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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Previous comments

People really don't realize this. Only 10-15% of being a professional photographer is taking good pictures. The rest is business sense, which is like learning an entire new language if you've never been exposed to the world where you have to schmooze.

Tam Nguyen's picture

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. <~~~ I've done this so many damn times too hahaha!

I've always thought it to be funny that, we as photographers are very obvious about taking photos, where as someone that would be an actual threat would probably want to go unnoticed and be as discreet as possible. The cops and enforcers should be looking for the photographers they can't see rather than the ones that are in plain sight.

That's because they're not really worried about terrorists or bank robbers planning their next heist. Its a shakedown pure and simple, pay your bribe to city hall and you get to shoot.

Avrohom Perl's picture

If your camera shoots with dual cards, do it.
If you see any signs of trouble, make one of the cards disappear...just in case!

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Or keep an old roll of film handy and hand that over....

Thomas McInnis's picture

I actually think that bigger is better - I've worked on jobs where no permit was organised, but by rocking up with a location van, putting out hi-vis witches hats for safety, and having people with clip-boards and radios walking around, authorities tend to assume you are legit.
We actually did this right next to a government building and the security guys barely paid us attention, but then I saw them harass a couple of kids filming themselves skateboarding nearby. Go figure.


I was doing time laps photography on the side of a street in my town, sure enough I saw a cop drive by about 3 times the shine hist spot light on me and my friend. He said we have been getting some calls of some one suspschouse with a tripod on the side of the road. We are just checking to see how everything is going. I walked over and was like we are doing time laps photography. Its pretty cool want to see. He was line not thats cool and I understand you are all in your legal right to photography. He then left with a big smile on his face and said have a great night be safe. I had my photographers rights card in my pocket just in case. I guess because I am in the south people are more layer back. I was stunned that the cops here fully knew the photographers rights. I have been kicked off a parking structure by a security hard before. I just told him I though because I paid to park I could take pictures. We just polightly said ok and left.. Main point I am making if your completely nice to cops they will be nice back most of the time. Really more place departments need to have the photographers rights presented to them.. Luckily my town knows them. I also found out that certain parks you have to get a permit for even small shoots and it is a100+$. All I did was just found counties that do not have this requirement. They are missing out on my money from pay for parking. To bad for them. :)

Time lapse. The cops might arrest you for stupidity.

Ok reading some of your other commends I have a feeling you are a Troll. I don't care if you like time-lapse or not. It was fun isn't that what photography is suppose to be. To continue to grow your craft you have to go out and shoot.

I am always surprised at how quickly the cops show up or security comes out to see what's going on, sometimes I barely get off a few lighting test shots before were asked to leave.

It always boggles my mind that Police try and come up to people who are obviously not trying to hide the fact that they are taking photos to harass them about "terrorism". Newsflash, criminals try and conceal who they are, not draw attention to themselves with models, tripods, etc. I have a tripod because it's dark and I want a sharp photo! It also amazes me that a tripod is usually where the line in drawn for "being a professional" (which I am not). Holding a $3,000 camera in your hands = tourist. Putting $3,000 camera on $100 tripod= you have to work for a magazine or press, "you're not allowed to take professional photos on our property".

Additionally, photography is not a major factor in terrorism... any more than driving down the street. None of the terrorists have used DSLRs to scout out their targets. They may have taken flying lessons but not photography lessons.

jeff calbom's picture

Someday we’ll all shoot mirrorless and no one will look like a pro and law enforcement will return to citing people for going 6 miles over the speed limit.

Sorry, but in reading it the article DEFINATELY advocates breaking some laws.
In CA, the way she is doing it, planning on being an 'innocent infringer' of some of those laws is tantamount to a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor - which is a Felony and which many jurisdictions will prosecute. It can and will end up with prison time, not just a stay in the local Gray Bar Motel.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

"It can and will end up with prison time"?
Please show me some case history in CA of permitless photographers ending up in prison, I'll wait....

Mr Hogwallop's picture

In many yeas of shooting in LA, I have learned a few things. Park Rangers are huge pains in the ass, LAPD is too busy to bother you unless you are doing something stupid or dangerous but are usually polite and professional, LASD are very tightly wound and no matter where you are shooting will ask you if you know that there's a war on and if you are are a terrorist. One time when shooting a Ferrari for a magazine some Ventura County deputies held up traffic for us and talked about the "Men in Black" star they stopped on the on CA118 going 118, he joked that he thought it was the speed limit not the name of the road.
Often we can get "another 15 minutes" by asking nice or have our assistant/producer/gal Friday go chat up the cops. Whenever I take the time and $ to get a permit no one cares. Of all the photographers I know in all the years of shooting in and around LA no one has ended up in prison for shooting without a permit, no one has been ticketed for shooting but some have been ticketed for illegal parking but that's not the real police. Often we have been asked to leave places we shouldn't have been in the first place.
As my friend Jim the Cop says, "It's too much paperwork to go beyond telling you guys to shoot someplace else, I have real work to do..."

Does needing to have a permit apply to tourists and hobby snapshot photographers, too? Seriously, things are getting beyond insane!

Report harassment here -

Who the hell harasses a photographer on a public beach?@? I guess some states has diffrent laws ... I curious as to why they followed him out of a public beach.

In Chicago and I'm sure in most cities, you can hire a uniformed police officer to hangout and shoots, this is separate from getting a permit, I've found it much better than having a permit, store owner comes out and hassles you point to cop, no place to park, have cop stand next to you car, people start to gather around and stare at the shoot cop will shoo them away. Of course you need the budget in your gig for them but they make everything go smooth. I skip permits and get cops.

Photographers need a permit for shooting on state/'public' land here. The permit is free and easy to get, DLNR staff have been very polite and unobtrusive when they check. I don't see why professional photographers don't bother getting one? It's just part of doing business like having insurance. I've had LEO's enquire what I'm up to at times but I've found politeness and having paperwork works wonders and sometimes even gets you extra places you shouldn't be. The only times I've ever had issues is with private security not knowing the law and again politeness and paperwork wins virtually every time.

I do have some small level of sympathy for the police etc, would you want to be the cop that aimed the guy was just an innocent photographer? Especially when he doesn't have paperwork?

OMG! The photog blew up the beach! I call BS on the photog = terrorist nonsense.

I've been approached by Park Rangers and law enforcement a number of times. Rather than the old "student project" line, which I'm also too old to use, try "it's for our photo club." Always, and I repeat ALWAYS tell them it's a non-professional, amateur or hobbyist, shoot.