of the window or door of a subway car, bus or other conveyance operated by the Authority.
  6. No person shall enter or leave a subway car, bus or other conveyance operated by the Authority except through the entrances and exits provided for that purpose.
  7. No person may carry on or bring to any facility or conveyance any item that:
    1. is so long as to extend outside the window or door of a subway car, bus or other conveyance;
    2. constitutes a hazard to the operation of the Authority, interferes with passenger traffic, or impedes service; or
    3. constitutes a danger or hazard to other persons.
  8. Nothing contained in this section shall apply to the use of wheelchairs, crutches, canes or other physical assistance devices.

However, just because the MTA permits photography doesn’t mean you have a carte blanche to do whatever the hell you want, particularly if the police are asking you what you’re doing.  Under People v. Debour, police interactions with individuals on the street are governed by a sliding, four part scale, which is slightly different than the federal system, which affords fewer protections than New York State does.   On the most minimal of levels, Level One, the police must have an objective credible reason to speak with you.  It’s called a request for information.  There’s not much to this and pretty much anything is going to get the police to this level.  After all, part of their job is at least hypothetically, to investigate conduct, and that conduct doesn’t necessarily have to be criminal on its face.  Level Two is a common law right of inquiry which must be supported by at least founded suspicion.  This kind of stop is definitely more pointed in questioning toward the criminal side and, most importantly, as it relates here, the police can request consent to search.  Level Three is a forcible detention based upon reasonable suspicion.  It can resemble an arrest.  This is a Terry v. Ohio kind of stop, which is much more invasive than the prior two.  The final level is the arrest, which requires probable cause.

There could be a slippery slope argument blasted against me about what I’m going to say next but here it goes anyway.  In the society and world we live now, would we not want the police to go up to an individual in the subway taking pictures and begin asking a few questions about what is going on?  Indeed, it’s more of a rhetorical question not simply to try to put yourself in the shoes of society, but more specifically how the law views and treats these types of situations.  The Fourth Amendment, which in the end really governs the nuts and bolts of the majority of the law of street photography as opposed to the First Amendment, is an amorphous living beast.  What may not have been reasonable twenty years ago, as determined by the courts, is now reasonable.  This doesn’t make it right, but to understand, perhaps pessimistically so, that the concept of right has nothing to do with the law.

Issues with street photographers in the subway generally revolve in the Level 1 and Level 2 stages.  Remember, though, Debour is a sliding scale, which means things can rapidly escalate depending on the circumstances.  Thus, in a Level 1 inquiry where a police officer asks, “Excuse me, what’s going on with the photography?”, and your response is, “I don’t have to tell you anything asshole because I have the right not to say anything,” is just going to lead to more questions by the police.  You certainly don’t have to even answer the question, but then again you don’t have to look both ways when you cross the street either.  Depending on the circumstances, and mind you, the law views the circumstances in the eyes of a reasonable police officer, not your subjective views, it would be reasonable for the police to continue to ask you questions, and probably more pointed questions that will make you feel uncomfortable.  Probably best to say what you’re doing.  If they ask you they want to see your pictures, then it’s best to either show them a photo or draw a line the sand in the most polite way possible.

4) It’s against the law to take pictures of police: There is no law forbidding you to take pictures of the police so long as you are in a public place.  Like everything else with the law, there are exceptions.  If your actions obstruct the administration of their lawful duties, and that’s a big fucking if, your right to photograph will be curtailed.  For instance, if they’re trying to arrest someone and you get in the middle of it, literally in the middle of it, you could arguably be obstructing governmental administration.  It’s the conduct that the crime of “OGA” is technically punishing, not the photography.

NY Penal Law Section 195.05 Obstructing governmental administration in the second degree. A person is guilty of obstructing governmental administration when he intentionally obstructs, impairs or perverts the administration of law or other governmental function or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from performing an official function, by means of intimidation, physical force or interference, or by means of any independently unlawful act, or by means of interfering, whether or not physical force is involved, with radio, telephone, television or other telecommunications systems owned or operated by the state, or a county, city, town, village, fire district or emergency medical service or by means of releasing a dangerous animal under circumstances evincing the actor`s intent that the animal obstruct governmental administration.

5) You can’t take pictures of buildings or bridges: There’s nothing in the law that prevents you from doing this.  The laws about taking photographs from the bridge (some bridges, such as the George Washington, have signs like this) are, at least arguably, permissible under the law under the theory that the expected act of taking photographs from where the signs are posted forbidding them would be dangerous to traffic.

