Is a Permit Required for Photography on Public Lands?

El Capitan in Clouds - Copyright Carolyn E. Wright


As far back as 2005, we have been reporting here about photographers being falsely told that they need a permit to take photographs in National Parks and on federal lands. In 2008, NANPA shared its attempts to clarify the laws on this. Photographer Jeff Conrad (check his cool Sun/Moon Calculator) has an extensive summary on the laws on this issue.

On August 22, 2013, the Department of the Interior published the new rule to establish permits and reasonable fees for commercial filming activities or similar projects and certain still photography activities in an effort to clarify when a permit is required.

When a permit is required

Most significant to photographers, the rule: “Defines commercial filming and still photography and explains which activities require a permit, thereby ensuring consistency among agencies in the Department of the Interior (DOI).”  The pertinent part of the new rule states:

§ 5.2 When do I need a permit for commercial filming or still photography?

(a) All commercial filming requires a permit.
(b) Still photography does not require a permit unless:

(1) It uses a model, set, or prop as defined in § 5.12; or
(2) The agency determines a permit is necessary because:

(i) It takes place at a location where or when members of the public are not allowed; or
(ii) The agency would incur costs for providing on-site management and oversight to protect agency resources or minimize visitor use conflicts.

(c) Visitors do not require a permit for filming or still photography activities unless the filming is commercial filming as defined in § 5.12 or the still photography activity involves one of the criteria listed in § 5.2 (b).

§ 5.12 defines:

Model means a person or object that serves as the subject for commercial filming or still photography for the purpose of promoting the sale or use of a product or service. Models include, but are not limited to, individuals, animals, or inanimate objects, such as vehicles, boats, articles of clothing, and food and beverage products, placed on agency lands so that they may be filmed or photographed to promote the sale or use of a product or service. For the purposes of this part, portrait subjects such as wedding parties and high school graduates are not considered models, if the image will not be used to promote or sell a product or service.

Sets and props means items constructed or placed on agency lands to facilitate commercial filming or still photography including, but not limited to, backdrops, generators, microphones, stages, lighting banks, camera tracks, vehicles specifically designed to accommodate camera or recording equipment, rope and pulley systems, and rigging for climbers and structures. Sets and props also include trained animals and inanimate objects, such as camping equipment, campfires, wagons, and so forth, when used to stage a specific scene. The use of a camera on a tripod, without the use of any other equipment, is not considered a prop.

In response to Comment 1, the rule explains:

The general rule is that still photography does not require a permit. We have edited the language of 43 CFR 5.3(b) to clarify the still photography permit requirements of Public Law 106–206 and renumbered it as § 5.2(b). This regulation implements the three circumstances listed in the law where a permit for still photography is or may be required. We will require a permit for still photography when the activity uses models, sets, or props, and we may require a permit when the photographer wants to enter an area closed to the public or when on-site management is necessary to protect resources or to avoid visitor conflicts. However, we anticipate that most still photographers will not fall into these categories and will not need a permit to take photographs on lands managed by DOI agencies.

What you pay for a permit

If your photographer activity is commercial, the next question is what you pay for the permit. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture propose to adopt a fee schedule for commercial filming and still photography conducted on public lands under their jurisdiction. The specifics of the proposal are available at Written comments on the proposal will be accepted until Monday, September 23, 2013, and should be submitted to: (put “Commercial Filming Fee Schedule” in the subject line). Jeff Conrad has authorized us to share his comments here.

In sum, the new rule appears to be good news for photographers. We hope now that the Rangers will stop hassling photographers.


Author: Carolyn Wright

Carolyn E. Wright, a/k/a the Photo Attorney®, is a recently-retired attorney whose practice was aimed squarely at the legal needs of photographers.