8 Photography Laws Every Photographer Must Know

Updated August 2, 2023
26 min read
8 Photography Laws Every Photographer Must Know

Introduction

Photography laws play a significant role when participating in the mortality, vulnerability, and mutability of another person (or thing) through photography. It is usually about catching the most intimate moments of one’s life. Since, in most cases, photographs involve different subjects being portrayed, every photographer needs to know how to use them legally within the boundaries of photography laws.

There are many rules and regulations for photographers to learn about photography rights influenced by photography laws and what can be done with the images without the photographer’s or the subject’s consent. Understanding photography laws ensures that a photographer appropriately navigates the potential legal complexities involved in capturing and using images.

Every photographer in the United States should know about the eight photography laws that influence the ways photography can capture and preserve moments without impinging on the rights and privacy of the subjects. These photography laws act as rules that guide the photographer's operations, ensuring they remain ethical and legal in their practice.

Free Speech

Photography laws affirm that photographers have a constitutional right to photograph in public places. However, the scope of such laws may be put to question when photographing a protest, an event with a heavy police presence, or government-owned buildings may violate free speech laws, including those under the ambit of photography laws.

If a person stands in the way as law enforcement officials attempt to do their work, they may request that the person move. While authorities will most likely ask a photographer to put away his or her gear, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), explains that there may be recourse in case of an arrest under photography laws. Consider the following tips:

  • Photography laws aren't exclusive to public spaces. Public photography laws cover taking pictures and documenting events in public spaces. Private and public property photography differ, however, due to distinct photography laws. Private property owners can set their own photography, videography, and documentation rules, so it is important to be aware of the different rules for the location influenced by corresponding photography laws.

  • Photography laws may dictate how one should handle interactions with law enforcement. You may ask why you are being detained and if you are allowed to leave. When dealing with police officials or federal authorities, always be calm and respectful, in alignment with the decorum outlined by photography laws.

  • Photography laws also include provisions concerning investigators authority. Authorities must obtain a warrant to take a person’s video footage or photographs under current photography laws.

  • Photography laws sometimes intertwine with other laws, including audio wiretapping laws to regulate the scope of audio-visual media. Audio wiretapping laws are used by some states to obtain control over audio, but these may not apply to visual recordings, a distinction often highlighted by photography laws.

Use The Right Contracts for the Right Work

Under the guidelines of photography laws, a well-drafted contract can help the photographer communicate clearly with clients. Creating a clearly written contract can prevent misunderstandings and build strong relationships between the photographer and his or her clients. According to photo ownership photography laws, the photographer owns the photo, not the subject.

Photography laws govern all fields of the profession, whether media photographers, portrait photographers, or others. People in the photography business must also learn which contracts are best for the business when selling photographs to online or print publications. When evaluating contracts within the framework of photography laws, a photographer should consider the rights he or she has to their work. Lawrina offers samples and templates of photography contracts to guide photographers in creating effective contracts.

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Commercial vs. Non-commercial Use

Photography laws delineate the rules around commercial and non-commercial use of imagery. The law regarding photography clearly states that a photographer cannot sell anything containing someone’s image without that person’s permission as per photography laws. Commercial use refers to using photos, whether or not you are being paid directly for the image, to market your photography business. Non-commercial use includes the scholarly, artistic, or educational use of images in ways that are not marketed or sold as defined by photography laws.

Even public places are subject to certain restrictions under photography laws. There is no expectation of privacy in a public place, such as a shopping mall, but photography laws dictate that a photographer cannot use photos for commercial purposes if they are taken in a private environment. A release form is required from any recognizable person in the image in order to use the photograph for commercial purposes.

Street Photography Laws, Photojournalism, and Rights

Licensing images under photography laws lets other people use the images for profit. This may be to create products to sell or to use the images for publicity. Using a licensing template within the confines of photography laws, a photographer can sell photographs or allow others to use them under Creative Commons. The photography laws provided rights include the following:

  • Commercial use — In advertising, promotions, coupons, or other money-making endeavors, these rights, in line with photography laws, allow a person or organization to use an image for profit.

  • Digital rights — Under photography laws, a photographer grants another entity the right to use a digital version of an image. If the entity wishes to use the image for commercial gain, commercial rights must be requested and given. No hard copy is provided.

  • Editorial rights — As per photography laws, images are used for magazines, blogs, and educational publications for noncommercial purposes.

  • Exclusive rights — In accordance with photography laws, the image may be sold in any way the owner chooses, as these rights give full control over its use.

  • First-use rights — These are the rights under photography laws to use something first, usually for a limited time. The photograph will be exclusive to that organization or individual for 30 calendar days before the photographer can resell it or use it.

  • Non-exclusive rights — Under photography laws, unless a clause is included in a contract preventing the sale of the work, those with these rights can sell the image to more than one person.

  • One-time use rights — In line with photography laws, the use of photographs is limited to the terms set in the contract. One-time use is an excellent option for photojournalists and others who cover events and other news.

  • Second rights — Respected by photography laws, after the first rights have expired, second rights or reprint rights allow the holder to resell or reprint the work. These rights typically include a request to cite the original photographer.

  • Serial rights — The work is licensed under photography laws to be printed in a newspaper, magazine, or periodical (serial) before the photographer grants further rights, such as for a book.

