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
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.