How To Shoot In A Big City And Not Get Hassled By The Man

How To Shoot In A Big City And Not Get Hassled By The Man

One of the most trying experiences I've had since becoming a photographer has been coming to terms with the fact that there are places in our county where, quite simply, we are not allowed to take photos. Now, I’m not talking about setting up hundred-person movie sets complete with production vans and craft services tables, nor do I mean shooting on private property, sacred land, and/or Area 51-type secret military bases... What I am talking about it shooting in or around public spaces, on the city street, in a park, or at the beach. After having been shut down by various law-enforcement officials, I thought I’d put together a list of ways to avoid having your photo shoot shut down by the various law enforcement agencies.

About a year and a half ago, I booked a test shoot with a modeling agency out of Los Angeles. I set up the date, time, wardrobe, and chose a location which I had previously shot at about a month before. The day arrived and we met at the beach, me with my one bag of camera gear (canon 5d3, canon 1v film camera, and a few lenses) and the model, her mother, and her one bag of wardrobe. We set up and began shooting. After about an hour or so, I was approached and detained by both a California State Park Ranger and a Police Officer. They split us up and began questioning what we were doing and how we knew each other. After a few-minute discussion which ended with me showing them the photos from the back of the camera to prove everything was on the up and up, they “politely” informed me that I needed a permit to shoot on the public beach and that I should leave ASAP (or sooner). The model, her mom, and I hastily packed up our stuff and walked to the car, followed close behind by both officer and ranger, making sure we didn’t kill anyone else - sorry, I mean making sure we didn’t take any more harmless photos on the public beach.


After that experience and several more like it, including watching as a friend’s CF card was taken by a couple of Park Rangers while he was given an appearance ticket, I can understand why traveling photographers say their number one concern when coming to a big city to shoot is that they're going to get their stuff taken away and/or having their shoot shut down. While being stopped and shut down is rare, I've listed a few steps to help avoid being shut down by the man.

Buy a Permit

Obviously the most legal way to go about shooting in public. If you do get stopped by law enforcement, all you need to do it pull the permit from your pocket to show that you’re a law-abiding citizen and not photographing/plotting something devious and/or trying to get one over on the local government. But honestly, this is something that can become complicated very quickly because you may be asked to provide proof of liability insurance, file a plan of action, provide info on all members of your team, etc. That difficulty aside, it’s definitely something to look into and consider especially if you plan on shooting with a full team, hosting a photo group/meet-up and/or plan on using outdoor lighting, etc. In addition, if you're shooting professionally (meaning, working for someone else) you should absolutely look into getting a permit. 

Be Low Key

 This should go without saying. If you attract attention, you’re going to get it. The best way to avoid attention is to not go looking for it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen photographers set up full productions right in the middle of the park complete with makeup artists tables and wardrobe racks. While they may get away with it and shoot without being hassled that time, continually assuming that the world is your photo set and setting up your entire outdoor studio anywhere you want, is asking for someone to eventually complain. What I like to do when shooting outdoors is to find an area off the beaten path. Whether we set up at a friends house, pay a small fee to rent a local studio, and/or utilize the back seat back of your car, staying out of public view is key to keeping your shoot from attracting unwanted attention. 

Have a Plan

While I can certainly say that some of the best shots are the usually the most unplanned, it’s important to know what you’re going to do before you do it. Pick a location, scout it out, know the area, and know what you want to do when you're there. You may have a limited amount of time, and it’s important to get in (legally, of course), get your shot, and get out before anyone even knew you were there. If you're traveling from out of area, use the power of social media to help plan it out. In addition, spend some time Google Mapping the area beforehand so you're familiar with the local area (at least from a few thousand feet up). 

Run and Gun

I stole borrowed this idea from some wedding shooter friends. Go in, get your shots, and evacuate the area. Then find a new area. Always keep moving. If shooting in a busy downtown area, have someone waiting in a car. Get dropped off, get your shots, call for your getaway car, and get out of there. Simple. Guerrilla Photography. 

Stay Off The Beaten Path

If you're traveling to a big city, odds are that where you are shooting, someone else has already shot the same place before. If it's a high traffic area, you're going to be noticed and the attention you draw might not be your adoring fans standing around to catch a glimpse of your technique. In a large metropolitan area, there are so many places to shoot, that unless you are dead set on shooting at the same spot as someone else, you can find something that nobody else has done before. Explore.

