Get the Shot: Tips on Gaining Access and Shooting Historical Locations

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For travel photographers, the path to getting the perfect shot is often strewn with hurdles. Through trial and error, as well as a lot of learning the hard way, I've ended up being able to walk away with some of my favorite photographs, thanks to proper planning and preparation. At other times, I’ve relied on stealth and a little bit of good luck to come away with a good photo. Sometimes, though, it’s just not meant to be.

When I began photographing travel imagery, I did not have a clue on how to secure permission to photograph in restricted areas. This led to several minor run-ins with police and security guards. These experiences made me rethink my method—or rather, lack of method—of trying to photograph in these difficult-to-shoot locations.

I now help other people get special permission to shoot some stunning locations, on the photography tours I lead with my new company, Dream Photo Tours. It’s a great feeling knowing that the photographers who join me are allowed some unique opportunities that they might not have otherwise.

The first negative experience I had while trying to photograph a popular interior location with a tripod occurred during my first trip to begin building my travel-photography portfolio. On the very first night of that trip, I was in Paris, and attempted to photograph the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral. No sooner did I pull out my tripod and click a few frames, than two security guards were all over me like maple syrup on pancakes. I had no idea at that point that tripods were not welcome in so many places around the world. That was the first lesson I learned. I may have been upset with them at the time but, in hindsight, they were just doing their job. I had no one to blame but myself for not planning ahead.



 

Little did I know, but this incident would lead to me getting my first National Geographic cover. Disheartened by the fact that I could not photograph the interior of this beautiful building, I left the church in a rather foul mood. After attempting to photograph the exterior of the church from a few different vantage points without much success, I found myself walking over to the Pont au Double to cross the Seine, on the way to the next location. I turned around briefly, to take one last glimpse of the cathedral, and decided to take a final shot of the iconic church. Two years later, that photograph rewarded me in ways I would've never imagined.

On that three-week trip to Europe, I can remember at least ten times that I was confronted or stopped by security and police. This made me miss out on several shots, so I either had to find a way to be sneaky or get the proper permission.

Ignorance is Bliss

"It's easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” ~ Admiral Grace Hopper

This old quote fits in so well with what photographers have to do to be able to get certain photographs. Let's take a look at some ways to get around the no-tripod or camera rules. Let me first say that I do not encourage anyone to break the law or rules. In fact, I strongly suggest following rules and working within them to be able to get the images that you are seeking.

Even if you know you're not allowed to use a tripod or camera in any specific area, you can always pretend like you did not know that these rules exist. This often allows you just enough time to get the shot you want. Scout the location first to know exactly where you want to place yourself to shoot and then wait for the perfect moment. Once you see no sign of anyone who might stop you, quickly set up your tripod and camera and grab your shot. As quickly as you set up, break it down. If you nailed the shot, there is no need to stick around for a possible confrontation. If you are confronted, be respectful, polite, and apologetic. If asked to leave, do so.


The Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
 

This was my exact strategy at one of the most beautiful churches in Rome. The Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls has a no-tripod policy, and I would have not even attempted to use mine were it not for the fact that the church was relatively empty on the day I visited. The photo above was the most important one for me to get, and I waited until there was no one else around, and made sure that I was obscured by pillars where I positioned myself. I had roughly two minutes to place my camera and tripod down, frame the shot, and get a series of bracketed exposures. Moments later a security guard saw me and was not very pleased with the fact that I was using a tripod. But by this point, I had my shot, so I moved on.

If stopped by security, don’t tell people that you’re a professional (if police are asking, be honest). For some reason, many security guards have something against pro shooters and are misinformed about the law. If you’re stopped, here are a few tips:

• Ask the person who has stopped you for their name.

• Ask them who their employer is.

• Ask them what rule or specific law you are breaking.

• Ask them if you are on private or public property and where the property line is.

• Ask them where you can get permission.

• Ask them if you’re being detained or free to leave.

• If you fear for your safety, call the police or ask someone to do so on your behalf.

• Do not delete your images or hand over memory cards. In most cases, no one has the right to seize film or data cards without a court order.

• If you are on private property and asked to leave, stop photographing and leave immediately.

• Always be polite (if nothing else, your mom will be proud).

Rainy Days and Mondays

Use bad weather to your advantage by going to places that would usually be busy. Visit during rainy, snowy, or any other kind of inclement weather. This helps if you don’t want people in your shot and want to reduce the chance of security guards giving you a hard time.