And one final word. Just because you know the law doesn’t mean the cop does. And unless you have a badge of some kind, arguing with a cop about the law — as a general rule — rarely ends well. If you are going to argue, make sure you keep your arms to the side and never, ever push a cop or hit a cop unless you want to spend the night in jail. In New York, there is essentially no such thing as a valid self defense claim against a cop who is trying to effectuate an arrest. That is not just some observation. It’s the law. See generally Penal Law Section 35.27. The arrest doesn’t even have to be a valid one for this provision to apply. As you can see, the whole thing is a fucking set up . . . so just be careful.


Post a comment
  1. July 4, 2011

    Great information…thanks for posting.

  2. December 25, 2011

    …so it should be easy then…..but I guess its not.

  3. djdanmax #
    August 23, 2012

    Thanks for the post!
    Really well worded. Now I can tell people in much better depth about the laws surrounding street photography!

    – Daniel Perianu

  4. Paul Cretini #
    October 16, 2012

    Thanks kindly for the time taken to post this.

  5. October 20, 2012

    Interesting article, i have a question tho. Usually NY police is friendly, many times even posing for photos, but what’s the reason when they just ask you not to take a photo? Think about police standing around subway, armed police with larger guns etc. – is it just a security prevention, let’s say, when they’re in civil dress they can’t be recognized or can they have anything else against a photo ?

    • Rufus Mangrove #
      February 25, 2013

      Police are people, and just like people, not everyone likes to be photographed. The problem is when a cop with a gun says, “Don’t take my picture,” it certainly doesn’t sound like a suggestion but an order grounded in the law. But there is no law against taking pictures of police in New York, except under some limited circumstances.

  6. Dennnnnnnniiiissssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss #
    March 9, 2013

    my pol science prof said woman are allowed to be topless in nyc and its not against the law is that true

    • July 19, 2013

      It IS legal for women to be topless in NYC , that is true…Google photographer Holly Van Voast and see how she was arrested but won her battle in court.

  7. March 30, 2013

    This is a good example of the proper rules of street photography. Thank you for posting.

  8. May 3, 2013

    When I initially left a comment I appear to have
    clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox
    and now whenever a comment is added I get 4 emails with the exact same comment.
    Is there a way you can remove me from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

  9. July 28, 2013

    thanks, for the info, I’ve been shooting for a few years here in NY, and sometimes I have come across some MTA workers, who do not like me to shoot around there, what I mean, take photos in the Subway, one day a guy was so nasty with me, and wanted to know for what purposes would take the photo, so he say, – now the rules have changed a lot since 9/11, is for safety of all New Yorkers, to what I answered with a smile that said I wanted some memories of the city and will put them on my website, so then he smile too, and let me take some pics more.

    • Rufus Mangrove #
      July 29, 2013

      Freddy: Great story my man. Sometimes the best way to disarm confrontation, especially by law enforcement or pseudo law enforcement, is to be calm and smile. Thanks for sharing! Best, Rufus.

  10. September 26, 2013

    I was warned by a bar owner today that I could be sued etc etc taking photos of the inside of their bar. If not by them, then, by the patrons. Obviously the staff saw that I wasn’t just taking one or two photos, which you can easily get away with, more like 10 with the camera in full view on the counter. So he approached me as I was leaving and said all that, which is fair enough. There were actually two police insode the bar at the time and they didn’t notice me (had taken a few shots of them entering the establishment anyway). I was cool about it though. I just said that the photos are for private use. Even though I knew I was in a private place, I thought “Spain is 20 years behind the times perhaps I can get away with it”. I am a regular customer, coming in every other day so I thought I wouldn’t cause much of a stir. I didn’t deny taking any photos of course, but I still claimed ignorance: “there are no signs anyway prohibiting photography”. That’s when the chap says “if one of the photos ends up on the internet blah blah blah”. Whatever. I just walked away and said I won’t do it again. I won’t do it again there, no. It is just going to make me try all that much harder to get good quality, interesting street photos, from public places though. If I do go into a shopping mall etc I’ll just pop off a couple and that’d be the end of it…

  11. September 26, 2013

    The ironic thing was that he said “we are filming everything, it’s all recorded”.

    By the time I got to my car, I was like “hey so it’s okay for you to film us but not the other way around?!”

    That’s the world we live in.

    • Dean Leslie Brown #
      April 6, 2014

      Your ignorance is glaring. Security cameras film and capture people as a) a deterrent for crime and b) an evidentiary log for crime, should one take place. Security camera images are not for the artistic advancement, I use artistic loosely–taking photos of bar patrons is not the most creative endeavor, of the establishment owner. Security camera logs are also not published on self-indulgent blogs to garner traffic. Lastly, security cameras also own up to their presence and generally can be spotted the moment one enters an establishment. If not, there are signs that indicate their presence. Do not compare trying to photograph unwitting patrons attempting to have a carefree time at a bar–a reasonable expectation at a private establishment that serves alcohol–to private cameras in place to secure their safety.