Don’t Be Afraid To Get Kicked Out

Some of the best places are often those which are the most remote and/or the the most difficult to get in and out of. If there aren't any signs posted, and it looks as thought the coast is clear (and it’s legal) - go for it. Remember, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Mostly. 

Don’t Fight Back When You Do Get Kicked Out

If you shoot long enough, it’s going to happen. If you are approached by Law Enforcement and/or a property owner, be cordial, never pick a fight or start an argument. It sucks, but it’s more important to walk away so that you and your gear live to shoot another day.

“I’m a Student / This is for a Student Project.”

The old fall back. If you’re approached by Law Enforcement/property owners, etc, this is always a good go-to excuse. It’ll usually work unless you, like me, no longer look like a high-school or college-age student. Still, it’s always worth a try, you never know when you’ll get a sympathetic ear who’ll let you go with a warning. 

Have Your Model Approach the Officer and/or Ask Permission

One of my favorite techniques. When in doubt, send the pretty girl over to the hard-working officer. It's a low blow, a cheap shot, and not something I'm proud to admit to having done (often), but you know what? It works like a damn charm.

Include the Local Talent

This is by far my favorite. Since I've been shooting, I've discovered that the best way to keep things fresh and fun, is to include some of the local talent. If you look at some of my photos, you might notice kids, dogs, skateboarders, friends, random acts of life happening in the background. There is no better way to make yourself some friends and/or increase your potential for networking, than offering to take a photo of someone and/or their kids, pets, cars, etc. and then sending it to them. 


As I said earlier, if you shoot long enough, it's inevitable that you're going to be approached by law enforcement / disgruntled property owners and the possibility of being shut down / fined / ticketed / hassled will become a reality - much more so if/when you visit a big city. If you play it cool, be cordial, and go about things like a professional, you can greatly reduce the chances that your gear will find itself in a county holding room while you work out some way to pay the fine. While I agree that this is a rare occurrence, it has happened so it's for sure something to be at least cognizant of when planning your next out of town shoot. Good Luck.

*Disclaimer: this article does not, in any way, advocate the breaking of any laws.

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Graham Marley's picture

John, your street/natural light stuff makes me feel pretty much incompetent. I mean, I rarely get a chance to be choosey about when and where I have to work, and I'm definitely in a "I'm an abysmal photographer" downturn. That's my bitter and obnoxious way of saying "You do killer work."

Stop compairing and shoot for yourself.... you'll feel better! ;)

John Schell's picture

Thanks! No need to get down on your work. Believe me, we've all been there - just continue to work through it and it'll turn out great. Also, like Meh said, stop comparing and shoot for yourself. :D

I have to say, I'd like to know about your natural light work, too. Especially the top photo with the nice even exposure on her face, and the gentle little hairlight provided by the sun. How on Earth? It's pretty wonderful.

John Schell's picture

Thank you! I'll for sure start working on an article about it.

I was shooting on a public sports field one empty sunday morning, well except for a few joggers on the track when someone old bag called the cops on us, sometimes people just do it out of spite/jealousy. They asked us to leave even though we weren't doing anything wrong technically but I didn't want trouble.

The last time I tried to get a permit I submitted an application along with the upfront fee they required via certified mail so I'd know when it got there. I then called, and emailed the person in charge of permits in the area multiple times and never got any kind of reply. This was about a week and a half in advance. We decided to shoot as early as possible at the beach and just hope that we wouldn't be bothered. This was a commercial shoot so if we were stopped, there was a chance we'd be fined. Luckily no one gave us any trouble but I found it extremely unprofessional for a parks department(New Jersey).

Did they cash the check? If they did and did not issue a permit they committed fraud and I'd definitely complain.

Steve Fischer's picture

I'm kind of surprised you had such a hard time in LA. Usually they will not go to the extent of separating and questioning everyone, at most they just tell you to move on, but even then they usually just let it go unless it's a large production. There are a few beaches like El Matador that they will run people out of if another production is doing a permitted shoot on the beach at the time.

