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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:
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 Ambassador, Zeiss 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.|