5 Legal Issues No Photographer Can Afford to Ignore

Joel Lee 15-06-2015

In general, photography is lighthearted. The vast majority of camera owners are in it as a hobby The Best Entry-Level DSLRs For New Photographers If you want to take your photography skills to the next level, or you know someone else who does, then there's no better way than to enter the world of DSLR cameras. Read More , whether as a form of relaxation or a way to expend creative energy Don't Let Your Camera Collect Dust: 10 Inspiring Ideas For Photography Finding inspiration for your photography can sometimes be a challenge. We've already taken a look at five places you can go online to find inspiration for your photography, but there are also a few offline... Read More . Very few think about the legal repercussions of photography, which is why it can be so frustrating — and even frightening — when something goes wrong.


Whether you’re snapping photos as a true beginner 7 Key Photography Tips for Absolute Beginners These photography tips will help you take better photos, whether you're a beginner or have some practice already. Read More or following in the footsteps of professional shutterbugs Learn From The Best: 10 Professional Photographers You Should Follow On Instagram For every professional photographer who takes issue with Instagram, there are many who are happily using the app to reach an additional photo-loving audience. They're worth a follow. Read More , legal issues are never more than one mistake away. It only takes one misstep or lapse in judgment for the stresses of the law to suck the fun out of photography.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Get a head start on the legalities so you never have to worry about dealing with these complications.

Disclaimer: As an American, most of my exposure is to American law. Legality may differ for you depending on your country. That being said, I’m not a lawyer so do not misconstrue any of this as legal advice. If you have any questions or a hint of doubt, ask a local licensed lawyer. This article is more for the purpose of awareness, to get you thinking.

Shooting People on the Street

Next to food photography and landscape photography, street photography is one of the hottest genres on the Web today. Just look at these next-level Indian photographers 8 Amazing Indian Photographers on Instagram Instagram is not just for selfie lovers. It welcomes all kinds of photo enthusiasts into its fold. Today we bring you a selection of eight amazing Indian Instagrammers. Read More to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Street photography done right is simply mesmerizing.

But lots of people don’t like having their pictures taken without their permission. There are times when you’ll be snapping shots in public and people will get rude with you, yelling at you to stop. Some may escalate even further, threatening to sue you if you don’t delete those photos right this instant.


Fortunately for you, their case won’t hold up in any sane court of law.


It’s illegal to take photos of people when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, when they’re in the safety of their own homes, when they’re in a hospital room, or when they’re sitting on a toilet — even if the restroom is a public one. But when they’re out in public, that reasonable expectation of privacy ceases.

Some states, like Texas, make it illegal to take non-consent photos (whether public or private) if it’s with an intent towards sexual desire or gratification. Otherwise, photos taken in public are acceptable within the law as long as the resulting photo isn’t used in a commercial way. For that, you’ll need a model release form.


However, just because it’s legal doesn’t mean you should always take the shot. If someone really doesn’t want their picture taken, the decent thing to do would be to respect their wishes. Wait for them to pass or skip the shot altogether.

Watermarks and Copyright Infringement

If there’s one fear that’s shared by all creatives, it’s the fear of copyright infringement. What if you woke up tomorrow and learned that someone else has been selling your photos for a lot of money? Wouldn’t you feel slighted? Betrayed? Disrespected?

Unfortunately, many people — even creatives — have trouble understanding the rules of copyright. We have a in-depth guide to image copyrights Concerned About Copyright? A Guide For Legally Using Images On The Web Copyright is a complex subject. A fair amount of understanding makes it easier. If you're wondering under what circumstances you can use someone else's creative work -- expect some answers here. Read More , but in case you don’t have the time to go through all of that, here are the bullet points.



It’s not enough to just credit the creator. You need explicit permission from said creator to use their work in the manner that you want to use it. Sometimes this agreement will involve payment or royalties, but not always. However, without their permission, you’ve infringed on their intellectual property rights.

So the next time you want to get a beautiful photograph printed The 10 Most Affordable Sites for Printing Digital Photos Online Printed photos are way better than staring at a digital screen. But why print at a one-hour photo shop when you can get them printed online and delivered? Read More , make sure you have permission from the creator to print that photograph.

Want to learn more? Here are a few quick resources on copyright law Confused About Copyright Law? These Online Resources Can Help It's a confusing subject, yes, but it's important that you wrap your head around it. If you're involved in any sort of creative work, these resources will help you do just that. Read More to help you understand what’s allowed and what isn’t.

Licenses are predetermined permissions. For example, many photos are licensed under Creative Commons What Is Creative Commons and Non-Commercial Use? What is Creative Commons? What does "non-commercial use" mean? Learn about Creative Commons licenses and how they work. Read More . A Creative Commons license explains what you can and can’t do with that photo. There are other kinds of licenses too, and each one sets forth a different set of permissions. If you don’t abide by the license, that’s copyright infringement.