Law Enforcement cannot confiscate your memory card/film or ask you to delete photos with out a warrant. If you politely ask to leave and they hold you, that is unlawful detainment. If you shoot in public, it's not bad to know these things because you will get bullied. Being polite and not fighting is excellent advice.

I hvaen't had the pleasure of being bothered by authorities, however I do plan to inform them, in the event they attempt to grab my gear, that I will file complaints if my gear is damaged including any images deleted. That my images ARE numbered, that ANY deleted images will be noted and prosecuted, that I have taken images and if ALL images are missing I will prosecute theft.

That is after I insist on whether I'm free to go or being detained.

You don't even have to go to that point. This doesn't mean that your gear is safe or that you won't get smacked around. It does mean that you have legal recourse if it does. The old trick is once you get rolled up on is to switch cards immediately. The shot card goes in the sock/bag/whatever and the fake is handed over if the tension gets heated.

Never tell them how to do their job. Never argue. I don't mean being a push over. Be aware of your rights but do not yell. If they demand to see your pictures or search your bag you have the right to ask why. They already know they are not supposed to touch your camera and will do/say anything in their power to get you to comply.

Politely ask to leave, if they say no, they will have to charge you. Might inconvenience the rest of your day and be very scary, but be calm. Never give them anything that could be used against you. Your actions make it harder/easier on those that come after you. They will also determine how that encounter ends.

I wish more people would understand this. It makes it harder for the rest of us when people cave and don't know the law.

Suret they can and they do. They are not "supposed to" do it.

They can "ask" to see your images or "ask" for your CF card, but have no legal authority to confiscate it or look at it, (except under rare circumstances) dang that 4th amendment... like Nancy said "Just say no."

I live in Los Angeles. I was reading "Understanding Exposure" by Bryan Peterson, and he recommended shooting from the top of parking structures as an fun place to get a new perspective on locations you see all the time. Naively, I took a Gorillapod and my 5d to the top of a parking structure in Culver CIty. I shot the sunset for about ten minutes...and then found myself being circled by an LAPD helicopter. I stood still for about five minutes, in a state of disbelief that taking photos could merit this kind of attention. I started to get a bit nervous, so I walked slowly across the top of the building to my car because I felt like I was in a crosshairs. They turned on their spotlight and kept me in it. When I got in my car, I left the structure and got into traffic, and they stayed with me. People were filming me from the sidewalks, thinking they were seeing a slow speed police chase (which, I guess they were). I started to head home...then changed my mind and drove directly to the Culver police station. They followed me and kept me in the spotlight the entire time. When I got to the police station, they had no idea why the helicopter had been tracking me, and said they had probably stayed with me so long because they were "running my plates". I threw up my hands and drove home, angry as hell that I had been made to feel like a criminal for taking photos of a sunset. Later I learned that harassment of photographers is fairly common in Los Angeles, and there are several lawsuits pending that speak to this fact. Get a permit kids. The above story may not sound very scary in the telling...but in the moment, I felt like I was living out a scene from The Fugitive. IT SUCKED.

If police don't follow around everyone with a cell phone, and they wouldn't need a permit to take the same photo as you, then no, I will not get a permit and neither should anyone else. You're just a regular person being followed by a helicopter for no reason. This is newsworthy, and I would have even contacted a lawyer to see if it qualifies as harassment. It sucks that happened to you, but I would have just stood there and let them burn through their fuel. Once they know what your car is, they can identify you. Until then you can't be forced to say who you are.

The visual cues a person with a cellphone taking photos, as opposed to that of a person with a tripod and DSLR tell different stories to people who see it. While both are taking photos their purposes could be completely different. A person at the top of a parking garage could be spying on people or taking photos of people in their homes, or they could be taking photos of a sunset. The police don't know which is actually happening so it's their job to investigate.
Obviously he was being followed for a reason, that you don't agree or understand the reason doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I'd feel just as embarrassed as the OP if the same incident happened to me, but it's ignorant to assume the police do things without ration or reason. Our agreement notwithstanding.