  12. March 15, 2014

    do not ever try to shoot cops in their might get fought for no reasons..

  13. June 10, 2014

    Thank you for this article. It helped settle a question today. I’ve been told for 14+ years that it’s illegal to take pictures in the subway. Told by acquaintances in acting/directing and you would think they knew what they were talking about. lol Apparently they meant their kind of filming and pictures and not casual, personal use. I have seen someone ask if they could take a cop’s picture and be told no. The trick is to not ask first. If you don’t ask to do a perfectly legal thing, you cannot be told no. Be a distance back (like across the street), snap your picture and be on your way.

    Regarding topless in NYC — As I understand the law, a woman may be topless anywhere a man can be topless. So she can walk around Times Square topless if she wants, but have to put on her shirt to go have lunch inside a restaurant. Every year (about this time) the memo goes out to police stations reminding them of this law and that the “15 minute of fame” girls will be coming out for their chance at a lawsuit.

  14. Annie #
    July 15, 2014

    Thanks for info,very helpful ..

  15. Amateuer Photog #
    September 13, 2014

    Recently I had a quite a bizarre experience at the Washington Square Park, in the Village NYC. I was capturing candid pictures of some of the people out in the open around the Fountain, the park benches and near the Arch, without seeking permission from anyone. I was holding my camera in plain sight and I was not hiding that I was taking pictures of people in the open. Normally when someone notices me, I approach them and show them their pictures and offer to email them their pictures. If anyone even while being in full public view objects to being photographed, out of sheer courtesy, I desist and even delete their pictures. One person objected and complained to the uniformed Parks and Recreation personnel on duty. Two of the Parks and Rec personnel approached me and demanded that I should delete the pictures of the person who had objected. I politely pointed out that the person was in a public place in full public view. The Parks and rec personnel rudely said to me that I should have sought the permission of the person first and threatened to call the NYPD, if I did not delete the pictures. Not wanting to create any more nuisance, I apologized to the offended person and was going thru the photos in my camera to delete them. The Parks and Rec personnel got impatient and demanded that I hand over my camera to them for them to delete the pictures. I handed over the camera to one of them. The Park and Rec employee deleted all the pictures and handed over my camera back to me. That did not end there. Immediately, they escorted me out of the park, and ordered that I stay out of the park. I do not to wish to press charges despite the trauma this caused me by the way my rights were totally trampled and I was humiliated, I surely want the NYC Parks and Rec personnel to be educated about the very basics of the Park rules and is aware of what is and what is not allowed. Anyone cares to comment about this experience of mine? I am sure there are several cameras in the park and this incident is on record and can be verified easily.

  16. Max #
    November 21, 2014

    Are you sure you’re an attorney? You don’t write very well. Of course, if English is not your first language, that would explain a lot, and all would be forgiven.

    • Rufus Mangrove #
      December 5, 2014

      Englisch ist meine erste Sprache.

  17. November 24, 2014

    I’m used to being tossed off of property for trespassing on a regular basis. It’s funny, that never happens when I’m simply living my life, but the moment I take my camera with me- mayhem ensues. Makes for some interesting stories though…heheh.

    • Rufus Mangrove #
      March 23, 2015

      Yes, trespassing is often a misused term by those in authority. Sorry to hear but good for the stories!

  18. January 14, 2015

    Thanks for the great info. Have you ever heard of a USDA law against the use of tripods? Here is a response I received from an Arizona Butterfly House regarding their rules against the use of tripods in their facility: “So sorry we could not be of service to you, but this is a USDA law for us to not have tripods in our conservatory. You may use a monopod or you can keep the legs together when using a tripod.” Beyond the contradictory nature of this response, I’ve done a rudimentary web search and find no mention of any such law. If you care to respond, thank you in advance.

    • Rufus Mangrove #
      March 23, 2015

      Hey Robert. Many national parks have the “tripod rule” along with the “extraneous photo equipment rule,” such as no light stands, etc. There is a rational reason and justification for the regulation, which deals with managing traffic and flow of the parks. That said, there are obviously other reasons why the park wants rules like this: to prevent professional photographers from using the parks without paying a fee. So the law can be a bit disingenuous but so long as a governmental entity can articulate a rational reason for the regulation, it’s normally going to stand. But it doesn’t mean the argument can’t be made.

