My Thoughts On the National Forest Service Fining Photographers $1000

In News by Matt K27 Comments

Over the last week I’ve gotten a bunch of questions and requests asking what I thought about the recent news with the National Forest Service proposal on photos in the wilderness and the thought of paying $1500 in permit fees, or facing $1000 in fines for each photo.

Why the Panic?
Part of the panic comes from posts like this one: National Forest Service will soon fine photographers $1000 for taking pictures. Although they did update the post, it’s still written in a way that makes people panic. Another one I read was US Forestry Service Wages War on Photography in National Forests. With headlines like that, it’s no wonder there’s panic.

This Isn’t New
Rules about commercial filming and photography have been around for years. At KelbyOne, we do classes in the parks and we’ve been getting (and paying for) permits to do those classes. I’ve also co-taught workshops with people at those parks, and the person in charge of the workshop has always needed a permit as well.

If you’re looking for more info on what’s been in place for a while now, here’s a great article I found on PhotoAttorney.com. When it comes down to still photography they break it down really well. Essentially if your work (video or still photography) uses models, actors or props – or if your work is in areas where the public is usually not allowed, or causes extra administrative costs for the park – then you’ll need a permit.

What About if I Sell My Photos?
So what happens if you go and capture a great photo at one of the parks and decide you want to sell it on your website? According to the definitions of when a permit is required, you aren’t required to get a permit (unless you’ve used a model, actor, or needed a set or props).

What About Reporters, News Outlets and Journalists?
This is really what caused the biggest outcry. Anytime first amendment rights get called in to question, you’re sure to cause an uproar. But the Forest Service did issue an update last week that I read about on FoxNews.com.

The U.S. Forest Service vowed Thursday that a proposed policy change will not interfere with news-gathering groups’ constitutional rights to take pictures on federal wilderness property, following a backlash from First Amendment supporters.

“The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” agency Chief Tom Tidwell said. “The directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only. If you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required.”

What About iPhone Photos/Video?
I’ve seen this one talked about a lot. I even got in to a Twitter debate with some one over it. Apparently what rules do get put in place will address iPhone video and stills. And why shouldn’t they. The quality of video and stills coming from phones is top-notch. So if you whatever you’re doing falls under “commercial” video or still usage, then you should get a permit regardless of what camera you’re using.

My Thoughts
I’ll keep this short and sweet. I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know what the U.S. Forest Service is actually thinking or doing, so this is just my personal thoughts. But I can tell you that I really don’t think they’re after you, me and our families walking around the parks taking photos of ourselves with our iPhones (or DSLRs). And I don’t think they’re after you and a few of your photographer buddies who go on a hike to capture some great photos. Heck, I don’t even think they’re after you if you take photos and try to sell them on your website (provided they don’t fall in to any of the “commercial” use rules mentioned earlier).

I guess time will tell right? But I’m guessing that every landscape and outdoor photographer out there that’s freaked out because they don’t think they can take a photo in a park anymore (without paying $1500), is over-reacting a bit. We’ll see though.

Have a good one!

Comments

  1. Luiz

    Great post! It was nice to read a rational post on this subject rather than the ones that appeared to just want to scare people rather than inform.

  2. Mark

    “According to the definitions of when a permit is required, you aren’t required to get a permit (unless you’ve used a model, actor, or needed a set or props).”

    What about if you’re out hiking with your wife who’s a model and you stop to take a family picture on a picnic blanket with lunch laid out? It’s never black and white.

      1. Darrel

        When it comes to common sense, the experience of many proves that it is in short supply amongst those who have the power to restrict our freedoms. I believe the various agencies screen for common sense and reject the applicants who demonstrate it.

        1. Author
          Matt K

          Darrel – it happens. We’ve all run in to the overzealous ranger or security officer at some point that just doesn’t understand photography. But you can’t lump every park ranger in to that category. I’ve had a bad experience with one, but I’m smart enough to realize there’s a lot of good park rangers out there and they’ll actually help you more than they’ll hinder you.
          Also, keep in mind though, they’re protecting the park. I’ve seen many photographers do stupid things at parks in the name of a photo. Disturbing wildlife, trampling on places they shouldn’t, etc… So while you think this is all the ranger’s problem lacking common sense, just understand that they’ve seen many photographers lack common sense as well. So just as you’re lumping all park rangers together, saying none of them have common sense, some are probably doing the same thing with photographers after a bad experience they’ve had.

  3. Todd

    Matt, just curious… would a high school senior at park for environmentals be considered a model? Seems like the Parks could really help themselves out by offering different permits. A permit might not be costly for a huge advertising company shooting campaign stuff, but to a photog working with high school seniors, it would be overwhelming.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Hey Todd – sadly yes, I do think that would be considered a model and a commercial shoot. Whether you know it or not, that is probably still the case today (even before any new rules get added). You may not be getting fined for it, but you probably would need a permit today as well. I agree though. $1500 is kinda steep if that’s the case.

    2. Rand

      I know nothing about the law or the parks. But I would think shooting senior portraits does not make the senior a model but your customer. Don’t you usually hire models to shoot photos of them whereas customers pay you for shooting photos of them?