Here’s an example. During a heavy rainstorm in Paris, I decided to visit the war museum, veteran’s retirement home, and hospital known as L'Hôtel National des Invalides, or Les Invalides for short. This is also where Napoleon is entombed. Once again, no tripods allowed but I was able to bring mine in and spent an hour or more in the complex without seeing a single security guard. The rainfall was heavy that day, and the place was deserted. This worked well for getting the above exterior shot as well as several interior shots in the chapels.


 L'Hotel National des Invalides
 

Know Your Legal Rights

“Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.” ~Bob Marley

A great place for photography in Paris is the ultra-modern business district known as La Défense. I spent a few days shooting there in 2009, and loved all the sleek lines in the buildings. The only time I ever had any trouble at La Défense was when I was photographing one of the skyscrapers and a security guard came barreling out of the front doors and began to yell at me. He began to inquire who I was, what I was photographing, and for what purpose. This diminutive little fellow’s head was about to explode and I did everything in my power to hold back from bursting out in laughter. It really was a comical moment, but part of me was also scared that he would physically assault me.

I calmly asked him if there was a problem (this set him off even more) and went on to explain that I was just a tourist taking photos of the beautiful buildings. I also asked him to identify himself and let me know what authority he had. He told me that I was not allowed to take photos on the property of the building I was shooting. That’s fair, so I asked him if I was on their property and immediately his eyes began to bulge and I swear that I saw steam coming out of his ears. It was my good fortune that I was standing one meter outside the property line so he had no authority whatsoever. Knowing that he had blundered he began to walk away and then, as a parting shot, turned to me and yelled, “You’re also not allowed to photograph the interior of the building!”

Sigh… I guess if you’re going to have a Napoleon complex, Paris is the perfect city for it.

I was well within my rights in this case, and didn’t back down. I made sure to remain calm and non-confrontational, especially considering the demeanor of the security guard. Be aware that your legal rights will be different depending upon which country you're in. Make sure you know the local laws.


Tour EDF at La Défense in Paris
 

If confronted, it is good to know your rights in the country in which you’re taking pictures. Research that before you travel, or even if you're photographing in your home country, state, province, city, etc.

Photographers also need to understand that many places that are open to the public are not public property. Airplanes, libraries, shopping malls, arenas, train stations, airports, and more are subject to the rules and regulations imposed by the property owners. Know where the property lines are.

Some good resources for learning about your legal rights:

The Photographer’s Right

Know Your Rights: Photographers

Bust Card (UK)

Legal Rights of Photographers

Photography Laws in Canada

Photography Legal issues in Australia

Go Through Proper Channels

 “You create your opportunities by asking for them.” ~Shakti Gawain

While Admiral Hopper may be right about it being easier to ask for forgiveness, getting permission is usually the best way to make sure you get otherwise impossible-to-get shots.


 Guards Watching over the Holy Crown of Hungary, in the Hungarian Parliament
 

Some of the best photos I’ve taken have materialized due to proper planning. Going through proper channels doesn’t always get me the permission I’m seeking but it has opened up several possibilities for me to get photos of locations that are usually strictly off limits.

On a shoot in Austria, in 2011, I planned a side trip to Budapest after hearing so many good things about the city from colleagues and friends. After some research into what locations I wanted to shoot, I knew I’d have a hard time just winging it, so I decided to contact the tourism board for assistance.

Learning how to write a proper proposal is important if you’re approaching companies, destination marketing organizations, tourism boards, or any other entity where you are seeking permission to photograph. Presenting what you can offer in return for assistance is important and, in this case, I had a very positive experience. I sent an introductory email along with my media kit and offered to share a limited number of images with the tourism board in exchange for access to off-limit places like the Hungarian Parliament (pictured above) and the Hungarian State Opera House (pictured below). Having strong social media numbers helps your cause, and so does writing a popular blog. Online exposure is an important bargaining chip for me and that, coupled with limited usage on photos, can often get my foot in the door of some very special places.


The Hungarian State Opera House, in Budapest
 

There is no guarantee that I, or anyone, for that matter, will get permission when attempting to be granted access to off-limit places. In fact, I get refused quite a bit. One thing is certain though, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. When permission is granted, you may only have a very limited amount of time, so be prepared to start shooting as quickly as possible. You may just have a few minutes, even if you were told otherwise, so make the best of the time you have.

In Hungary, I was given a guide for four days and this proved indispensable, since it gave me credibility. I had proper paperwork and she obviously spoke Hungarian, which I do not. In other instances, even after getting permission, I’ve been refused access by the person I’m dealing with on the scene. Other times I’ve had the opposite experience and arrived at a place unannounced and was given the grand tour with permission to photograph.

If you really want a shot, keep trying and don’t quit.

