You probably don't think about the legality of taking photos very much, but it's more important than ever to be aware of your rights and responsibilities as a photographer--even if you aren't shooting covers for Time magazine. It's certainly true that the U.S. Constitution recognizes a formidable array of rights and freedoms; but when it comes to taking photos, in a lot of situations your rights aren't so clear-cut.
There's a lot you can do
First, the good news: Most people, most of the time, can simply take pictures and not worry about what is legal and what isn't. As a general rule, you can use a camera to take photos in public--on streets, on sidewalks, and in public parks--without restriction. As Aaron Messing, an attorney at OlenderFeldman LLP, puts it, "What can be seen from public can be photographed."
In fact, you can even take a picture of private property from public property--so if you were in front of Nicolas Cage's house, for instance, you could point your zoom lens over his gate and take a picture of the Batmobile, which (I presume) is parked in his driveway. That said, you need to be careful on this front. Matthew Harrison, senior partner of the Harrison Legal Group, says that if you have to climb a tree to get a peek at the Batmobile, it might qualify as intrusion, and that's a no-no. The bottom line? Don't attempt to violate anyone's privacy, and you should be okay.
It's worth noting, however, that your right to take pictures in public is not unlimited. Some municipalities have rules for managing photography in public spaces. Police in New York City, for example, can prevent you from setting up a tripod--which can get in the way on Manhattan's notoriously busy streets--without a permit. How do you obtain a permit? Contact City Hall. How do you know if the community has any special rules about photography? Contact City Hall.
Photos of people
Of course, if you're shooting photos in public for your own personal collection--vacation photos, for example--generally you can shoot to your heart's content. But if you think there's a chance you'll publish photos of people someday, you need to follow some rules. And when I say "publish," I mean pretty much every publishing platform or medium, from Flickr or Instagram to your own website to a magazine or newspaper.
The context is critical. If you are reporting on a news event or if your photos are considered newsworthy, you don't need the explicit permission of the people in the photo to publish the image. The same is true if your photo is considered fine art, and if you are not making a profit from the print.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.