I'm not embarrassed. I'm angry. I was being followed for a reason? Clearly? What reason would that be? If we're splitting hairs, I didn't have a tripod. I had a Gorillapod, which stands about six inches tall. My camera wasn't pointed in any direction except up towards the sunset. There were no buildings or homes in my line of sight. There were several different black-and-whites two blocks away from my location (I know, because I passed them in traffic). They could have sent an officer up to ask me face to face what I was doing. And I wouldn't have had any trouble telling them. Getting chased with a helicopter for taking photographs is clearly an excessive response. I did contact the ACLU about this incident. Trust me, you'd feel different if it had been you in the spotlight. It was scary. Bigtime.

Why didn't you take some killer shots of the helicopter in action?!?!

move out of that horrible place

You were on the top of a parking garage being followed by a helicopter... Why wouldn't you just drive down to a lower level, park the car and walk away. Works every time in the movies...

I use the second to the top level. Not only is it less "suspicious" I get shade. And somewhat camouflaged by the shadows.

Well that is interesting, I live in Culver City and have been shooting cars (sometimes for hours at a time) on those parking structure roof tops for years. One in particular my fallback spot to get photo work done that doesn't require a background.
My guess they were just messing with you, especially since Culver City has it's own police force and if LAPD really thought you were up to no good, CCPD would have been called in to greet you on the roof.

Getting a permit is only practical if you have enough lead time, the budget and are only going to be sticking to one location that you found in advance, all of which one doesn't always have the luxury of doing all the time.

Wait. They followed you in a Helicopter? That is embarrassing for Los Angeles. Imagine how much money they spent following you around. Especially if they were only trying to investigate why you were shooting photos. Such a waste of money.

Lets just say I was in that helicopter and I spotted you from that distance. I may not have access to the best of visual tools. You would become my main focus point because you don't have a traditional tripod which, from that distance, you may appear to be a sniper. As you described, you were using a gorillapod. From a distance, you could be mistaken as a sniper. Advice: Always think outside the box. Fleing the scene only got you more attention. Turning your camera to the side, making it more visible, stepping over to the other side and giving a wave and smile may have ended their curiosity.

It sounds as though the writer needs better information and legal representation.

I thought the US sucked before I read this.. Now. Holy Cow! I worked for 7 years in Spokane WA and never had issues like this... ever. That being said. I live in Canada just across from Detroit (I can see Joe Louis arena from my window). Crossing over anymore is just insane. The people of the US have allowed this 'police state' to continue to dwindle away after 9 /11 and it's out of control. I have a paper that is an article out of our local paper. Inside that piece, one of the Staff Inspectors says " I don't have an issue with people taking photos of anything. If it can be seen by the public, the public can take the images". I have laminated it and carry it in my bag. I've never had cause to use it... But I guess it's only a matter of time before this sickness spreads.

I had one occasion where the model and her friend arrived at the shoot location prior to my arrival (probably about 10 min). The model's friend calls me to tell me that cops are on site and asking questions. Turns out they were blocking the driveway next door to a residence, instead of the resident coming out to ask them to move the guy calls the cops. I immediately ask her friend what is the model wearing and of course something it was something cute. The model is a 6 foot blonde with a great figure and the cop was about 5 foot tall. By the time I arrived the cop was leaving and the model told me that the cop told her we could continue our shoot after she moved her car. He never looked her in the face. So I'm a firm believer of get the model to do the talking if possible.

I can see getting a permit for a higher production shoot, mainly because you also have the ability to kick passers by off your set and out of your shot (or at least where I live), and it is more of an event sort of situation. But if I'm shooting, say, a model's portfolio or a lifestyle sort of thing, no I'm not getting a permit to simply walk around a public place and take some pictures. And there is really nothing law enforcement can do even if they don't like it. They didn't like it when I was talking with and photographing outside a Senator's office last week but when they asked what I was doing, my response was, "exercising my first amendment rights". They can pry my camera from my cold dead hands lol.

I live in a big city and my tip is to make friends with the business owners. Go in to a restaurant and ask if you can take some shots sitting on their tables outside. Thank them on your social media and link to their pages. Buy a soda if you have time and they may even let you use their restrooms. I shot with a model over the weekend and we got her swimsuit shots by the rooftop pool of one of the tallest buildings in the city because I happen to know the security guards of that building and I thanked the building management company. Flattery will get you everywhere. That will get you a lot further than trespassing and you don't have to get 3 shots and take off.

Jason Ranalli's picture

I think your second paragraph says it all. Networking with the businesses is where it's at IMO.