Reznicki_Africa__060  This article first appeared as one of our first “Copyright Zone” columns in Photoshop User Magazine. It remains one of our most requested columns. It’s about the still hot topic of photographing in public and semi-public places. By the way, the surprised monkey photo was shot in the wild in Africa, since we didn’t have a great zoo photo. Here is a Day at the Zoo:


So you want to go to the zoo and take some pictures. Here are 4 scenarios to help explain what you can and can’t do and what to look out for- other than the droppings. Model release issues aside for this column, here’s the straight poop.

Scenario 1) – Shooter takes a walk through the zoo, photographing what catches the eye. The wild kids, the tame animals, the monkey house, and the cotton candy.

You can shoot all you can see. But what you can use it for becomes the fodder that photographers argue about endlessly and what lawyers litigate.

While with people, releases are needed, animals do not have privacy rights or laws written to protect against the commercial use of their images. So with some exceptions, you do not need releases for animals. A giraffe that is similar to thousands of other giraffes can be used by you for a throat lozenge ad or submitted to a photo competition. But if the animal is unique or symbolic of that zoo, such as an albino tiger or Freddy the Friendly Chimp, then you may need a release because you could be trading on the zoo’s intellectual property or trademark. Another key consideration is whether that particular animal is used or employed by the zoo in any trademarked or licensed manner, such as stuffed animals or tee shirts.

Similarly, images that may incorporate animal enclosures or zoo buildings generally may be used without the necessity of obtaining property releases so long as there are no trademark issues involved. So a photo at the monkey house that has a famous statue of Freddy the Friendly Chimp could be a problem for similar intellectual property concerns that are mentioned in the above paragraph. If however, you move your camera and crop Freddy out, shooting just the building should be no problem.

Scenario 2) A bride and groom’s first date was at the zoo and they want you to shoot the wedding party there. This is easy. Do not try and go commando. Do not just show up at the zoo and shoot away. That’s trouble with a capital “T”. It’s an easy phone call to the zoo’s public relations office. You’ll find out exactly what its policy and rules are. You may find out that they love doing photo ops like having twenty people at the zoo doing their wedding photos. There may be a fee or a donation/contribution to the zoo, likely tax deductible, required or suggested. A donation may buy you priceless cooperation beyond your dreams.

They may require you to sign an agreement and provide proof of insurance. Don’t freak out. The process is actually very simple and quiet routine.

While the zoo may be a public space, as any other landowner, the zoo has a right and obligation to control crowds and insure the safety of its patrons. That legal obligation is paramount in all of these scenarios.

Scenario 3) You are a photojournalist with real press credentials. And we mean real and legitimate press credentials, from a real news organization. Not press credentials that came from the back pages of a comic book. You can photograph and use anything in a story that is news worthy or of public interest.

Let’s say you are not a professional photojournalist, but rather a student, serious hobbyist, or just a concerned citizen worried about conditions at the zoo. You have the very same rights to shoot and employ the photos as any fully credentialed, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer. Your place in the photo pecking order doesn’t matter in this respect. The images can be used in a public interest story concerning the zoo.

Now let’s crank it up a notch. A zoo security guard comes up to you. A really big surly security guard, not the Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife type but more the Arnold Schwarzenegger variety. Now is the time for you to employ all the tact and diplomacy Sister Mary Elizabeth or Rabbi Joshua tried to instill in you. Now is not the time to dig in your heels and be aggressive.

Rule number one- do not make the first move or be the first to speak. Do not act like you’re guilty of anything because, drum roll please, you’re not. While you should be prepared for a discussion, do not anticipate or assume a problem. If you act as though there is a problem, there will be a problem. Tone is critically important, do not raise your voice at any time.

Remember you are in a public place and you ought assume there will be witnesses and or security cameras recording the entire incident. Who goes to a zoo and doesn’t have a camera or video camera? Not to mention all the camera equipped cell phones. Keeping in mind that preservation of life and limb should take precedence of legal niceties; you should permit the security guard to say what he has to say uninterrupted and to completion.

Be aware that the security guard may be coming over to you on his own initiative or at the direction of a superior. The guard may simply and innocently want to know what you’re doing. Your demeanor may be more important than anything you actually say. You should understand that the guard is doing what he’s hired to do and you should express to him that you “appreciate what he’s doing.” By saying so, you are substantially reducing the chance of the situation escalating.

Nevertheless, he says in a menacing manner that, “ You can’t shoot here and to get lost ” but not in such nice words. At this point you have to take a breath and decide how badly you really need this shot. Do you need it at that very moment or shooting an hour or two later suffice? Even if you haven’t done anything wrong and you know you are in the right, the practical and prudent path may be to move on and circle back later.

Now let’s go even more negative. The guard is extremely abusive and unreasonable and does one or more of the following: he demands you turn over your camera or digital card, implies that you are not free to walk away, threatens or calls for his backup, or physically touches you or your equipment. Stay cool and collected and remember there is no “audio” recording being made. If things have degenerated to this point, you “want” the intervention and the assistance of the local police. You can even take out your cell phone, carefully, telling the security guard that you are calling the police, as you believe it’s the “prudent thing to do”. Actually use the word “prudent” as it has legal meaning and demonstrates that you are cool and under control.

Scenario 4) You have a commercial assignment that needs to be shot at a zoo. Simple. Anything short of a written, comprehensive agreement specifying date, time, location, insurance, etc. signed by the parties will not suffice- Period.

Hopefully this information will keep you from messing your shoes in elephant poop.