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Your Rights as a Photographer

Photographers keep facing more and more questions and charges for breaking the law, making it important now so more than ever to understand your rights and responsibilities as a photographer. In this article, we’ll go over such rights, as well as Model Releases.

First a quick note, your rights and the laws surrounding photography vary from country to country and even from state to state, so always make sure what laws are in force in your area.

Where and What can I photograph?

Know your rightsThe general rule is that you can photograph mostly anything you like as long as it’s in a public place. You do not need to have permission to photograph in public, this include photographing building and parks as well as people that are in public areas.

If you’re on public property you can even photograph private property, for example standing on the street and photographing someone’s garden. If you are on private property you can photograph until someone ask you to stop (a sign prohibiting photography counts as well) and you must obey such a request.

There are exceptions to this rule, for example military installations or other subjects that can be classed as national security. However infrastructures such as bridges are not included in such a list. Another exception is, even in a public space, places like dressing rooms, restrooms or people entering their code at the ATM machine — photographing at these places counts as invading a person’s privacy.

So to summarize, here are some examples of things you can photograph, if you’re in a public space you can photograph adults, children, law enforcement officers, accidents, criminal activities, celebrities, airports and train stations.

What to do when people question you

There is a good chance that somewhere along the way in your photography experience, someone is going to confront you. Everything from regular citizens to security personal and law enforcement officers might question your activity and ask you to stop photographing. They might say it’s for security reason and refer to acts like terrorism, this is not a valid reason for them to ask you to stop what you are doing. As long as you’re in a public space you have the right to photograph.

First of all, act politely and stay as calm as possible. You do not need to explain why you are there or what you are photographing. In most cases you do not need to disclose your identity (depending on your country/state you might need to do so if it’s a law enforcement officer that is requesting).

You do not need to give them your camera/memory card nor do you need to delete the images. Unless they have a court order or are arresting you (again, depending on your location) they have no right to take your equipment.

If you are asked to delete photographs or asked to hand over your equipment ask for their identity and who they work for. Also ask what legal reason they cite for doing this to you. If this happens to you, you might want to consider taking legal action or contact your local newspaper.

How and Where can I use/publish my photographs?

Okay, so you have the right to photograph mostly anything, but are you allowed to do whatever you want with the photographs you took? The short answer is: No, there are rules and laws surrounding how you publish and distribute your photographs.

Once again, I cannot stress this enough, the laws are not the same all around the world so make sure you know what the laws says in your area before you do something you will later regret. A wrong decision can end up costing you a lot of money, not to mention your reputation as a respectable photographer.

In most areas the main difference in your rights is depending on if the photograph is used commercially or not. If your photograph is not commercial, i.e. considered art, you have much more rights to publish and use your photograph. For example, in most countries you are allowed to publish and sell photographs that are considered art without a legal release from the model/person in the photo. This means that you can go around the city photographing people in everyday situations and sell the prints or have a show at a gallery without notifying the people you photograph.

However if you intend to use the photograph in any commercial situation you will need a model release from the model. An important note is that if you sell the photograph to a commercial agency they are responsible for getting the model release from both the model and you as the photographer. If they publish your photograph without a model release you are not to blame — however all serious agencies requires a model release for every photograph they buy.

There is one gray spot though, photographers portfolios. They are used to display your work, just like commercials, but in most countries they are considered art and you do not need a model release to publish a photo on your portfolio.

News photographs, even though they can be used to sell newspapers, do not require a model release to be published and sold.

As you can see this is a rather complex issue, and I haven’t even talked about how different it is from country to country, so it’s important that you check this yourself before doing a job.

Model release

I’ve talked quite a lot about model release, which is a form of a legal document that basically states that you as a photographer holds the rights to the photograph and can do what you want with it. These legal releases can be made very simple or they can be quite detailed; in most cases a simple one will do just fine. Before doing a large-scale job, contacting a lawyer will be well worth the money to avoid any legal problems later on.

I have designed two different samples of model releases, which could be used as a guide to what you might need/want. These samples are not intended for actual use, they are supplied as guides and should be used as such.

The first one is a standard model release to be used when photographing a model for commercial use. It gives the photographer complete rights to the photographs.

