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Three Common Legal Mistakes of the Uninformed Photographer

Photography isn’t rocket science, nor is it a legal minefield like an episode of Law & Order. It’s not an especially complicated venture, particularly if you spend the time that’s necessary to learn how to operate your gear, compose good photos, and stay on the right side of the law.

Unfortunately, many photographers neglect that third step or just skip it altogether, but that’s just a recipe for getting yourself into deep trouble. Let’s take a closer look at four legal mistakes that photographers make, and what you can do to avoid them.

Copyright Issues

Perhaps the biggest issue that photographers encounter is when other people or organizations infringe upon their copyrights. A blogger that uses one of your images without permission, for example, is violating your copyright to that image.

Copyright is yours the moment you create an image. It does not need to be claimed. Where things get tricky is when the images you take are part of an agreement with an employer.

For example, if you’re hired by a company to take photos of one of their products, the chances are that you will be required to sign a contract that stipulates transfer of copyright of the images to your employer. In that case, even though you take the photos, they do not belong to you. In this scenario, should you use one of those images for your own purposes, like in your portfolio, without getting permission from your employer, you’d be violating that image’s copyright, even though you took the image.

Of course, the best rule of thumb here is to read any contracts you sign word for word, line for line. If you aren’t clear about who retains the copyright or why, ask questions! Discuss the details of the contract with your employer, and if need be, have a legal counsel have a look as well. Copyright infringement is serious business, and you certainly don’t want your reputation tarnished by violating copyright law.

Lack of a Service Agreement

Whenever you work with client, it’s absolutely imperative that you have an iron-clad service agreement with them. In it, you need to stipulate exactly what it is that you will provide the client within the bounds of the job. An agreement should also cover copyright issues as explained above, and should specifically outline what the client will get in terms of product from you. Will they receive prints only, or will digital files be included? If so, how many digital files will you provide? Also explain what the client can and cannot do with any digital photos you provide to them. A possible restriction might be that they cannot edit the images in any way, lest they murder it in Photoshop and put it on social media for the world to see as your work.

Another common issue when it comes to the service agreement is clearly stating that the client will not receive all the images you take, nor will they even be able to see all the images you take. This is an important provision because you will certainly have images that are total stinkers and not worth the client’s’ time to look at. What’s more, if a sub-par image were to get out and your client were to post it online, it’s your reputation, not theirs, that’s on the line. As a result, you want to control what’s leaving your hands so that the product that’s out there is top-notch.


If you’re on public land, you’re usually good to go. The problem with trespassing usually occurs in one of three ways: you venture onto private land without knowing it, you initially have permission to be on private land, but you overstay your welcome and are asked to leave (and don’t do so in a timely fashion), or you purposefully circumvent no trespassing signs or other indications of private property (like fences) to get the shots you want.

To make matters a little more complicated is that trespassing is simply the act of being someplace you shouldn’t be, and does not govern what you’re doing. So, while you might be breaking the law jumping a fence to take a photo of an old, abandoned building, the owner of that property can only escort you off his or her land; they cannot legally take your photos or equipment. That is, unless they post a No Photography sign. In that case, you might be welcome to explore the property without any worry, but as soon as you pull out your camera and take pictures, you’re trespassing.

Of course, the laws governing trespassing vary from location to location. What’s illegal in the United States might well be perfectly legal in another country. In fact, what’s illegal in one U.S. state might be perfectly legal in a neighboring state. The most prudent thing to do is inquire with local authorities before venturing into an unknown area. The more effort you put into being informed about local laws, the more likely you are to stay on the right side of them!


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