Is it better, photographically speaking, to ask for forgiveness or for permission?
Well, it depends, of course. For me, it depends on the general class of shot, the kind and availability of permission needed, and how feasible it is to get that permission. Now I’m a piratical old coot, so generally tend to get the shot first and apologize later. But you can’t be brainless about it.
Public property, urban settings, etc — if taxes built it, I own it, so I can photograph it. No permission needed, and I don’t care what the rentacops may say in this post-9/11 world. If there’s a nuclear site or a military base involved, well maybe permission would be a good idea. But pictures of infrastructure like dams, bridges, locks? Help yourself.
Malls and shopping centers, though privately owned, are considered public spaces and so you can shoot anything you want..
Photographing emergencies. Go right ahead. The cops, firemen, EMT people have no right to make you stop photographing. They DO have the right to do their jobs without interference. My rule of thumb: shoot, but don’t get in their faces.
If hassled, be polite, but carry this little flyer on “legal rights of photographers” in your camera bag and show it to any official or rentacop who is interfering with your legal right to photograph. Do not agree to hand over your equipment, including memory cards, or to erase them. (But keep a file recovery program on your computer at home, just in case).
Private property. You do not need permission to shoot almost anything, almost anywhere in the United States. You cannot be arrested (legally) for shooting pictures of private property, but you CAN be ordered off private property if the owner doesn’t want you there. That’s how Google gets away with their street view photographs. They stay off the properties they’re shooting.
My rule of thumb with private property is “ask first if it isn’t urgent.” Asking first can really pay off. The other day I was searching for a new and better site to take pictures of the Cincinnati skyline. I ran across a kid on a small motor scooter and asked him. He said, “follow me” and threaded us through a maze of small streets until VOILA. A really good site, but the ideal location was in a back yard. It being a Sunday afternoon I was able to find the landowner, and he was delighted to let me shoot — seems he’s had lots of trouble with trespassers and was just happy someone was polite enough to ask.
Not only did I follow through, I was asked to join him and his family for the monster fireworks display on Sept. 1.
Here’s what asking permission got me
People shots. People shots are permissible in public places or in private ones by permission. You can’t barge into your girlfriend’s bathroom, yell “Surprise!” and shoot her in the tub. She can order you out of there and sue your sorry butt off if you publish or sell those photos because she had a reasonable right to privacy. Not true if it’s a couple making out on a park bench. Quite obviously they’ve abandoned their right to privacy.
So if it’s a shot that tells a story, or conveys some deep human quality or trait, I’ll take the shot. But if it’s feasible to ask permission, I’ll do that, too.
Caution: You can shoot almost anything or anyone, but what you do with the photos is another matter.
You can publish people photos for what’s called editorial use, but if you want to imply that the person in the picture is endorsing some product or service, you’d better have a model release handy. Likewise, if your shot is taken to make them look bad or to cast their character in a bad light, think twice before publishing the photo (and that especially includes Facebook!)
Closed or fenced off areas on public lands. This one is tricky. Some areas are closed off for “CYA” reasons, others are truly dangerous, and some are closed off for the convenience of bureaucrats. Government CYA does not keep you from shooting. But if it’s a matter of safety — that is YOUR business. Hop over the fence above Niagra Falls? Probably not a good idea. My rule of thumb is to assess the situation. What are the risks? How dangerous is this? Is the photograph worth the risk?
I have to admit that as I age (now in my late 60s) I’m not as sure-footed as I used to be. So maybe I won’t try crossing that roaring stream by dancing from one moss-covered boulder to the next. But if the shot were really, really, worth it, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Yep, get out there where I can actually take the photo. If the shot is truly important, I’ll do what it takes to get it.
But if they won’t find the body for a few weeks or months, and there’s a reasonable chance you might fall, it might be worth a second though before you hop over the fence. This is a matter of judgment — yours against some agency determined to err on the side of safety. Don’t be an idiot about it, but you do have the right to shoot on public lands. Period. Fences don’t abridge that right, they just make it difficult to exercise it. Sometimes for good reason!
So here’s my tip of the day: Shoot what and where you want to, but do not leave your brains or your good manners at home.