Download Model Release Sample 1

The second one is a specific model release for a type of modeling that is becoming more and more common, Time-For-Print. Time-For-Print is the idea that the model gives you his/her time and for that they receive an agreed upon amount of prints for compensation. This is common for models starting out and wanting to build up a portfolio and for photographers doing the same thing. This model release is more flexible and gives options on what compensation the model is expected to receive.

Download Model Release Sample 2

If you’re doing a planned photography session with people; models, weddings, children etc. always have them sign a model release. It’s for your own safety! Do not just throw the paper on the counter and force them to sign it, it’s important that they understand what they are signing and explain what it is. They are signing away their rights to the photograph of themselves or their children; it’s understandably that they might have some questions or concerns so you should be thorough.

DISCLAIMER

I am not a lawyer and this text should not be seen as legal advice. If you need legal advice contact a local lawyer whom have knowledge in this field.

Laws are different from country to country and even state-to-state, so contact a lawyer or local law enforcement office for specific laws in your area. Another good advice is to contact a local newspaper, they often have good knowledge what photography related laws are in place in the area they work in.

104 Comments

  1. Add point Subtract point
    MicMart (2 Points) April 21, 2011 at 3:59 am

    Thanks for that very important information you presented.
    It will help a lot for starters like me.

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  2. Add point Subtract point
    saggieK (2 Points) February 9, 2011 at 2:24 am

    very useful informations for ameture photographer like me. thanks

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  3. Add point Subtract point

    Photoshop tutorials, from beginner to advanced. photo manipulation, icon design, text effects, interface, layout, painting, photo effects, psd tuts, maxon cinema 4d, designing.
    http://photoshopcs8.co.cc

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    اليوتيوب (1 Point) September 22, 2010 at 11:20 am

    i got them all thanks for very helpful information

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  5. Add point Subtract point
    Beauty & Grace By Kimberly (2 Points) September 14, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    Thank you For you post. The wisdom has blessed me.

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  6. Add point Subtract point
    Spotted Photography (1 Point) August 3, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    Thanks for the post, a lot of people don’t know their rights as a photographer.

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  7. Add point Subtract point
    Kris Fulk (1 Point) June 27, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this article! It’s been infinitely helpful!

    - Kris Fulk, Houston Portrait and Boudoir Photographer

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  8. Add point Subtract point
    ดูคลิป (1 Point) June 21, 2010 at 4:11 am

    Nice Information.Thanks for share.

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  9. Add point Subtract point
    เว็บโหลดเพลงฟรี (1 Point) June 1, 2010 at 2:51 am

    ……………………………………..

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  10. Add point Subtract point
    Johan Stockmarr (1 Point) May 14, 2010 at 5:46 am

    Hey! This was very interesting. Thank you for the info.

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  11. Add point Subtract point
    Manu (1 Point) May 11, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Thank you very much for this article ;-)

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  12. Add point Subtract point
    Angela (1 Point) May 11, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Very useful information to know as an amateur photographer. Thanks.

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  13. Add point Subtract point

    Thanks for this!!! Very useful, i didn’t realized you could photograph private property from public places without any issues!

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  14. Add point Subtract point
    Glenn (1 Point) May 10, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for the column. Good information to know.

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  15. Add point Subtract point
    Web Design (1 Point) April 26, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Very helpful article thanks for sharing our rights :)

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  16. Add point Subtract point

    Very nice info! Thanks a lot.

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  17. Add point Subtract point
    ดาวน์โหลดเพลงฟรี (1 Point) February 3, 2010 at 1:02 am

    Thanks for your post , Great post.33

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  18. Add point Subtract point
    ฟังเพลงใหม่ (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks for your post , Great post.26

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  19. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุดเดือนนี้ (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 1:09 am

    Thanks for your post , Great post.21

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  20. Add point Subtract point
    ร้าค้าออนไลน์ store online (1 Point) January 30, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Not planning on selling the photos Thank

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  21. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงสากลใหม่ (1 Point) January 30, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Great reading! Thanks for sharing

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  22. Add point Subtract point

    As a professional photographer, I face this question very often. This article writes some basic logics quite clearly.
    Once again it is NOT what you photograph But what you are going to use it for. You should remember, no matter how you are logically right, a problem arise when someone says it’s a problem. Better avoid them by all means. Do not use them, It’s a waste of time and just move on to your next step.
    (of course the best would be getting documents signed in the beginning.)