      1. Author
        Matt K

        If it’s your customer and you’re conducting commercial business, do you not think then you should get a permit?
        Also, the definition of model doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re paying them.
        “Model – a person or thing that serves as a subject for an artist, sculptor, writer, etc.”
        http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/model

  4. Aaron

    I wish I could agree that it’s overblown (it probably is to some degree) except some Forest Service personnel were getting over zealous here in Idaho and were telling lots of people they needed a permit to take photos or video and threatened fines or be kicked out. While supervisors here would relent if pushed back…not everyone pushed back. The proposed rules are too vague and leaves lots of room for potential conflict. The hype (I call it public comment) is designed to let the Forest Service know what the public wants from its public land. The public needs to let the Forest Service know what is acceptable and please don’t be vague in areas that could cause managers in some areas to deny photography and videography on a whim someday in the future say if the manager has a gripe with someone and decided to flex his or her muscle. Just my two cents…

  5. Bob

    If common sense is required, we are toast. That is one thing government agencies run short of.
    What this does allow though, is a Ranger in a bad mood being able to take it out on you. It will be at his or her discretion. Which is never a good thing.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Keep in mind though, they’re protecting the park. I’ve seen many photographers do stupid things at parks in the name of a photo – things that lack all common sense. Disturbing wildlife, trampling on places they shouldn’t, etc… So while you think this is all the ranger’s problem, just understand that they’ve seen many photographers lack common sense as well.

  6. Lee

    Great article. I was one that was concerned when I first read it and posted to see the reaction. Well it was alarming. I think the real intent is the attempt to protect the park. People have been known to do things in the name of getting a shot, like the person that lost their UAV in one of the Hot Springs in Yellowstone, or a photographer getting too close to wildlife to get a closer shot, or breaking off limbs of a tree for a better view. But the real point of this is that there have been laws & fees for commercial shooting in most parks across the country. I think the park management wants people to be safe and respect the parks. You will have to be doing something that red flags you to have a range ask you if you have a permit.
    So enjoy your photography and the parks.

  7. Hudson Henry

    Hey Matt,

    I looked at the text of the amendment and current rule. Looks to me like the “maximum” fee is $1500 but the schedule of fees is a scale from $50 up. That also makes more sense when you consider the max fine is only $1000. Not a lot of incentive to get a permit otherwise.

    See you soon up north!

    Hudson

  8. Mike Ash

    Thanks for the post Matt. I’m personally into landscape these days (used to do a lot of portrait photography) and this had me concerned as well. I have many friends, however, who shoot seniors & bridals and it seems that their concerns may still be warranted.

  9. Matt

    Matt,
    I’m curious if you’ve actually read the text of the proposal? The definition of “commercial” is very, very broad in that text (read from the Federal Register). The link you posted to PhotoAttorney is outdated and does not address the current issue. The current issue is that the Forest Service is trying to make the permitting requirements even more expansive and inclusive, which absolutely could have a very negative impact on tourist photographers, or amateurs out practicing with a friend of their sisters. Rangers are notoriously bad-tempered with respect to anyone holding a camera—especially a good DSLR camera.

    Please get up to date on the issue, because going by this article, you clearly are not. You can read the proposal, which also links out to the various “as defined in section blah-blah-blah” clauses. This issue is NOT with regulations as they stand, but rather with regulations as they are proposed.

    https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/09/04/2014-21093/proposed-directive-for-commercial-filming-in-wilderness-special-uses-administration?utm_campaign=email+a+friend&utm_medium=email&utm_source=federalregister.gov

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Matt, I did read it and am up to date. The proposal is trying to make regulations consistent and permanent. You may not understand, but these regulations have been in effect for years. They’re just trying to make them permanent.

  10. Darrel

    Matt, you wrote, “I really don’t think they’re after you, me and our families walking around the parks taking photos of ourselves with our iPhones (or DSLRs)”. I hope you read the comments after your Facebook post. It seems all of the various land-management agencies regularly abuse serious photography hobbyists. Their IQ is too low to understand why someone would pay thousands of dollars for equipment if they’re not a professional. Plus, we are robbed of due process when the “county mounties” become judge, jury and executioner. It seems all branches of government are becoming more totalitarian in their enforcement of laws and less accountable to the citizens of this country.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      I did read the comments on Facebook by the way. But again, that one person had a really bad experience. Others had experiences similar to what I’ve had, where a park ranger was a little overzealous. Keep in mind though, they’re protecting the park. I’ve seen many photographers do stupid things at parks in the name of a photo. Disturbing wildlife, trampling on places they shouldn’t, etc… So while you think this is all the ranger’s problem, just understand that they’ve seen many photographers lack common sense as well.

  11. Darrel

    When it comes to photography, IMHO, there should be no distinction between commercial and amateur photography anyway. The only time any fee should be charged is with circumstances like; wear-and-tear of the land or facilities, interfering with tourist access, large amounts of equipment and/or people. It makes no difference to the land if the guy with the big, white lens is shooting to win his photography club’s contest or to make living off the photo.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      I don’t think most people are arguing that Darrel. All of those circumstances you mentioned are exactly when a “commercial” permit/fee is needed.

      1. Darrel

        Matt, I think you read my reply too quickly. I said a fee “should” be charged for the circumstances I listed, i.e. impact on the environment.

        An example of what I think is wrong would be, for example, you, Matt, are on vacation and you are taking pictures just for fun. A ranger recognizes you and demands you have a permit because he knows you are a pro photographer. I could be in the same area and shooting for Getty, but the ranger doesn’t recognize me and leaves me alone.

        1. Author
          Matt K

          It doesnt’ matter if I’m a pro. If I’m not shooting in a way that falls under their guidelines for permits needed, I won’t need a permit. They’re not trying to get you for shooting a photo of a park and selling it. They’re trying to make sure if you’re using models, props, lights, etc… that you get a permit first.

  12. John

    Matt,
    I would have to say that 95% of the time we have nothing to worry about but it’s the other 5% that concerns me.
    The old saying about common sense it’s not so common all it takes as one person to see the law as black and white with no wiggle room.

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