On Using Public Space for Photography

Over the last few days there has been a mild uproar over signs posted in Faust Park in St. Louis County advising that “professional photographers” will be required to apply (and pay) for a permit to shoot in St. Louis County Parks. After a day or two of complaints by area photographers and some coverage in the local media, the signs were hastily removed. It is my understanding that the policy was not backed by an ordinance, and that the policy is now under review by the county.

The policy seems to be motivated by professional photographers making use of public spaces for commercial gain, and in doing so causing damage, litter, or disruption to other visitors. What can be gleaned from the policy in very broad terms, is that during the execution of commercial shoots photographers have, among other things:

  • Denied access to park visitors of various areas during shoots
  • Attached equipment or props to parks property and facilities (which we can surmise caused damage)
  • Moved (and not replaced) park property such as benches and historical items
  • Used restricted areas for shoots
  • Apparently done some crazy shit with flour and baked goods (here again we can surmise that the resulting mess was not cleaned up).

As a result, the park policy states that professional photographers will need to purchase a single use permit for $50 or a yearly permit for $200 in order to execute commercial shoots in the parks. This has lead to the controversy over whether or not it is right for a tax-payer funded park to charge for commercial photography.

My opinion? Yes they should.

In order to break down the issues at hand, I’m going to try to break it up into bite sized pieces.

Use Drives Value

The cost of professional photography is in part based on how the client will use the images from a photo shoot. An image that is being used by a national or global company has much more value than an image that is going to be used on the website for a small local business. This same principle applies to usage of public space.

Say you are a photography hobbyist (or even a professional photographer) who goes to a public park to make photographs for a personal project. It’s just you and a camera walking around making photographs. You are not being paid to be there, and you are not doing it on contract from a client. Because you are not being paid, your use of the park has relatively low value. In this instance I feel like the sliver of your personal tax dollars used for the that particular public space covers your share what you are doing.

Now lets say that you are a wedding photographer, and the bride wants shots in that specific park because it is close to the wedding venue. That bride is paying you a lot of money to make pictures in the park, and therefore you are going to be directly profiting from the use of the park. In this case, the park has a much greater value to you than it does to the hobbyist or any other visitor, so a small fee which would enable you to make that profit seems completely justified.

What if you’re just a photographer photographing a senior portrait with an assistant and a reflector? Or a landscape photographer with a tripod? Here’s how NYC handles it:

“A permit is not required for filming that uses hand-held cameras or tripods and does not assert exclusive use of City property. Standing on a street, walkway of a bridge, sidewalk, or other pedestrian passageway while using a hand-held device and not otherwise asserting exclusive use of City property is not an activity that requires a permit.”

Sounds reasonable to me. St. Louis County should consider similar language for low impact shoots.

You Gotta Spend Money to Make Money

As a photographer I have a huge list of expenses in order to run my business. I pay for equipment, insurance, props, rentals, internet access, software, computers … the list goes on and on. Do I like spending hundreds of dollars a year to back up my images in three places? Nope. But it is the cost of doing business as a professional. The way that I stay in business is is amortize those costs across all of my clients, which is how I come up with my rates. Each client that hires me is paying for my eye, my experience and my expertise to create beautiful images. But they are also paying a small fraction of my equipment, insurance, props, rentals, internet access, software, and computers. Furthermore, if there are expenses specific to the job I am shooting for them, they pay for those as well. These include stylists, assistants … and location rentals.

If the client wants to shoot in a park, you simply let the client know that there is a $50 permit fee for shooting in the park. If they aren’t willing to pay that fee, you find an alternative location. If you have a lot of clients who want to shoot in the park, then get the yearly permit, and the impact on your bottom line is even lower. You can then pass those savings on to your clients. $50 a day for a location rental is a steal, by the way.

Insurance Is Not Optional

In order to get a permit for photography in the parks, photographers are required to have a large insurance policy. If you are operating as a professional photographer and you DON’T have insurance then you are just asking for problems. Again, using wedding photography as an example, what if you’re that guy who has the bride stand precariously on a park bench for a photo, and she falls and breaks a leg? Do you really want to be in a situation where you don’t have liability insurance? I carry $2 million worth of liability insurance for less than $50 per month. A bargain price for peace of mind, and in addition it is the action of a responsible photographer. There are a lot of gray areas in this post, but insurance, to me, is black and white. You absolutely have to have it.

Side note: It takes about five minutes to get a proof of insurance card from your insurance company with the location’s name on it. I use this all the time when renting gear and when shooting on location.

A Photographer’s Impact on Your Surroundings

Without documentation, it is obviously just conjecture that the rules imposed by the parks are based on irresponsible photographers causing damage, leaving trash, or otherwise disrupting the enjoyment of the parks by others. This also seems like a no-brainer: photographers should be respectful of those around them and the environment that they are using. If you’re exploding cakes or whatever in a park, it is your responsibility to clean up after yourself. The permit fees would ostensibly go to help pay park staff deal with any potential problems, but let’s be honest, they shouldn’t have to clean up after a photographer’s mess.

Speaking Practically

My final point is one of simple practicality. A permit system is advantageous to photographers as well. When I am doing pre-production for a shoot, I want as few loose ends as possible. I want to be able to assure my client that when we arrive at a location there won’t be another photographer there in the same spot. If there is someone else in the way of me getting my job completed, I want to be able to pull out that permit, explain that I have paid for the time use of that space, and that they need to hit the road. I never want to be in a position where I have to tell my client that I can’t complete my job because I didn’t do the paperwork. Imagine how great you’ll look to your client if you have a permit and the other guy doesn’t? And for those people complaining about having to carry the permit with them at all times while shooting in the parks? Please. You have bags of equipment that you bring with you to each and every shoot, stuff that is absolutely necessary to complete the job at hand – I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to put a slip of paper in your camera bag.

Final Thoughts

Here’s a few responses to things that I’ve been reading:

Should exercise classes have to get permits and have insurance too?
Sure, why not. The same principles apply: if you’re using public space for profit, then you should pay for it. Does this work the same for babysitters who take kids to the park? I would say no – although here it gets a little murky. My opinion is that they aren’t having the same impact on the park as a commercial photo shoot or an exercise class, but I’m sure that some people with disagree.

Should a freelance photographer who only does senior portraits have to pay or should the permits just be for big production companies?
Yes, I think that anyone profiting from the use of public space should have to get a permit. In my experience, in addition to the permit fees, there are additional fees if you need access to water and electric, if you want to use a location van, or if you want to set up tents for the talent or craft services, which means that a large production would cost more. Not sure if the St. Louis County Parks department have considered this. Here’s how the National Parks Service handles it. Small shoot? without any props or anything? Zero dollars. From there, the cost is based on the size of your production.

“This policy is simple a means to create revenue.”
Yeah, I’m sure that’s part of it. But here again, I have to say that I don’t care. The fee is so nominal that it would not impact my business, and as a bleeding heart liberal, I WANT more money to go to public spaces. These spaces are what separate good cities from bad ones, and I want as much money for them as we can get. Let’s not forget all of the wonderful resources that are available for free in this town already, like the museums and the zoo. As a side note, do you think if you have your wedding at the zoo you can do that for free, just because admission to the zoo is free?

This is obviously a complicated issue but I personally don’t think this is an overreach by governments trying to hold destroy small businesses. Was it poorly implemented and not well thought out? Perhaps. But I would go so far as to say that if the nominal fees for permits in parks would have a huge impact on your business, then you seriously need to take a look at your business model. Are there tons of hack photographers out there, driving down prices and taking advantage of digital technology to provide awful photography at a cut rate? You bet, and there always will be. You can’t fight the battle against mediocrity by dropping prices anyway. If anything, requiring professional photographers to get a professional permit would separate the wheat from the chaff.

For more opinions, here is the current thread over on Facebook with a posting by St. Louis County Parks department, notifying the public that the signs have been removed.

Update: here’s another article on the subject from the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

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