5 Photography Situations That Can Land You In Jail

A few days ago, a friend (and fellow photographer) told me about a photoshoot where she got yelled at for shooting somewhere illegally. Except, she wasn't. She and her model were on the public sidewalk and an employee of the shop behind them screamed at them to stop taking pictures. But, it is perfectly legal to shoot in a public place. She was within her rights as a photographer. As a general rule of thumb, if you can see it from the public place in which you are standing, it is legal to shoot it. Pretty simple, right? But not all photoshoots will be so black and white. Read on for a list of not so simple situations you and your camera might find yourself in.

1. Photographing Old Faithful

A law was recently passed in Wyoming that makes it illegal to collect pollution data on public and private lands. "Boring, Redd. What does that have to do with photography?" Well, let me tell you. Taking a photo counts as "data collection." This means that a tourist taking a photo of Old Faithful (or anything in Yellowstone on the WY side) technically violates this law. Yellowstone spokespeople have come out and said they are okay with tourist photography but again, technically... 

People argue that this violates their First Amendment rights, and maybe it does. But, in reading more about this law, I have to say it sounds like a big political mess that really has nothing to do with photography. So, you are probably okay to take photos of Old Faithful and her friends but be careful. Careful with the law and careful with the local moose population. Those bitches are scary. 

2. Photographing an oil refinery

While technically legal, as long as you aren't trespassing, taking photos of an oil refinery can get you into some trouble. You may get arrested for what looks like "suspicious activity." In a post 9/11 world, police get nervous when people lurk around things, like oil refineries, that are potential terrorist targets. So, even though it is legal, it might not be wise. Just ask Robert Cheney.

3. Taking pictures at Burning Man

I am sure you are saying, "Wait, what?" I know, right? Seems crazy. But even though it is a temporary city, it is copyrighted. You can take all kinds of personal photos but nothing for commercial use. This one probably won't technically "land you in jail." But it will get pretty expensive if they take you to court over an image you took. 

Other notable places you can't shoot commercial: 

  • The Eiffel tower at night when lit up (during the day is okay)
  • The Hollywood sign
  • Hotels on the Vegas strip

4. Photos of your ballot on Voting Day

This one depends on where you live. It is okay to photograph your ballot in New York but not in Nevada, Texas, Florida + more. Being told you can't photograph your ballot might make you wanna rage about first amendment rights but keep in mind they also are trying to avoid election fraud so be respectful and find out the rules in your state before you snap that voting day selfie. 

5. Photographing Police

Ooh boy, this is a hot button issue right now. It IS legal to photograph police, on duty, in public. But DON'T get in the way. This situation can go from legal to illegal REAL fast. So, while it is legal to photograph in public spaces, it gets complicated. Police can stop you if they believe you are interfering with an investigation, endangering people, or, like at the oil refinery, if they suspect you of suspicious activity. Always be respectful and it is good practice to have a copy of your rights as a photographer in your camera bag. 

On the flip side, you should know that it is not legal for an officer to take your equipment or erase your photos. This is considered destruction of property and officers have been charged with felonies before.  

For more info on photographer's rights visit the ACLU website and/or watch the video I made, "You Have A Right To Your Rights".


This blog post is meant to be an entertaining look into to photographer's rights. You are responsible for doing your own research and knowing where it is and isn't okay to shoot.