While it may seem counter-intuitive to give your work away for free, there are several benefits to licensing under Creative Commons 3 Career-Changing Reasons To License Your Work With Creative Commons Think of Creative Commons as a marketing tool that can pay off with huge rewards down the road. Do you license your work under it? If not, here are three strong reasons why you should. Read More . You may want to consider it if you haven’t already.


And no, “Fair Use” is not always applicable. The Fair Use clause allows an exception to copyright law, but only if several criteria are met: the use is primarily educational, the resulting product is informative rather than creative, how much of the source material is used, and whether the original creator benefits from said fair use.

Most importantly, you have a copyright as soon as the work is created. There’s no need to obtain an official document or certificate, and you don’t need to watermark your images How to Watermark Images Using Photoshop There are several options on how to watermark your images online, but using a web app can have its drawbacks. Instead, here's how to use Adobe Photoshop to make watermarks. Read More in order to prove anything. That being said, watermarks can help deter image thieves.

Running a Photography Business

Some people may decide to elevate their photography hobby into a photography business. A good majority of these people will realize that photography isn’t as fun when it’s a business as when it’s a hobby, but the few who succeed will go on to build a reputation and earn a respectable income.

But there’s one hiccup that really should be avoided: do not operate as a sole proprietorship.

If someone comes up to you, offers to pay $500 for a portrait shoot, and writes a check out to your personal name for services rendered, then you’re legally a sole proprietorship. All income, expenses, assets, and liabilities are under your personal name. You are held responsible.


Which means that if somebody ever decides to sue you, maybe for breach of contract or invasion of privacy, then you will personally be held accountable. If you lose that lawsuit, all of your assets will be at risk, including your house, your car, your bank accounts, etc.

But if you register your business and operate as a Limited Liability Company (LLC), then you can separate your business activity from personal activity. Your LLC will have its own set of income, expenses, assets, and liabilities, and if one of your clients decides to sue you, only the LLC’s assets will be at risk. Your house, car, etc. will be safe.

In other words, registering a business limits your personal liability and this is a good thing. The only downside is that there’s paperwork, there’s a fee to open an LLC, and you have to abide by certain rules and regulations. However, the benefits greatly outweigh these inconveniences.


Also, don’t forget to pay your taxes. Traditional employees have their taxes taken out of their paychecks, but as a self-employed photographer, it’s your responsibility to pay the government. For most people, this means paying an Estimated Quarterly Tax and filing different forms when reporting your income.

Filing taxes as an LLC can get tricky, so don’t be afraid to hire a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) to help you out. After all, the whole point of an LLC is to minimize legal trouble, which means you really don’t want to tick off the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)!

Models, Contracts, and Consent Forms

While we’re on the topic of litigation, let’s talk about the most common and effective way to mitigate these lawsuits: a contract.

If you’re doing any kind of commercial photography — simply put, if you’re getting paid for the photos you take — then you absolutely need a written contractual agreement between you and the client. If you skip over this, your life could potentially be ruined.

Contracts exist so that both parties can agree on expectations. Here’s what the client expects from you, and here’s what you expect from the client. Both parties sign the contract as proof that this agreement was reached. Verbal agreements provide zero evidence, which is why this contract must be in written form.


At minimum, a contract should contain: who are the two parties, what is expected of each party, where will the photos be taken, when will the photos be taken, and why are the photos being taken. The contract should also stipulate potential recourse in case these expectations are broken (such as not being obligated to pay for horrible photos).

But if photography is a primary source of income for you, your contracts should really be drafted and approved by a licensed attorney.

One last thing: when a person is in a photo and that photo is used commercially, that person must sign a model release. A model release is written proof that the model consented to having their likeness used in that photo for commercial purposes. Without a model release, that person could sue you.

When in doubt, sign a model release. It can only protect you.

Private Property and Shoot Locations

Let’s say you have an awesome idea for a series of photos, but you can’t find the right location to stage said photos. Maybe you need a sterile environment like a hospital, or a derelict environment like a rusty warehouse. Or maybe you want to take a photo of a particularly intriguing building.

Before you go ahead with your plans, there are a few things you must keep in mind.

When shooting from a public location, the same rule applies to building exteriors as it does for people: if there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy, you can shoot it, but there is one big caveat.


If the final shot includes someone else’s creative work in the form of a trademark, a sculpture, or a water feature (e.g. waterfall, fountain, pool, etc.) then you must get a property release from the property owner. A property release is also necessary if you want to shoot on-location and that location is on private property.

Not having permission to shoot on private property counts as trespassing.

Keep in mind that “open to the public” does not necessarily mean “public property”. Malls, movie theaters, theme parks, museums, airports are all examples of places that are private property but open to the public. If you want to take photos at places like these, you must get a property release.

And even if you are shooting on public property, there are certain restrictions. For example, your photography cannot interfere with the ability of others to enjoy said public property. You cannot block access to hallways or areas. Many places also forbid the use of tripods and stands.