      On another note, the Supreme Court many years ago dealt with a similar kind of issue when it came to traffic stops and pretexts. Under Whren vs United States, the Court essentially said that evidence coming from a pretextual traffic stop was still admissible so long as the officer had the potential for a “real” traffic stop. That is a very short analysis but the point is that the law often ignores the 10,000 pound elephant in the room in favor of a little mouse.

  19. February 16, 2015

    This is great, thank you for sharing.

  20. March 7, 2015

    What is the law regarding taking pictures of copyrighted signs (ie: McDonalds, Starbucks, etc.) that show up in your street picture and you’re going to use these pics in a book published for sale. Can these also be legally sold in a gallery as well?

    • Rufus Mangrove #
      March 23, 2015

      Hey Gregg. First, let me just preface my answer by saying this will be my opinion only and not legal advice. You’ll need to consult your attorney for that advice. Okay, now that we got that out of the way, here’s my opinion (not to be construed as legal advice — you have to love this litigious country we live in, right?!). The short answer is that it isn’t a problem, so long as you took the picture from a public point using a regular camera. Sometimes, in music videos, you’ll see ads on shirts or signs blurred out. That isn’t done because of copyright issues but more has to do with the cable station or magazine not wanting to give those companies “free advertising.” The fact that you are selling the book for sale doesn’t change the gravitas of what you were doing originally, that is, taking pictures on the street. Hope that helps.

  21. April 20, 2015

    What about a situation where a venue is open to the public to participate and attend, but it’s held on private property? (Equine / Horse Shows) The property owners hire me to take photos during their events. Then after the shows, I make the photos available on my website for the show participants to view, and purchase if they desire. I’ve done this for years (12 years to be exact) – but just recently I was approached by a participants Mom threatening legal action because she never gave me permission to take pictures of her child while in the arena. Regardless of my legal rights, I apologized and removed the photos of her child. (My motto is: The customer is always right, even when they are wrong) But I’m curious from a legal standpoint if you feel I’m OK continuing this practice?

    • Rufus Mangrove #
      April 23, 2015

      Hey Gary. Thanks for writing. First and foremost, you must understand that what I am about to say shouldn’t be construed as legal advice in any way shape or form. You have to contact your own attorney for that.

      Practically speaking, you are right to follow the “customer is always right,” motto. As the old saying goes, when you do something wrong, someone will more likely talk about you – at length — than when you do something right.

      This can be a tricky situation. As a threshold matter, depending on your relationship with the arena, the arena, rather than you, could face potential “trouble,” but in large part that will depend on the privacy laws of your state or country. Often times with public events at private venues, it is standard to put notices that a person could be photographed while on the premises, in order to give the person an “out” about entering. All of this, in short, is to say that you could make your relationship more “official” with the arena, so you feel totally above board on this.

      But if you’re “unofficial,” I still have to say kudos, because damn it’s sometimes hard to make a living in this industry. If this is the area where you are levitating in, it’s also a good idea then to put a notice on the website about the ability of a person to remove their photos at their request.

      Anyway best of luck! And I have to say this one more time (not because I don’t think you read, but because the law requires me to be absolutely and positively clear) that what I just talked about shouldn’t be construed as legal advice.

      • April 23, 2015

        Thanks for the reply Rufus, I can’t believe I forgot to mention in my question that I live in western NYS in the USA! Does that fact change your “non legal” advice / suggestions in any way??

        As a side note, it is SO hard to find and read up on specific laws on the internet!! O_O

      • Rufus Mangrove #
        April 23, 2015

        Hey Gary! I used to live in Clinton in the mid to late 90’s. So, no, my non-legal advice is pretty much the same. The underlying issues in your situation seems to be a) notice and b) opt out. An individual in a private place should arguably be given notice about being photographed and, more importantly, that the photographs could be on the internet AND that they could be for sale. Hypothetically, Person A could argue that Person B could buy my photo, and this could, hypothetically of course, cause some kind of harm, either real or imagined. In the end, perhaps in an ideal situation, you will have some kind of agreement hatched with the arena. In a less ideal situation, a notice on your website about removal/opting out, and perhaps some other limitation about who is able to purchase a photo (which can be covered by a mere boilerplate statement of: by purchasing this item you agree that a, b, and c. Hope that helps and good luck!

  22. August 17, 2015

    Hey thanks so much for the break down.

    One question: what if I want to project an image onto a brick wall and then take a picture of that image projected onto the wall and use that image on my website? I wouldn’t be selling the image. But presumably someone owns the wall and i wondered if using the image as “promotional material” would violate a law.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 642 other followers

%d bloggers like this: