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Your 7 Step Guide To Photography Permits

By Pye Jirsa on July 26th 2017

The latest buzz around Southern California’s photography community is centered around the permit citations being given out in Laguna Beach. This Orange County haven is riddled with photographers, both amateur, professional and recreational, just trying to get epic sunsets and that gorgeous, teal California ocean.

Photography permits are nothing new but the enforcement of commercial photography permits is getting stricter by the day, especially with new equipment like drones invading the privacy of residents located near popular shooting spaces, and thus permits are becoming more necessary than ever.

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Don’t know where to start when it comes to permit acquisition or purchase? We answered a few commonly asked questions about photography permits that will help you out before your next shoot.

[REWIND: Photography Lighting Tips | Faking OCF With An On Camera Speedlight And A Silver Reflector]

1. When do you need a photography permit?

You can assume that regardless of what state/city you are in, if you are shooting in public or state parks/recreational areas that a permit is required for commercial use. The reason it’s not frequently discussed is because in most states/parks it goes fairly unnoticed, rangers aren’t out citing people or the park is big enough you won’t get caught.

If you live in high production areas or metropolitan areas then enforcement is going to be far more strict because there is money in production and they know that enforcing these laws will yield revenue in areas/cities where production frequently occurs.

We’d recommend always shooting with a permit, but if you are in high production cities/states it’s really more of a requirement than a suggestion. You can risk it, but the chances of getting penalized are far greater in these locations.

2. How much do photography permits cost?

They range from $50 to a whopping $1,000 depending on the location.  Sometimes the permits are free, but still required, so check the location before you go, but it’s safe to assume a permit is required.

3. where do i purchase a photography permit?

Research online to see who/what manages the property you will be shooting on. For state parks, they will have a link on their site and it will detail if you need to purchase a yearly, monthly, or daily permit.  For public/municipal parks they will often have a place where you can permit a certain number of local parks for a year. If applying online isn’t an option you can always call the facility if an office is available for contact.

For example, here is the Orange County Parks photography permit registration link, and you can see how easy the process is by testing the form out.

4. Do i need to carry my photography permit on my shoot?

Chances are locations that require permits will enforce the possession of them. Have them on hand in the chance an officer requests

5. Benefits of having a photography permit

Photographers are often disrespectful; parking illegally, littering, climbing and walking in areas they shouldn’t, etc. Those that permit are generally far more respectful of rules, thus, when you run into other photographers who have bought permits, it’s easier to work with them and share the location because they are more likely to be considerate.

Laguna Beach has become so busy with shoots that it’s often difficult to even find a place to shoot without having another photographer in the background. When you are working with paying clients and are paying for permits, this is a really crappy situation given most other photographers aren’t. Enforcement ensures that those with the right to be there can actually shoot and have a good experience.

Permitting cuts down on inappropriate public shoots. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Laguna Beach with my clients (engagement, wedding, family, etc) and next to us is a bikini shoot, often in the nude. These are public beaches and family locations. No problem with boudoir/nude/bikini shoots, but they need to be done in the appropriate places.

6. if you don’t have a photography permit

Obviously obtaining a permit is best practice and the only legal means of shooting, but if you insist on flying under the radar then here is what we recommend:

  1. Carry no more than 1 bag: this is a significant indicator that you are a pro photographer offering professional services. Keep your gear to a minimum.
  2. No off-camera light modifiers (reflectors) or legs (flash stands/tripods): the more it looks like a production the higher than chances of the assumption that you are running a commercial shoot.
  3. Don’t bring assistants or anyone other than you and the subjects: the more inconspicuous the better.
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Hopefully this guide helps you navigate around permit purchasing for your next shoot. Post any questions you have regarding photography permits in the comments below.

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Founding Partner of Lin and Jirsa Photography and SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bob Helmig

    Leave it to freaking California!  It seems to me that there is a First Amendment conflict there.

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  2. Ralph Hightower

    Hmm, so if I’m carrying three cameras at Laguna Beach, I would be labeled a professional? Even if two of the cameras were over 30 years old and used film (one loaded with color and the other with B&W). For my Canon FD SLR cameras, I have a handle mount flash (Sunpak 522). Yea, this is old-school.

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  3. Marco Castro

    I fully support the idea of permits. Reasons being, (As you mentioned) it keeps people in check. Also, these permits (in most cases) go to towards supporting and maintaining the locations. I shoot in Miami and Fort Lauderdale Florida and we’re just starting to see more and more permits being requested. The only issue here is that as a result, I had to raise my pricing to cover for this additional expense. Clients are not liking it. I’ve lost one client because they didn’t want to pay the extra $200 for permit and they went with another photog who turned out getting busted and fined $500 for not having a permit.

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    • Pye Jirsa

      That’s a trip. Yeah, for most clients they should understand. It does suck, but like you said, also keeps locations maintained and in check .

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  4. Matt Hysz

    Any tips on which place to visit first to start getting permits in other countries? For example GB, or Germany. 

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    • Shivani Reddy

      I would research the location of your shoot – if it is a public place or a private residence chances are there will be a website associated with a contact email or number. I would start there!

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