Permission is one of those things that every photographer will face at some point. You'll need to understand the laws in your region, and you may even find yourself asking for permission to take a photo. In most, if not all places in the United States, you are generally allowed to take photos of the things that you can see from a public place. This means that if you are standing on a public road, but your photo includes private property, that is perfectly legal.
However, the caveat to that is people. When it comes to photographing, you need to think about the “reasonable expectation of privacy.” In other words, even if the person is on public property, you shouldn’t take a photo of that person if that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. For instance, if they are in the bathroom, a dressing room or a similar area.
Those are the laws, but experienced photographers know that permission for photography is a much more complicated subject, which is why they find themselves asking for permission even if, legally speaking, they don’t have to.
You see, permission, and the acceptability of photography in large part has a cultural basis. In different regions in the United States — in different regions of Ohio, even, where I live — some people might be totally fine with photography, and others will be against it. Let me give you some examples.
To illustrate the complexity of permission, I'd like to talk briefly about a trip I recently took to Amish Country in Central Ohio. I did not take my professional DLSR camera along this time, since it was a family trip, but I would certainly love to someday because it is a beautiful area.
In Amish Country, there are lots of opportunities to document the Amish culture. But, it is important to note that there simply aren't many opportunities to document the Amish themselves. In fact, if you try to photograph the Amish, you may end up in hot water — not necessarily legally, but with the people that you are photographing. You see, one of the primary Amish tenets is that they are about community, not individuality. As such, they tend to view photographs as a bad thing. They will not often display photographs in their homes and they absolutely do not own pictures of themselves because that brings attention to the individual self, which they view as a bad thing. Some members of the Amish community are entirely against graven images in all forms — photos, paintings and everything else.
Because of these beliefs, you'll run into Amish with wildly differing views on whether or not it is OK for a photographer to take pictures. In some Amish communities, you may find a rare person that will allow you to take a photograph of him or her. Other times, however, the Amish will ask that you obscure their faces, only taking photos from the back, or with the face otherwise hidden. Still other Amish will flatly refuse to let you take a photo. They may not say anything if you do it without permission in a public place, but they certainly will feel bad about it. Finally, you’ll find some a few who will ask to destroy your roll of film or delete the images on your memory card if they catch you taking photos of them.
As you can see, in Amish Country, yes, it is technically legal to take photos of the Amish people so long as you are in a public place and not violating reasonable privacy standards. However, is it ethical or acceptable to photograph these people without their permission? It is not, because by not asking permission, you are very likely to violate an important part of Amish culture.
By now, I'm certain that you are wary of taking portraits without permission, but what about property? It turns out that different cultures and different life experiences can dictate whether or not you should as for permission before taking photos of private property. Even though you may be standing on a public road or in a public area, depending on the situation, some people may still take a dim view of you photographing their property.
To use the Amish as an example again, they have recently faced a lot of trouble from animal rights activists. I won't debate here whether the activists or the Amish are correct, but suffice it to say that activists have been known to go on to property or use long range lenses to take photos of animals so that they can attempt to collect evidence to shut down Amish farms and businesses.
Now, the Amish are used to photographers. Each year, they come in droves to photograph the gorgeous countryside. Someone standing along the side of a county road with a camera is not an unusual sight. However, the Amish are also becoming more suspicious about photographers. They may see you on the roadside, photographing a farm, and wonder. Are you an activist trying to get them in trouble or a photographer who is simply trying to take a beautiful photo?
And it isn't just the Amish that are suspicious of photographers. Particularly in rural areas, but also suburban areas or really anywhere that isn't a popular photography destination, some may feel inclined to wonder what you are up to. For all these know, you aren't making art. Because of their experiences or cultural assumptions, they may assume that perhaps you are up to no good, busy creating a reference that you can use to plan how you might rob them later on.
You can see through these examples that culture has a lot to do with whether or not you need to ask for permission. If you are standing in Times Square in New York, then most likely, no one will bat an eye at you or the multitude of other people taking photos. But if you are in Holmes County, Ohio, then an Amish person you are photographing may take issue with you snapping an image of him or her. In a seldom visited rural area, people might wonder why you've pointed your telephoto lens at their house or barn.
This is why it is so important to get to know the culture before you go on a photo trip to a region that you aren't familiar with. You may find out that portraiture violates a cultural or religious belief, or that photography of private property is frowned on by a property owner who only wants to protect their property, livelihood or their family.
If you know photography is frowned upon in a given area, or if you are in doubt, then it is always better to ask. Be honest and explain why you are taking photographs: Because the things you see are meaningful in some way and you want to create an image that other people can enjoy. If you don’t ask permission, people tend to make assumptions about you and your intentions based on the things that they have experienced in the past. Perhaps, if you are photographing a herd of cattle, you look like an animal rights activist to a farmer that doesn’t want any trouble. But if you ask permission of that farmer, then he knows that you are simply enjoying the beauty of the animals grazing amongst the rolling fields.
Asking for permission and explaining your intentions will open doors. You'll find that many people, who may otherwise have been suspicious, will welcome you. And, if they can't allow you to take a photo because of a religious or cultural belief, they may find some other way to accommodate you. The Amish, for instance, will sometimes pose happily for the camera so long as they can turn their backs to you or obscure their faces. Most importantly, in gaining permission, you’ll be comfortable in the knowledge that you are doing the ethical thing instead of potentially offending someone.