Photography Laws Every Professional Must Know

Photography Laws Every Professional Must Know

Next Insurance Staff
By Next Insurance Staff
Dec 23, 2019
8 min read

You probably spend hours learning the full capabilities of your equipment and working to get the right shot. 

You can focus on the smallest detail of an image, but it's usually not as straightforward to identify and focus on all the legal requirements of being a pro photographer. You need to understand your legal responsibilities and rights as a photographer to promote photography business growth and build your success. 

Your legal responsibilities as a photographer include knowing the difference between public and private property, and also:

  • Copyright issues
  • Understanding contracts and release forms and using them
  • Commercial vs. non-commercial use
  • Law enforcement and security
  • Drone photography

If you don't follow photography laws and have insurance to cover you in case of unforeseen legal issues, your business could come to a halt. When you're dealing with people and their images, problems can arise even when you follow best practices.

Protect Your Hard Work And Enforce Your Copyrights

One of the most important laws affecting all photographers is copyright. 

Whether you're a photojournalist or portrait photographer, you're the owner of the images you shoot. Photographers have the right to control how their images are sold or reproduced starting at the moment they're created. The photographer is the copyright holder. Clients may pay you to take photographs, but they are also paying for their use. The photographer is always the copyright holder.

You should take proactive steps to protect your photos against unauthorized use, especially for money. Here are a few tips for proactive copyright protection for photographers:

  • Inform clients and include copyright statements in your contracts and your photo release form.
  • Mark your copyright on the back of prints with stamps or stickers. 
  • Include a copyright tag in the footer of every page of your website. 
  • Include copyright watermarks on any social media photos.

If you find your work being used in an unauthorized way, you need to request its removal as quickly as possible. Be polite and professional. Send a cease and desist email or letter. Usually, most people who re-use an image they found online are innocent infringers. But if they're using the image to sell t-shirts or mugs? That's not innocent and you should at a minimum, consult an attorney for guidance on next steps to follow.

Use The Right Contracts For the Right Work

If you're a beauty and fashion photographer, you'll need contracts with talent, including models or others working on the shoot. 

If you're shooting weddings, anniversaries, and bar mitzvahs, your contract can help you spell out your relationship with your clients. You can avoid misunderstandings and build strong relationships using a clearly-written contract. Photo ownership laws indicate that the person who takes a photo owns it, not the subject of the photo.

If you're selling your photographs to publications, whether online or print, you must learn which contracts are good for your business, and which ones you should amend or even decline. Money is important, but your rights to your work should also carry weight when you're evaluating contracts with publishers.

You can locate sample contracts and templates through trade organizations like the Professional Photographers of America.

Use Release Forms to Protect You and Subjects or Clients

Photo release forms are simple contracts between you, the photographer, and photo subjects. 

There are no specific photography release laws, but the subject signing the release form gives you permission to reprint or use their image. Even if you're not publishing your photos for money, it's wise to get signed release forms from all the people in your photos.

In the U.S., you could face legal penalties for using someone's image for a commercial purpose without a release form. The laws regarding filming in public protect your ability to do it in a public place. Filming laws don't protect your ability to make money from someone's recognizable image without their permission in the form of a signed release. 

law against taking pictures without consent

Commercial vs. Non-commercial Use

Photography law is clear: you can't use someone's image without permission to sell something. 

If you've heard about a law about posting pictures online without permission, the law refers to commercial use. If you're using an image to market your own photography business, it is commercial use even though you're not being paid directly for the image. If you sell an image for an advertisement, it counts as commercial use. 

What if you're paid for a photo by a newspaper or magazine? If it's newsworthy, filming laws specify that it qualifies as non-commercial. Non-commercial use refers to newsworthy images, artistic images, or images used for personal or educational purposes. Are there filming laws against taking photos without permission? You can take any photo in a public place because there's no expectation of privacy in public, but if you're taking pictures in a private place, you're not entitled to use the photos commercially without permission. If you think the subject may not realize you're taking pictures and if you're going to have commercial use, get a release form from any recognizable person in an image.

Public vs. Private Places

A home, restaurant, clothing store, or bowling alley are all private places. 

There is a law against taking pictures without consent in private places. You need permission to do so in the form of a contract or a photo release. But what happens if you snap a casual photo of a stranger and their dog in a local public park, and it turns out perfectly? Laws against taking pictures without permission apply to private places, not public spaces.

A public park is officially regarded as a public place. This is how paparazzi are able to follow celebrities and sell the pictures they take for newsworthy (not advertising or promotions) purposes — as long as they're shot in public locations like parks, streets, or sidewalks. 

Ethically, if possible, you should ask the subject to sign a release form or notify them you intend to publish the picture. You can use any picture you take in a public place as fine art, or sell the pictures to a news publication, or publish them as newsworthy images. 

Street Photography Laws, Photojournalism and Rights

If you're a photojournalist, you've probably already been involved in potentially controversial situations. 

You don't have a right to take photos on private property. If a property owner asks you to stop taking pictures and leave, you'll be trespassing if you fail to comply.

What are the laws on filming in public? If you're taking photos or filming in a public place, you have a right to do so. You're also under no obligation to describe the purpose of your photos or what you're doing, even to law enforcement officers. At the same time, common sense says you should comply with law enforcement instructions. You don't have to give a law enforcement officer or a security guard your camera if you took a picture of them in a public place. They don't have a right to confiscate or destroy your equipment.

Drone Photography Laws

Drone photography becomes more complex by the day, but no matter how you plan to use a drone to take pictures, you'll need a remote pilot certificate, aka drone operator license. 

In order to legally take and use drone aerial photographs, you'll need to follow FAA Part 107 rules. Your state may also have drone operator requirements, licenses, and photography regulations. Always check state and local regulations for where and when you can fly drones and how you can take images using drone cameras.

Avoid Unexpected Issues

You can head off many legal problems by using good contracts that are appropriate for your type of photography business. You can ensure you have the right to use the images of people in your photos by getting signed release forms or contracts.

Plan For Success

New technology creates new legal responsibilities for photographers, and you're responsible to know your responsibilities under the law as a photographer. 

Know the rules and laws relating to the photography that you do and don't overlook your local business licenses. You also shouldn't neglect photographer insuranceBusiness insurance and general liability insurance is a small cost to pay for your photography business success and your security and peace of mind.

Photography Laws Every Professional Must Know


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