Drone Photography Laws

The use of drones for photography in the context of photography laws is becoming increasingly complex, but a drone operator license is currently required. It is legal to take aerial drone photographs under FAA Part 107 rules, as sanctioned by photography laws. The photographer, adhering to the nuances of photography laws, must follow the state’s drone operator license requirements and privacy laws. Before flying drones or taking images with drone cameras, check local and state regulations in line with photography laws.

Photography Laws and Watermarks

Under the realm of photography laws, watermarks act as a crucial layer of security. Watermarks ensure that those who may not understand copyright law, an important aspect of photography laws, will know that a photograph belongs to the photographer. Because sharing on social media is so prevalent, professional photographers like to use watermarks in compliance with photography laws to protect their work.

In the context of photography laws, watermarks serve as a way to identify the creator of an image. Logos can be incorporated in the corner of a photograph and/or transparent text can be present across the image. 

Photography laws and watermarks interact in the following ways:

  • If an image is re-posted, viewers can identify its creator thanks to photography laws enabling the use of watermarks.

  • Anyone who removes the watermark (by cloning or cropping in Photoshop) to conceal their infringement has committed a crime under Section 1202 of the U.S. Copyright Act, as specified by photography laws. Fines can range from $2,500 to $25,000.

Photography laws also provide a guideline on how to use watermarks without infringing on the viewing experience. Accordingly, place a watermark at the bottom or corner of the image and set the opacity to 50 percent. This way, the watermark underlines the legal implications of photography laws while still being visible without distracting from the image itself.

Photography Release Forms

Photography laws oversee the use of photography release forms. A photography release form is a simple contract between the photographer and the subject under the purview of photography laws. Whether the images are being published for profit or not, it is wise under photography laws to obtain signed releases from everyone in the photos. The law on taking photos without permission in relation to photography laws is very clear. Using someone’s image for a commercial purpose without a release form is illegal in the US according to photography laws. Photography laws concerning filming in public protect photographers and private citizens. Consistent with photography laws, a photographer cannot make money off someone’s recognizable image without that person’s permission in the form of a signed release.

Lawrina’s photography legal photo release form samples enforce compliance with photography laws. They can be customized to individual needs, saved, and downloaded for future use within the guidelines of photography laws.

Ultimate Checklist To Set Up Photography Businesses

The following is a list of the steps to take when setting up your photography business:

  • Prepare a business plan Legally establish a business 

  • Understand your legal responsibilities 

  • Create a business structure 

  • Set up a business account 

  • Get insurance 

  • Keep all receipts related to your business 

  • Choose a payment method for your clients 

  • Set aside money for taxes 

  • Get an accountant 

  • Create a logo and a name for the business 

  • Decide what niche you want to specialize in 

  • Set up a website 

  • Choose the gear and vendors you will use 

  • Learn Photoshop and Lightroom 

  • Prepare client contracts and templates 

  • Choose a method for delivering and storing images 

  • Create and maintain a social media presence 

  • Generate leads through marketing (offer free photo shoots) 

  • Invest in your business's growth 

  • Make an online portfolio of your work

Conclusion

For your photography business to grow and succeed, you must understand the laws of photography and the legal rights of photographers. The best way to avoid legal problems is to know your local regulations, use contracts suitable for your type of photography business, and have signed release forms or contracts to ensure that you can use images that include people.

Article by
Inna Chumachenko
Lawrina

Inna Chumachenko is the Content Lead at Lawrina. She is responsible for managing all the content found on the blog, guides, and other website pages. Inna has a degree in philology and a vast interest in law. In her role at Lawrina, Inna oversees the content team, establishes collaborations with writers, and curates content from various contributors.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the content for Lawrina, please feel free to contact Inna directly via email at i.chumachenko@lawrina.org or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Frequently Asked Questions

What rights does a photographer have if their work is used without permission according to Photography Laws?

According to United States Copyright Law, all creative works, that includes photos, are automatically copyright protected from the moment of their creation. This means the photographer has the exclusive right to copy, display and distribute his or her own photos, as well as the right to create "derivative works." 

 

If a photographer's work is used without their permission, they have the right under copyright law to claim damages and profits. This can involve such remedies as an injunction, impounding, or statutory damages ranging from $750 to $30,000 per work infringed, and in cases of willful infringement, damages may go up to $150,000 per work.

Can I post a picture taken by someone else on my social media account according to Photography Laws?

Under U.S. Copyright Law, only the copyright owner has the exclusive right to display and distribute their photographs. Therefore, posting a photo taken by someone else on your social media account without their permission may constitute copyright infringement, unless a license has been granted, the use falls under the "fair use" principle (which is a very complex legal concept and doesn't apply most times people think it does), or the copyright has expired (life of the author plus 70 years).

Do Photography Laws stipulate rules about seeking consent for capturing images of minors?

Yes, photography laws generally advise seeking consent before capturing images of minors. In the US, it's not generally illegal to take a photo of a minor in a public place; however, it's customary and advised to seek permission from parents or legal guardian. This becomes crucial when the photograph is intended for commercial use—in which case a model release signed by the minor's parent or guardian is typically required to avoid any legal issues related to privacy, defamation, or likeness rights. It's important to note that specific rules may vary by state.