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  23. Add point Subtract point
    Retouch.cz (1 Point) January 25, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Very useful article, also the PDFs for downloading are quite handy. I will re-tweet it definitely. Thanks!

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  24. Add point Subtract point

    To DeAnna,
    You could always blur your former friends face out. My understanding is (i am not a lawyer but had a semester of it in college)… If you photography non-celebrities and want to earn a profit from them you need a release form. If you photograph celebrities you do not need a release form provided the photos do not imply an endorsement of a product or service.

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  25. Add point Subtract point
    โหลดเพลงฟรี (1 Point) January 9, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    So if there are photograph anyone in a public park, including children as long as I don’t plan on publishing them without a release? Is there somewhere that states this legally?

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  26. Add point Subtract point
    Christopher Bathgate (0 Points) January 4, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    I want to take a picture of a crowded street to sell for profit, do I still need model releases?

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  27. Add point Subtract point

    this helps a lot i am making a portfolio and i am trying to find out all my legal rights before i publish it….thanks

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  28. Add point Subtract point

    this helps a lot i am making a portfolio and i am trying to find out all my legal rights before i publish it….thanks

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  29. Add point Subtract point

    I’m just wondering– I did a photo shoot with a family a while back, the mom was one of my best friends and said — didnt sign anything– that I could use the photos on my website.

    She’s a fellow photographer and the reason we are not friends now is that we got into an argument about a shoot we’d done– she’d put some photos up on her on gallery facebook from the shoot without getting a model release first, and she swore it was okay because she owned them as the photographer, and I wasn’t too clear on that.

    When we parted ways, she demanded I take down the pictures of her and her family because SHE owned them, even though, following her logic, I am the photographer and therefore owned them.

    Who’s right here? I’d like to know if I can use the photos on my website, mostly, since that was her logic and it didn’t matter to her that this other family cared.

    Any info is appreciated!

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    • Add point Subtract point
      Joanne Bartone, Photographer (2 Points) January 24, 2010 at 9:44 pm

      if you took the photos with your own equipment, they belong to you. however, that you have had conflict w/ this other photographer and she has requested you remove them, then removing them would be the right thing to do. recreate the images with another client to avoid further conflict. …just my personal and professional opinion.

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  30. Add point Subtract point
    mudkip (0 Points) December 2, 2009 at 6:13 am

    if a verbal agreement was made between the model, designer, make-up artist, cosmetologist, and photographer to offer their services in exchange for the photos to be made accessible to all parties; does the photographer have the right to withhold the photos. No release forms were signed. the photographer, designer, and model are students, and the make-up artist and cosmetologist are licensed professionals.

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    music-mp3 (1 Point) November 28, 2009 at 7:27 am

    Thank you for good information

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  32. Add point Subtract point
    photoholic (1 Point) November 23, 2009 at 10:14 am

    How abut photographing in a high school, for the school newspaper? The police gave a student a hard time and confiscated the camera.

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  33. Add point Subtract point

    Thanks for the article useful

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  34. Add point Subtract point
    clippingimages (1 Point) October 6, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    Thank for information about Rights as a Photographer. Became a professional photographer this information help me a lot. Thanks for sharing this nice post.

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  35. Add point Subtract point

    “So if there are photograph anyone in a public park” Im even confused by that last statement! I meant So, I can photograph anyone in a public Park…..

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  36. Add point Subtract point

    So if there are photograph anyone in a public park, including children as long as I don’t plan on publishing them without a release? Is there somewhere that states this legally? I have been told very harshly i am wrong and can not include children even if they are in public.

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  37. Add point Subtract point
    copyright (1 Point) September 17, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    This article doesn’t mention “work for hire”. It’s worth looking into if you plan on doing commercial work or any work at the behest of someone else. The rules of who owns the copyright in the work are very specific.

    Of course, this applies to US law. YMMV.

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    printedproof (1 Point) September 9, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Great tips that every photographer should know. Thanks!

