It has happened to almost everyone. You are on vacation, hoping to bring home some terrific photos of your trip. At a museum, church, or even a train station, you pull out your camera and take a few pictures. The next thing you know, an official-looking security person turns up and asks you to delete your photos, or, even worse, hand over your camera's memory card. Is this legal?
The answer to this question depends on where you are. Regardless of your location, your host country probably prohibits photography at military installations and essential transportation sites. Privately-owned businesses, including museums, can restrict photography, although their legal right to confiscate your camera if you break the rules varies by country.
In the United States, each state has its own photography restrictions. State and local regulations vary, but all photographers, amateur and professional, must comply with them.
Typically, photography in public places is permitted, unless special equipment that allows the photographer to take pictures of private locations is used. For example, you can take a photo in a public park, but you cannot stand in that park and use a telephoto lens to take a picture of people inside their home.
Privately-owned museums, shopping malls, tourist attractions, and other businesses may restrict photography as they please. If you are taking photographs in an organic market, for example, and the owner asks you to stop, you must comply. Many museums prohibit the use of tripods and specialized lighting.
Operators of potential terrorist targets, such as the Pentagon, may forbid photography. This may include not only military installations but also dams, train stations, and airports. When in doubt, ask.
Some museums, national parks, and tourist attractions allow visitors to take photographs for personal use only. These images cannot be used for commercial purposes. To find out more about photography policies at specific attractions, you can call or email the press office or consult the Press Information section of the attraction's website.
If you take pictures of people in public places and want to use those photos for commercial purposes, you must obtain a signed model release from every person who is recognizable in those photographs.
Photography in public places is allowed in the United Kingdom, but there are some exceptions.
Taking photographs of military installations, aircraft, or ships is not permitted in the UK. You may not take photographs at certain Crown properties, such as dockyards and weapons storage facilities. In fact, any place that might be considered useful to terrorists is off-limits to photographers. This might include train stations, nuclear power plants, Underground (subway) stations, and Civil Aviation installations, for example.
You may not take photographs inside many places of worship, even if they are also tourist destinations. Examples include Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Ask permission before you start taking pictures.
As in the US, certain tourist attractions, including Royal Parks, Parliament Square, and Trafalgar Square, may be photographed for personal use only.
Many museums and shopping centers in the UK prohibit photography.
Err on the side of caution when taking photographs of people in public places, particularly if you are photographing children. While taking photos of people in public places is technically legal, British courts are increasingly finding that individuals engaging in private behavior, even if that behavior takes place in a public place, have the right not to be photographed.
Other Photography Restrictions
In most countries, military bases, airfields, and shipyards are off-limits to photographers. In some areas, you may not photograph government buildings.
Some countries, such as Italy, restrict photography in train stations and other transportation facilities. Other countries require you to ask permission to photograph people and/or publish photographs you take of people. Wikimedia Commons maintains a partial list of photography permission requirements by country.
In countries that are divided into states or provinces, such as Canada, photography may be regulated at the state or provincial level. Be sure to check the photography permission requirements for each state or province you plan to visit.
Expect to see "No Photography" signs inside museums. If you do not see one, ask about the museum's photography policy before you take out your camera.
Some museums have licensed photography rights to certain companies or have borrowed items for special exhibits and therefore must prevent visitors from taking photographs. Examples include the Vatican Museum's Sistine Chapel in Rome, Michelangelo's sculpture of David in Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia, and The O2's British Music Experience in London.
The Bottom Line
Above and beyond legal restrictions, common sense should prevail. Do not photograph other people's children. Think twice before taking a picture of a military base or runway. Ask before taking photos of strangers; their culture or faith may prohibit making images, even digital ones, of people.