Better Safe Than Sorry

These legalities aren’t meant to stifle your creativity How to Regain Creative Motivation After You've Burned Out Writers aren't the only ones who suffer from "creative block". What can you do to rekindle your creative fire? Here are five easy things you can try. Read More . In fact, as strange as it may sound, they’re meant to protect you. Sure, they may prove inconvenient from time to time, but ultimately it’s for the good of all involved.

It’s in your best interest to learn your rights as a citizen and as a photographer. Know what’s acceptable, know what’s not, and rest assured knowing that you won’t ever be caught off guard with an unforeseen lawsuit.

Have you ever gotten into legal trouble with your photography? Are there any other potential issues that I missed? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Image Credits: Man With Many Headshots Via Shutterstock, Subway Woman Silhouette Via Shutterstock, Swamp Photographer Via Shutterstock, Bird’s Eye Riot Via Shutterstock, Pen Signing Form Via Shutterstock, Self-Employed Taxes Via Shutterstock, Model Photoshoot Via Shutterstock, Public Shot In Mall Via Shutterstock

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  1. XxTonyizmxX
    January 13, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    so basically i want to take a pict5ure but my mom didnt want me o take the picutee becawsue i mighjt gho to jail and i dont want tol go to jaiol and i think that you cant go to jail if you take a pciture and i dont wajt to do thaty becasye u wont want t go to jail becasue jai is bnawd and jail and make you bad and you can die if you are bad from the jail and the jail is scary becasue you dcan die and yeah so cqan you please reply to me becasue i dont know what u i do if i go to jail and i dont want to die pleaws ehje2l[p me i dont want to die becasue i ytook a picture in the public and i dont want to go to jail

  2. Angel
    February 3, 2019 at 4:07 am

    Thank you for this opportunity to ask this question. I had a partner ask me to pose for some partial nude photos he was planning to have exhibited in Europe. It was understood these were for the sole use of his European exhibition and not for anywhere else. He didn't exhibit them as he said he was having problems working with them. We have since separated and I have been told he has now posted one of them on his Facebook page. May I ask what legal direction I can take please and thank you?

  3. Averie Smith
    August 27, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    I paid for my pictures and a deposit fee. I took these pictures in March I still have yet to receive them & I have messaged the photographer several times she reads them and never respond can I take her to small claims court to get my pics?

  4. Maxine Hicks
    March 5, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    what do I do when a family member who has a photography business, attends a family event and takes multiple photos and charge for said photos without having discussed it with the family members that hosted the event.
    The photographer was in attendance as a famiy member, took photos, will not release photos, charged some guess for photo's on the spot, and actually came wearing tshirts with business name, never asked the host and now wants me to sign a release form in order to create a photo album of said pics.
    He attended the event as a family member, not a photographer.

  5. Lindley Rust
    March 10, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    I've taken photos of a friend, and am trying to use some of them to an online gallery. Her face is not in any of the images submitted to the gallery, and her back is to the camera in the two of them. On image is only of her feet, in boots. By law, do I need her permission to submit the images if she isn't recognizable in any of them? I've always been curious of this.

    • elizabeth
      November 29, 2017 at 5:45 pm

      I was at a get together in which a photographer took pictures of me without me realizing it. I didn't think nothing of it, until he uploaded the photos on a website. these pictures looked horrible. I called him and told him to please remove my photos I didn't like the way they came out since he caught me off guard. his response was he's not taking the photos off, and shifted the topic of my insecurities regarding how the photos looked. what are my privacy rights......

  6. Lindley Rust
    March 10, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    I've taken photos of a friend, and am trying to use for an online gallery. Her face is not in any of the images submitted for the gallery, and her back is to the camera in two of them. One image is only of her feet, in boots. By law, do I need her permission to submit the images if she isn't recognizable in any of the images? I've always been curious of this.

  7. Terry sutphin
    March 5, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    Yes I did a shoot a while back told the person I was using them for my portfolio on IG and then a day later she wanted me to take it off. Am I allowed to use my work for my IG she was in my home studio and poses for the photos and there not nudity. What my rights to use the photo??

  8. Paty
    February 3, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Photography at workplace: What happens when a personal portrait is taken by the photography department and latter distributed among workmates without consent; or even after the portrayed individual has clearly stated their discontent with the photograph? Is it considered illegal? demeaning? or simply dehumanising? Does it suggest disregard for personal feelings?

  9. Richard Vogel
    January 24, 2017 at 7:35 pm

    What about photos as evidence of wrongdoing on publicly used retailers and their shops?

  10. Anonymous
    June 18, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    That is why his disclaimer says he is American and that these apply for American laws only.

  11. Anonymous
    June 15, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    Be careful with the first piece of advice. Whilst it may be true in the USA, in many countries it's illegal to take photographs of soldiers, police officers, official buildings, military installments, etc.

    • Joel Lee
      July 10, 2015 at 12:14 am

      Thanks for sharing, it's easy for me (as a US resident) to take a lot of my freedoms for granted. You're absolutely right about that.