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  39. Add point Subtract point

    *I am going to photograph a very large bike and running race that has a sponsor.
    *I want to put these photos of the races on my website to sell for a profit.
    *I have specifically emphasized, on my website, that my photography is not to be used for commercial purposes, only for personal use.
    *By not selling for commercial use, am I protected legally?
    *Does selling my photos of the event infringe on the rights of the organizer who hires a photographer and also sells photos of the event on their website?
    *If I sell photos of adults and children attending the public event, as well as racers, can I sell them without a model release, or other kind of release?
    *I have checked with the Forest Service and they say I can take still photos on FS lands the races go through, and I can sell them. They say the necessity of a permit only refers to filming.

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  40. Add point Subtract point
    Nour Moustafa (1 Point) August 2, 2009 at 8:42 am

    thanks for this important information
    u have learned me what i don’t know

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  41. Add point Subtract point
    SB Landscape Photography (1 Point) July 16, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    Thanks for the info.

    Although I have been escorted off a public bridge in Sydney by security, supposedly there were some new anti-terrorist laws brough in after 9/11… and photographing a “structure” such as a bridge was a “security threat”

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  42. Add point Subtract point
    Chris Vaughn (1 Point) July 15, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    This was VERY helpful information.

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  43. Add point Subtract point
    mohammed shoaib saleem (1 Point) June 25, 2009 at 2:45 am

    thanks that really helps.being amateur photographer i guess i faced so many red signals than may be any professional would have.and yes the rules do vary from country to country.
    thanks

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  44. Add point Subtract point

    Hi, if photos were taken of me while I acted in a play, can they be sold by the photographer without my permission?

    Thanks!

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  45. Add point Subtract point
    Tony Black (1 Point) April 29, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    A most excellent article!

    Thank You,
    Tony

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  46. Add point Subtract point

    Just wondering….if I take pictures of a live show (band, singer etc.) in a public place, do I need a release from the band members to post the pics to my web site or netwok site for display / portfolio use or competition. Not planning on selling the photos.

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  47. Add point Subtract point
    Mr Web Design (1 Point) April 14, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    I’m sure a lot of photographers will get great benefit from this post. I’ll be sending this to a few of my friends as well. Thanks.

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  48. Add point Subtract point

    If you are in the UK get a copy of Beyond the Lens by the Association of Photographers, this is the essential legal textbook for any Undergrad, Post Grad or practicing photographer.
    It was certainly essential for my studies and subsequent work!

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  49. Add point Subtract point
    George (0 Points) March 29, 2009 at 2:46 am

    Interesting and useful, how do we put a watermark on the photos we publish to protect our copyright ? Can you tell us how to do it from scratch ?
    Thank you

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  50. Add point Subtract point
    Bruidsfotografie (1 Point) March 25, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Great post! This one goes right into my bookmarks.

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  51. Add point Subtract point
    Mr. Sifuentes (1 Point) March 20, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Awesome info. I’m getting back into photography and this will come in handy. I do have two questions. If I am paying my model do I need both a model release form & work for hire? I’ll be working with an art director as well who will build some sets for me and paint them. So would a work for hire contract still apply? Does the photographer still own the exclusive rights even if he hired a model, gaffer & art director? I do plan on selling these photos and will pay all who are involved. Thank you.

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  52. Add point Subtract point

    Great info here, well presented and quite clear. I wonder, though, if you’ve come across anything in print (as in legal) with regard to certain infrastuctures including bridges, in NYC. I’ve had numerous run-ins with police, all of whom insist that bridges are forbidden subject matter, but none can, or will provide an exact source of law or authority. Aside from answering me here, in this forum, if you could email me when and if time allows, I’d love to know what you think. Thanks.

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  53. Add point Subtract point

    Thank you. This article was very informative. I’m glad to know
    about this now.

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  54. Add point Subtract point

    very informative and useful……..i thoroughly enjoyed it..good job…… i apprecaite your hardwork….thanks

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  55. Add point Subtract point
    Houston Web Design (1 Point) November 10, 2008 at 2:05 am

    That clears up alot of questions I had about where and when. Good stuff

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  56. Add point Subtract point

    Thanks for this! I’m taking PDM (photography & Digital Media) next year as an elective & I really wanted to know this stuff. Thanks once again. :D

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  57. Add point Subtract point

    useful informations,
    thanks for sharing

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  58. Add point Subtract point

    A REALLY good read from a lead figure, Bruce Schneier, from the computer security industry:
    http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/06/the_war_on_phot.html

    “Fear aside, there aren’t many legal restrictions on what you can photograph from a public place that’s already in public view. If you’re harassed, it’s almost certainly a law enforcement official, public or private, acting way beyond his authority. There’s nothing in any post-9/11 law that restricts your right to photograph.

