The Lowdown on Outdoor Photography Permits

Contrary to what many people belief, running a wedding photography business stretches far beyond your creative abilities. A wedding photographer’s workflow is packed with behind-the-scenes logistical work that’s crucial to the success of your business. Your to-do lists are a mile long—everything from responding to emails to managing finances, and even occasionally acquiring photography permits. 

We’re here to make those tasks a little less daunting, no matter where you are in the world. Sure, every photography location will have a different set of rules, but these general tips are a great starting point to make sure you’re covered for your next outdoor photo session. 

Before pulling out your camera, here’s the lowdown on everything you need to know for obtaining an outdoor photography permit. 

What Is A Photography Permit?

A permit is an official document that gives someone permission to do something. In your case, having a permit grants access to capture commercial photography images—or really any images you charge money for—in a protected or public area. Photography permits are a way to cover you and your business when taking pictures in public areas like national parks

When Are You Required To Have Photography Permits? 

Photographers can wear a variety of different hats. If you’re casually capturing images wearing for fun, then you’re in the clear. If you’re shooting for your business, odds are you’ll need to obtain a proper permit. 

Like we mentioned every country, state, and city will have a different set of requirements when it comes to photography permits. But it’s safe to assume that you’ll need a permit regardless of your photoshoot country location. Going in with that mindset will allow you to properly adjust your pricing and help create a realistic timeline for your clients.

Photobug Tip: 

Applying for a permit can be a lengthy process, sometimes taking weeks to clear. That’s why it’s important to research permit requirements before promising a price and date for your clients. Leaving yourself time to get the logistics sorted will help eliminate stress and make for an overall positive client experience

Image by Gaby Scheer

How Do You Acquire A Photography Permit? 

Now that you’ve determined that you’ll need a permit for your next photo session, it’s time to figure out the behind-the-scenes logistics needed to cover you and your business legally. Typically, securing a photography permit is as easy as scrolling through the location’s website. But if you’re struggling to find the application, pick up the phone and give them a call directly. 

How Much Do Photography Permits Cost? 

It’s very rare for permits to be free. In most cases you’ll be charged two fees: 

  1. a nonrefundable application fee that will be due when you submit your application for the photography permit 
  2. a photography fee which is paid after you’ve been accepted and cleared for the permit. 

Both of these prices will differ based on area, your event size, and time of the year. We’ve got an example of how this breaks down at the bottom of this post based on U.S. National Park Services permits for Yosemite National Park. 

How Do You Charge Clients For The Cost Of Permits? 

This is where contracts and invoices come into play. Whether you’re creating a contract from scratch or using a template, make sure you have a section that states if a couple chooses a location that requires a permit, they’re responsible for the extra charge on their final invoice. That means the cost of the outdoor photography permit is added on top of your normal price

Photobug Tip: 

There’s a lot to cover in a contract in order to protect you and your clients. So make sure your current contract templates are up to date and include the most important elements we’ve rounded up in our wedding photography contract guide

Image by Nebula Bodas

Let’s Walk Through An Example: Obtaining A U.S National Park Services Permit For Yosemite 

You’re now equipped with everything you need to know for obtaining an outdoor photography permit! Now let’s walk through an example. Let’s say you have a client who is interested in an engagement photoshoot. Now you’re going through the steps of applying for a permit at the United States’ Yosemite National Park.

Question 1. Are You Required To Get Permit? 

You’re not required to get a permit in most U.S. National Parks unless one of these applies to you: 

  • the activity takes place at a location where the general public isn’t not allowed
  • the activity uses models, sets, or props that are not a natural part of the location
  • if the park would need additional administrative costs to monitor the activity

So, as long as your clients want to have their photos taken in an area of the park that’s open to the general public and don’t want to bring any extra props with them, you’re not required to get a permit so far. To continue our example, let’s say this couple wants to have photos taken in an area that is off-limits to the general public. Then you’ll need to acquire a permit.

How Do You Acquire A Photography Permit?

Applications for U.S. National Park photography permits are available through each park’s administrative office or website on a first-come, first-serve basis. For a commercial photography permit in Yosemite, you actually have to download the commercial photography permit application here and mail in your application and payment to: 

Postal mail:
Attn: Catherine Carlisle-McMullen
Special Park Uses/Commercial Photography and Weddings
Yosemite National Park, National Park Service
P.O. Box 700
El Portal, CA 95318

Overnight (FedEx/UPS):
Attn: Catherine Carlisle-McMullen
Special Park Uses/Commercial Photography & Weddings
Yosemite National Park
5083 Foresta Rd
El Portal, CA 95318

So, in our example, you’ve downloaded the form, printed it out, and now you have to pay the fees.

What Is The Cost? 

As of February 2022, there is a non-refundable Yosemite permit cost that must be mailed in with your application. The cost is $200 for projects with minimal oversight and coordination—commercial photographers that have crews of up to two people, with no models or sound and minimal equipment, working in non-wilderness areas that are open to the public.

It’s not so hard to get your outdoor photography permits with the right tools and information at your fingertips. There are a lot of steps involved in the preparation of every photo shoot, though. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. If your to-do list feels never-ending and you’re looking for ways to take back control of your schedule, check out these time-saving hacks for your photography business.

(1) Comment

  1. Nina Larsen Reed

    Most National Parks considers any people that are paying for photos “models that are not a natural part of the location,” as opposed to if you’re taking landscape photos while hiking that happen to have other hikers in the background. Engagement photos, family photos, and most other portrait sessions do require a photography permit in most National Parks.

    “So, as long as your clients want to have their photos taken in an area of the park that’s open to the general public and don’t want to bring any extra props with them, you’re not required to get a permit so far.”

    I’d recommend updating this paragraph so people don’t get in trouble for thinking that you don’t need a permit in these cases 🙂

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