“Never, never, never give up.” ~Winston Churchill

A few things that will help when approaching anyone for permission to photograph:

• Media Kit

• Professional portfolio website

• A solid proposal letter on your letterhead

• Finding the right person to contact regarding the permission you are seeking. Use their website and look for PR, Press, or Marketing contacts/links. Also, use LinkedIn to find the right people.

• Letter from your commercial or editorial client. If your shoot is commercial, be prepared to pay a fee. If editorial, the exposure may be welcome by whomever you’re asking permission from.

• An offer of limited photo usage in exchange for access

• While I don’t recommend this everywhere, $50-$100 slipped into a handshake can get you past security in a lot of places. Be smart about where you try this. Try using a smile before offering a “donation.”

• If one person says no, find out who their boss is and try contacting them.

• Plan well ahead of time. It may take months to be granted the access you seek. After all, you’re going to be dealing with bureaucrats and government agencies.

• An introduction from a friend or colleague of the person you’re approaching. In this case, like in so many other cases, it’s about who you know.

 

St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral, in London
 

It took me almost two years to get permission to shoot St. Paul’s in London. I sought permission a few weeks before my first visit to London and was granted access three weeks after returning home. Lucky for me, I was able to re-initiate contact with the proper authorities at the church last year and get permission to shoot in the church first thing in the morning, before they opened to the public. I still had to deal with cleaning crews and a few other obstacles, but did manage a few photos that I certainly would not have been able to get without going through the proper channels.

Good luck with your next attempt to get that special photo!

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice, nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. The information contained herein is no substitute for legal advice from an attorney, licensed in your state, and may or may not be applicable to your specific situation. You are strongly encouraged to consult with local counsel to discuss your individual circumstances.

 Ken Kaminesky is a veteran commercial travel photographer, Fujifilm Global AmbassadorZeiss Lens Ambassador, writer, consultant, and entrepreneur with decades of experience in the photography industry. His work has been featured worldwide in numerous commercial and editorial publications, including the New York Times and on the cover of National Geographic. His passion for travel and the incredible landscapes and people he encounters along the way are the inspiration for his popular blog, and the other publications for which he writes. As one of the founders and tour leaders at Dream Photo Tours, he gets the chance to share his love for travel and photography with avid photo enthusiasts from all over the world. His favorite place in the world is always his next destination.

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Clever article. Thanks for the tips. Careful though, you can get away with this type of approach in most of the more "civilized" countries. In others, they don't care what we feel "our rights" are. Remember, you are in their country with their rules and their laws. In many countries they don't have the same value for rights, rules or human life as we do. Sneak some images of the wrong things or the wrong people in many Southern Asian, Middle Eastern, or North or West African countries and you may just as easily end up on the wrong side of an M-16. They won't care about your manners, your rights or your language that they don't understand. They often won't even know what a memory card is and may want to confiscate or destroy your camera. In some cases they will just see you as wealthy and may even be in cahoots with the local police. 

Depending upon where you travel you may quickly learn the hard way that you aren't in Kansas any more Dorothy. :)

Nice images by the way.

Totally agree, a Bahraini colleague of mine spent three days in a Qatari jail for taking photos in the wrong location and is banned from ever travelling to Qatar again!

Hey Greg,

I'd NEVER suggest anyone take any undue risks or chances. This applies at home but yes, especially in foreign countries. Common sense applies in most situations. There is a big difference between trying to sneak a shot inside a church or attempting to photograph anywhere in Canary Wharf as opposed to photographing a military building or high security area like a water filtration plant. Any photographer with an arrogant sense of entitlement will eventually end up in trouble. I'd like to think that even when I bend the rules, I'm respectful and never put anyone in danger... Including myself. :-)

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I was taking panoramic photo's of snow covered mountains behind a reservoir near a building in lower New York State. It said no parking and no photos allowed. Of the building. I got my 6-8 shots to stitch it all together. Just after I got everything apart. Camera off tripod and back in case. Tripod closed, I got in the car and started driving away. Just as I left two cop cars came and pulled me over. One blocked me in, the other blocked off the road. There were four cops all together. The two that blocked the street stayed out there. The other two in the other car came on both sides with there hands on their guns. My dog was barking like crazy. They questioned me. I told them what I was had took pictures of. This was back in the film cameras and couldn't show them. After 9/11. They ran my info and let me go. They must of had cameras there that I didn't see. I looked before I stopped and didn't see any. 

So which legal right are you referring to in this sentence? "Even if you know you're not allowed to use a tripod or camera in any specific area, you can always pretend like you did not know that these rules exist."  To be fair, it is a little disingenuous to be championing photographer rights in one paragraph and smugly telling others how to get away with breaking them in the next....