    This is worth fighting. Search “photographer rights” on Google and download one of the several wallet documents that can help you if you get harassed; I found one for the UK, US, and Australia. Don’t cede your right to photograph in public. Don’t propagate the terrorist photographer story. Remind them that prohibiting photography was something we used to ridicule about the USSR. Eventually sanity will be restored, but it may take a while.”

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  59. Add point Subtract point
    Look Smog (1 Point) September 27, 2008 at 4:42 am

    Thanks for this. Very usefull article.

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  60. Add point Subtract point

    Thanks everybody!
    I’ve been out of town and quite busy lately, so I haven’t been able to reply until now, sorry.

    @Tom J Nowell: I’m from Sweden myself, but yeah most of the text is based on the US/UK laws. Most laws around the EU are quite similar as well, but I don’t know much about specific photography related laws in places like Asia, Africa or South America.

    @Peter: Andrew W gave you a good answer that I think is correct as well. I don’t think you need a permit for a commercial shoot just because you’re in a public place. At least that is not the case here in Sweden, and it’s not something I’ve read on US/UK based photo sites.

    @Ryan Hicks: I haven’t read the book myself but it looks like a great resource (and way more detailed than this article was ever intended to be).

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  61. Add point Subtract point
    web design company (1 Point) September 24, 2008 at 3:59 am

    Photography is not a crime. Here is a great tutorial on digital rights.

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  62. Add point Subtract point

    thanks, really useful! I’ve been searching for this information since couple of weeks

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  63. Add point Subtract point

    now i didnt read this (no offense to the writer :/)but i did skim read, because i recently purchased a magazine on photography, and it had this letter sent in by someone who wanted to take a picture of there grandchildren in this theme park, the security stopped him from doing it because he isnt allowed to photograph children :S they also had an article covering this from top to bottom with a long list of do’s and dont’s.

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  64. Add point Subtract point

    Thx, great article. Good to know for the future…

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  65. Add point Subtract point
    Andrew W (1 Point) September 20, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    @Peter: I’m not positive, but I don’t think you need any kind of permit for a commercial shoot unless you’re a physical obstacle and/or need a police detail. So if you and your model are on a city sidewalk in front of a building and you’re using natural light, no permit needed. But if it’s you and your model, plus lighting equipment with wires strung to a power supply, and pedestrians can’t get around you without stepping into traffic, you’d need a permit simply so the city and the photographer both have it on record that you’ve had your safety obligations explained to you.

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  66. Add point Subtract point

    thanks … wonderful article

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  67. Add point Subtract point
    NaldzGraphics (1 Point) September 19, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    very helpful article.thanks for the post

    Ronald

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  68. Add point Subtract point

    This is very useful for those who want to start out in photography seriously! And a very useful information even for those who don’t :) just so everyone knows what they’re facing.

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    Ryan Hicks (1 Point) September 19, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Every photographer should have this book.
    It contains sample contracts from all kinds … weddings, portraits, model and property releases, and copyright transfers.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/158115206X
    Decent article for people just starting out in photography, and good to bring notice to the legal terms surrounding photography.

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  70. Add point Subtract point

    Thnaks for the publish, really good and usefull.

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  71. Add point Subtract point
    Dainis Graveris (1 Point) September 19, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    I study photographing in the academy too, but I never thought to dig so seriously deep. Great tips, I enjoyed this article, thanks! :)

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  72. Add point Subtract point

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know you need a permit from the city if you want to do a commercial photo shoot in a public place.

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    crazyhunk (1 Point) September 19, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    really usefulll stuff…. thanx al ot… :)

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  74. Add point Subtract point
    Tom J Nowell (2 Points) September 19, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Nice post, one thought though, can we assume you’re talking from the perspective of UK/USA laws?

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  75. Add point Subtract point

    nice post for the photographer, being a photographer myself this was useful to me and thanks for sharing

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  76. Add point Subtract point

    Wow, I’m not a photographer but I found this very useful to know. Especially as I am hoping on buying a camera at some point (hopefully) – Love the addition of a model release form, very good idea. Great post guys!

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