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Can I take the picture? Public place?

Robin Luchko , May 15, 2003; 10:55 a.m.

I have been searching for help on when I can take a picture. I photograph old stone work. Run down buildings, churches, tonbstones and the like. If I see an old cemetery I stop and take pictures of the stones. My question is do I need permission to publish them? Lets say for example I am in Deleware, I see an old church with a cemetery attached. It is not gated or locked, I do not see a No Tresspassing sign, I walk in. I see some lovely stones and take pictures of them and interesting details on the church. Do need the permission of the church to print them? Do I need the permission of the family that owns the plot to take a pictue of the stone? Is permission from the church enough?

Here's another question also. I visited a cemetery and was told that if I wanted to take pictures, I would have to pay double the entrance fee. I agreed and paid, because some of the stone work was amazing. Are these my photos to do what I please with?

I have read many article about permission and releases for people, but I can't put my question in that category. does any one have any suggestions?


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Keith Van Hulle , May 15, 2003; 12:26 p.m.

From your description, you may have issues. You don't say whether the photos will be used for commercial purposes. Do you plan to make money off of them? If so, then 9 times out of 10 you'll need a property release. Regardless of whether you can access a location, especially if the property if considered private (a church or cemetery is not a city park or a city sidewalk), you'd best play it safe and get a release. Paying an entrance fee to a security guard does not constitute permission to photograph with commercial intent.

However, if these shots are just to hang on your wall or gift to friends and family, then you're probably OK (unless someone makes a stink while you're shooting). Trying to explain to someone that you're just taking a picture of a grave for the fun of it as artistic expression may be another story. You may also want to check out the book "Legal Handbook for Photographers".

Marshall Goff , May 15, 2003; 12:50 p.m.

Robin - There is a fair amount of info on this topic in the archives. In general, my understanding meshes with Keith's. If they're just for your walls and/or for friends, then it'd be unlikely anyone who cared would ever notice (after you've left the property, of course). The line really gets crossed if you talk about commercial use, especially published commercial use (which is more likely to be noticed), though any commercial use falls under many of the same restrictions.

Mikael Karlsson , May 15, 2003; 01:53 p.m.


If the photographs are used in an editorial way (i.e. to illustrate an article in a magazine or newspaper or on the insides of a book) you do not need a release. In professional photography the word "commercial" has bupkiss to do with if the image is sold for money or not. The meaning of "commercial" here is the opposite of editorial, i.e. to sell/advertise a product or service and for commercial usage you need a release.

Hope this clears things up a bit.

Erb Duchenne , May 15, 2003; 02:01 p.m.

There's a lot of grey area here, but if you're into commercial photography then you should consider turning grey to black and white. Get formal permission, release, permit... whatever. If you can't then consider not publishing. It's easier to safeguard your skin than to repair burnt skin.

The Petronas Twin Towers is one of the most photographed buildings in Kuala Lumpur. But what millions of tourists and locals don't know is that we're not allowed to photograph the towers without a permit. I've shot it countless times myself, and nobody cares. The guards won't run up to every photographer panting just to say, "Hey! You're not allowed to shoot." After all, they don't really care, nor can they police anyone who feels like having a picture of the towers in their album. But if you're lugging around bags of professional equipment and/or a tripod, as I was one morning, you'd be stopped and told very nicely not to shoot and where to go for permit application. Of course this only occurs within the towers' grounds, including a huge park and several buildings surrounding it. But since the towers can be seen from miles away in all directions...

Nice ornate headstones are another thing. I guess you can get away with it if you can't read the name and message clearly, like, "Here lies XXX, husband, father..." But if it's not too much trouble getting the black & white... then why not?

Alex Lofquist , May 15, 2003; 02:37 p.m.

If you can't afford to photograph cemeteries, I understand that they have a layaway plan.

Scott Aitken , May 15, 2003; 04:04 p.m.

You appear to be blending two completely unrelated questions. There is the question of permission to take photos if you are on private property (nearly all churches and cemeteries and such are private property). Then there is the question of the need for a property release.

Generally, you can photograph anything you want, as long as you are standing on public property (in the USA). Rules for private property are another matter. Regardless of whether or not there are "no trespassing" signs, if you walk on to private property to take a photo, the owner of that property can demand that you stop and leave the property. Private property owners can charge you for permission to enter the property and take photos (though whether you feel that is reasonable or not is entirely up to you).

Permission to enter the property and take photos is absolutely not the same as a property release for commercial purposes. Actually, the need for a property release is very similar to the need for a model release. If you are not using the photos for commercial purposes, you don't need a release. Print them all you want, use them for editorial purposes, whatever. If you want to sell the photos for use in advertisements, however, then you need a signed commercial property release. A release is generally not necessary if you are taking a picture of a city skyline, but is necessary if you are taking a picture of a single identifiable building. Property releases are worded very similarly to model releases, only property information replaces model information. It can be a little tricky figuring out who can legally sign the release, and it varies in different countries. Sometimes it is the property owner, sometimes it is the architect or designer. I'm not sure who's permission you need if you wanted to use a picture of a recognizable headstone for commercial use. Seek advice from a real attorney if you are getting in to it this far.

A link you should read if you want to know your rights when shooting from a public place is here: "Photographers Rights". I also second the advice to read the "Legal Handbook for Photographers".

Frank Uhlig , May 15, 2003; 04:18 p.m.

Two related questions:

(A) Can Robin obtain royalties, say 1 $ per copy sold, if and when she publishes a book of her stone photos; or is this "commercial" and also needs a "release"

(B) Can Robin's pictures be used as - say chapter heading pages for a book, technical or literary - without a release. Or is this also "commercial use", though she may gain nothing from this except her name in that book.

(C) I am well aware if you use a gravestone photo for a life insurance add (commercial), you need a release by the dead body underneath the stone or the estate, graveyard owner, church, ... , but what about (A) and/or (B)?

Keith Van Hulle , May 15, 2003; 07:28 p.m.

Shoot, Frank, you'd probably need something like a 5th-level cleric in order to get a signature for (c) above. Probably be easier to get a pre-release version of Canon's or Nikon's next DSLR.

Oliver S. , May 16, 2003; 08:56 a.m.

I'm with Keith on this, especially with what he wrote in his first post. From what I know about the legal side, he is correct.

Regarding who is to issue/sign a release, it's the owner of the church or estate the graveyard is on. You can't get the entire council of elders to gather just to sign a permit for some photographer, but such councils usually have a proxy for such administrative matters.

Being involved in a Catholic parish myself, I might be able to comment on the situation in Catholic parisches: there the parish priest is responsible for such administrative affairs. As he's usually not available (I'm speaking from experience--ever met a CEO who could spare a few minutes?), you may have some difficulty getting the permit.

Whether photographing the grave of a person you have no connection whatever to is ethically OK is another matter. I generally don't do that, no matter how aesthetically interesting her/his tombstone is, because I feel it were an intrusion into the family's privacy. That may be the reason why an administrator refuses to allow photography in a graveyard.

Old graveyards might be another story. In Europe, we have former graveyards turned public parks, or ancient tombstones decorating the exterior of churches. Photographing there shouldn't pose a problem, but then these graveyards and tombstones were built before the Pilgrim Fathers reached America.

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