Photography involves participating in the mortality, vulnerability, and mutability of another person (or thing). It is usually about catching the most intimate moments of one’s life. Since, in most cases, photographs involve different subjects being portrayed, every photographer needs to know how to use them legally.

There are many rules and regulations for photographers to learn about photography rights and what can be done with the images without the photographer’s or the subject’s consent. Following are eight photography laws that every photographer in the United States should know.

Free Speech

Photographers have a constitutional right to photograph in public places. However, photographing a protest, an event with a heavy police presence, or government-owned buildings may violate free speech laws. If a person stands in the way as law enforcement officials attempt to do their work, they may request that the person move. While authorities will most likely ask a photographer to put away his or her gear, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explains that there may be recourse in case of an arrest. Consider the following tips:

  • Public photography laws cover taking pictures and documenting events in public spaces. Private and public property photography differ, however. Private property owners can set their own photography, videography, and documentation rules, so it is important to be aware of the different rules for the location.
  • You may ask why you are being detained and if you are allowed to leave. When dealing with police officials or federal authorities, always be calm and respectful.
  • Authorities must obtain a warrant to take a person’s video footage or photographs. 
  • Audio wiretapping laws are used by some states to obtain control over audio, but these may not apply to visual recordings.

Use The Right Contracts for the Right Work

A well-drafted contract can help the photographer communicate clearly with clients. Creating a clearly written contract can prevent misunderstandings and build strong relationships between the photographer and his or her clients. According to photo ownership laws, the photographer owns the photo, not the subject.

Whether media photographers, portrait photographers, or others, people in the photography business must also learn which contracts are best for the business when selling photographs to online or print publications. When evaluating contracts with publishers, a photographer should consider the rights he or she has to work. Lawrina offers samples and templates of photography contracts to guide photographers in creating effective contracts.

Commercial vs. Non-commercial Use

The law regarding photography clearly states that a photographer cannot sell anything containing someone’s image without that person’s permission. Commercial use refers to using pictures, whether or not you are being paid directly for the image, to market your photography business. Non-commercial use includes the scholarly, artistic, or educational use of images in ways that are not marketed or sold. 

There is no expectation of privacy in a public place, such as a shopping mall, but a photographer cannot use photos for commercial purposes if they are taken in a private environment. A release form is required from any recognizable person in the image in order to use the photograph for commercial purposes.

Street Photography Laws, Photojournalism, and Rights

Licensing images let other people use the images for profit. This may be to create products to sell or to use the images for publicity. Using a licensing template, a photographer can sell photographs or allow others to use them under Creative Commons. The rights provided include the following:

Photography Rights

Commercial use — In advertising, promotions, coupons, or other money-making endeavors, these rights allow a person or organization to use an image for profit.

Digital rights — A photographer grants another entity the right to use a digital version of an image. If the entity wishes to use the image for commercial gain, commercial rights must be requested and given. No hard copy is provided.

Editorial rights — Images are used for magazines, blogs, and educational publications for noncommercial purposes.

Exclusive rights — The image may be sold in any way the owner chooses, as these rights give full control over its use.

First-use rights — These are the rights to use something first, usually for a limited time. The photograph will be exclusive to that organization or individual for 30 calendar days before the photographer can resell it or use it.

Non-exclusive rights — Unless a clause is included in a contract preventing the sale of the work, those with these rights can sell the image to more than one person.

One-time use rights — The use of photographs is limited to the terms set in the contract. One-time use is an excellent option for photojournalists and others who cover events and other news.

Second rights — After the first rights have expired, second rights or reprint rights allow the holder to resell or reprint the work. These rights typically include a request to cite the original photographer.

Serial rights — The work is licensed to be printed in a newspaper, magazine, or periodical (serial) before the photographer grants further rights, such as for a book.

Drone Photography Laws

The use of drones for photography is becoming increasingly complex, but a drone operator license is currently required. It is legal to take aerial drone photographs under FAA Part 107 rules. The photographer must follow the state’s drone operator license requirements and privacy laws. Before flying drones or taking images with drone cameras, check local and state regulations.


Watermarks ensure that those who may not understand copyright law will know that a photograph belongs to the photographer. Because sharing on social media is so prevalent, professional photographers like to use watermarks to protect their work.

Watermarks identify the creator of an image. Logos can be incorporated in the corner of a photograph and/or transparent text can be present across the image. There are two significant advantages to using a watermark, even though it cannot completely prevent theft:

  • If an image is re-posted, viewers can identify its creator.
  • Anyone who removes the watermark (by cloning or cropping in Photoshop) to conceal their infringement has committed a crime under Section 1202 of the U.S. Copyright Act. Fines can range from $2,500 to $25,000.

Place a watermark at the bottom or corner of the image and set the opacity to 50 percent. This way, the watermark is visible without distracting from the image itself.

Photography Release Forms

A photography release form is a simple contract between the photographer and the subject. Whether the images are being published for profit or not, it is wise to obtain signed releases from everyone in the photos. The law on taking photos without permission is very clear. Using someone’s image for a commercial purpose without a release form is illegal in the US. Laws concerning filming in public protect photographers and private citizens. A photographer cannot make money off someone’s recognizable image without that person’s permission in the form of a signed release. 

Lawrina’s photography legal photo release form samples can be customized to individual needs, saved, and downloaded for future use.

Photography Copyright

A photographer’s work is protected by copyright law in the United States. Here are some basics to remember:

  • Even if the work is published on social media or stored on a hard drive, memory chip, or cloud, it still belongs to the photographer.
  • The photographer owns the copyright once the work is published, regardless of the medium.
  • Owning photography work does not require legal paperwork.
  • Showing work is also covered by copyright.

For work that a photographer does for hire, copyright doesn’t apply in the same way. If working under a contract that stipulates that the photographer is for hire, the owner of the work is the one who hired the photographer.

The following are a few tips for photographers to protect their photos from unauthorized use under copyright laws:

  • Contracts and photo release forms should include copyright statements.
  • Stamp or sticker the back of prints with a copyright mark. 
  • Every page of a photographer’s website should have a copyright tag. 
  • Watermark social media photos with copyright marks.

If your work is being used in unauthorized ways, request its removal right away. In most cases, unintentional infringers are using images that they found online. However, if they don’t cooperate, send a cease-and-desist letter. Also consider consulting an attorney for guidance on the appropriate next steps.

Ultimate Checklist To Set Up Photography Businesses 

The following is a list of the steps to take when setting up your photography business:

The Takeaways 

For your photography business to grow and succeed, you must understand the laws of photography and the legal rights of photographers. The best way to avoid legal problems is to know your local regulations, use contracts suitable for your type of photography business, and have signed release forms or contracts to ensure that you can use images that include people.