"Deception" is the underlying, unspoken tone of the advice in this article; I'm surprised B&HPhoto effectively endorses the approach... tied directly to their name. B&H could have easily said "sorry, but..." I'm inclinded to suggest B&H is more at fault, than the writer.

Existing credentials and accomplishments of a photographer writing the story is irrelevant; sadly, because of accomplishments or because he is a "professional" the actions carry an implied endorsement, "how to get away with things." One might suggest, "excuses." A similar theme used by teenagers: why they did "xyz" - followed by the well-worn reason "but everyone else does it." A twisted way of saying I'm not sorry for what I did, but I'm embarrassed that I got caught.

Using deception coming from a professional, published by B&H under a theme of "advice" - two wrongs do not make a right!

A phtogtapher is an artist, if not free his or her art is undermined. Even Presidents pass on a coin in the palms!

Thank you -Thank you Just a beganer.

Like Ken, I too have been in Paris's famous Notre Dame Cathedral, and taken interior photos with a tripod, first with slide film in 1985, then in 2012 with a Nikon D700 DSLR mounted on a tripod. The key is indeed stealth, and being prepared. I sat in a pew in the back of the church, and extended the legs of my black, Manfrotto 190CX3 carbon fibre tripod, hidden from view. I fully assembled my cam and shutter release cable, then setup the height I wanted, all while sitting in the pew. Keeping an eye out for where the guards were, I then setup my cam in the middle of the corridor pointed towards the altar, firing off a series of bracketed images in manual mode. Just as quickly, I moved back in the pew, verified my images were sharp, then quickly collapsed the tripod, hiding it inside its padded black case. Misson accomplished!

Sometimes, I have braced myself against a door frame to get a steady shot. This was done in St Petersburg's famous Winter Palace, and also at Chateau Versailles in France. Of course I had to raise my ISO to 1600, but I came away with some stunning photos.

Sometimes though, you have no choice but to ask authorities for permission to use a tripod. For the Eau Musicales (The Musical Waters) and fireworks staged at Chateau Versailles, held only on Saturday nights, I emailed the media department in advance, with my credentials and links to my website. A day later, I received a PDF at my hotel, which I printed out and brought with me. Everytime I setup my tripod, I was approached by security. In a courteous and friendly manner, I showed them the authorization and all was fine.

The key as Ken has stated, is to stay calm and not make a scene. Plan ahead, research, look at websites for your intended destination, get contacts, and assemble a shoot list of what you want to photograph. Find out what the local laws are, be pleasant and above all smile, and you will do fine. Do try to learn the local works for Hello, Please and Thank You! Even if you don't know the languange, something as simple as "S'il **** plâit" (please in French) can go a long way to getting what you want.

And just remember... "Nothing ventured, nothing gained!"

Cheers,

Frederic from Montréal
http://www.RemarkableImages.ca

Thank you for this article, I think it will be helpful in the future.  I was disappointed to find out AFTER I got to London that St. Paul's does not allow interior photography.

I do, however, take a bit of issue with photographing the inside of churches on the sly.  These are still places of worship and taking pictures when you know that pictures aren't allowed is a bit disrespectful in my opinion.  Many churches that are open to the public as tourist attractions have information on their websites about their camera/tripod policies and it pays to check ahead.  For example, Southwark Cathedral allows photography for a three pound fee.

One last thing - I had permission to take pictures in St. George's Catholic Church in the Pimlico area but chose not to do so because there were people praying in the sanctuary.  I left without pictures, but that was much better than disturbing people at prayer.

Some people still have that 'old fashioned' virtue called 'character'. Kudos to you!

I took the photo of the church while there was no one in it. They do allow photos, just not tripods. I always respect when there is a service going on and if I'm asked to stop, I do. Besides, I don't want people in my photos anyway. What I do as a photographer is showcase the beauty of the places I capture and I think this shows a lot of respect and honours the place. 

Bear in mind that in France and several other countries the basis of law is the Napoleonic Code, under which there is NO presumption of innocence.  If you are arrested in those countries it is up to you to prove you are innocent, unlike the US and Great Britain where there is (by law) a presumption of innocence.  Caveat photographer!

 I am 83 years old and have used the excuse of being aa little senile and not understand the rules plus walking with a cane helps which I realy need to do.

Ken: I believe your photo of St. Paul''s is absolutely spectacular and is exactly the kind of photograph I would love to be able to take. Would it be possible that you share your technical information on it: lens,aperture,ISO,shutter speed, white balance,lighting equipment,etc.? I am having lots of trouble with WB in this kind of pictures. Congratulations on truly beautiful shots!!!!  Best regards from Monterrey,Mexico.