Is that an iPhone in your pocket, Mr. Political Protestor, or are you just happy to see me? Well, I hope it's both, because I'm a big fan of affordable and powerful technology and the sharing of helpful information, and I bet you are, too. In a year particularly noted for worldwide government protests, it becomes more and more clear to everyone how important and powerful a tiny cell phone or pocket camera can be. Everyone has the potential to capture images and video of important events and upload it to the web with speed far greater than traditional media, and with zero editorial manipulation. "Potential" is the key word here; there are some rules that all of us need to know and follow or we are no better than FOX News planting palm trees in wintertime Madison, Wisconsin. Also, some people will be unhappy with you taking any kind of images, and may rather forcefully ask you not to do so, so you should know if they are full of waste matter or not. Let's break it down! Metaphorically, I mean; don't be violent, man.


Oh, they do indeed, my leetle frenz, and you are a photographer if you are taking a picture, just for clarity's sake. You have the same legal rights to produce images as the KRAP-TV dude hauling 30 lbs. of video equipment on his shoulders. But do you know what they are? Probably not, and it's really easy to be intimidated by some people into turning off your camera or even turning over your film/memory card to them. It's your responsibility to know what you can and cannot do, and to also go further and understand the broader ethical responsibilities of the rights you do have. You don't want to be a jerk, in other words.

The easiest thing to do is download this handy-dandy PDF written by attorney Bert P. Krages II: The Photographer's Right. Read it, and keep a copy handy. The main things you need to know:

-- You may photograph or take video of damn near anything, as long as you are on public property, like a street, sidewalk, park, or the like. I can tell you if you are in my home to get lost with your camera, but I can't if you are standing in the road outside my house. Although if you are standing outside my house and are not the Google Maps camera car (or even if you are, actually), that's really creepy and jerk-y. Anyway, just remember that private property owners can ask that you not take images while on their stuff, but if you are making the image from a public place, they can't do anything about it. Exceptions are military or nuclear facilities that may reasonably get agitated when lurking strangers document their stuff. Overpuffed security rent-a-cops are not military nor nuclear facility personnel, just sayin'.

-- Yes, from your public place, you can take images of famous people, police, kids, accidents, political big-wigs, riots, insurgencies, peaceful gatherings, and Rush Limbaugh, even though the latter may cause your camera to malfunction. No, from your public place you cannot take images of people doing seriously private stuff like going to the bathroom, taking a shower in their homes, or having a pelvic exam. You also cannot block or impede anyone from going about their reasonable public business while taking photos or video.

-- Some people might very seriously harass you for taking images, may threaten you with legal action, may try to detain you, and may try to confiscate or destroy your gear. If you are certain that you are in a protected public space and not breaking the laws of your city, turn the tables on those folks and let them know that they are going to be the ones breaking the law if they continue such behavior towards you. However, it's wise and prudent to pick your battles. Such confrontations can turn ugly very quickly and you don't want to be injured. Each instance will be different, and you must judge each accordingly. Be safe, be smart, and if there's a way to capture what you need to without poking a bear and getting yourself mauled, do that instead.

-- If you seem to be headed towards detention and arrest, ask the police officer, "Am I free to leave?" If the officer says, "Yeah," GO. Just go. Go away from there and go somewhere else less police-y. If the officer says, "NAH," you are at that moment being held in custody. You then have the right to ask what crime you you are being detained for, the right to remind the officer that public photography is a First Amendment right, and not a factor in reasonable suspicion for rioting, obstruction, trespassing, malicious mischief, or taking unflattering pictures of law enforcement officers. What is a felony is a police officer confiscating and/or destroying a camera and its data without a warrant.

If you like your legal information in zippy YouTube format, here's all of the above summarized by the ACLU:


No, I don't mean that you have to acquire superpowers of invisibility, although that would be really, really cool. I mean that if you are going to make your images of an event available to the public, especially a political event, you must be incredibly sensitive to your own bias. How you do or do not manipulate your pixel data is a really big deal. Obviously, it is NOT OK if you crop or Photoshop or in any way alter your image to fundamentally distort what really happened. This is a huge taboo in traditional media, and it is for you as well. People depend on images telling the truth, even more than our words. Think about how two photographers could show the same event. Take the Occupy Wall Street protests, for instance -- an anti-OWS photographer might only take pictures of a couple of "filthy hippies" sitting on a bridge, and a pro-OWS photographer might take wide shots showing large crowd numbers. So, being transparent means being upfront about where you are coming from, not editing your work to alter reality, and being aware of the story you tell by what you choose to shoot, and what you might ignore.

On a related note, if you believe you captured something illegal or that might be used by larger media or examined by a court, keep your original raw data ON your phone or memory card, unaltered in any way. Having a GPS time stamp enabled prior to taking your images might also be a good verifying detail.


People, people, people. I know you might be nervous or in a big crowd or really excited, but you aren't going to get anything usable if you are jumping around. HOLD STILL. Camera phones are particularly sensitive to movement, as we have seen by the 1 billion concert videos on YouTube of someone dancing while video-ing Katy Perry, so it's all YAY YAY YAY and a bunch of useless flashes of light. You might be the ONE to be in the right place at the right time to grab something really important, so follow this very simple rule of photography and steady yourself to obtain the best possible image you can. If you are taking video, hold the camera horizontally, of course.

In summary: know your legal rights, be honest, don't be a jerk, and hold still. Now go forth! We need you.