Carspotting is fun, and if you bring your nice DSLR or mirrorless camera along, you can get some slick car pics. But what does the law say? Can you take pictures of people’s cars or not?
TLDR; Yes you can. Now, let’s check the fine print including what to do if there is a conflict.
First, a Quick Disclaimer
We are photographers—not lawyers. Please consult with your local authorities for conclusive statements regarding current federal or state laws and regulations in your jurisdiction.
Better yet, ring a law firm specializing in privacy and intellectual property. And get it in writing, just in case.
Now, with that dry cracker out of the way…
Can You Take Pictures of Other People’s Cars or Not?
Yes, you can!
That’s it. Problem solved.
But wait, you’d be wise to know the subtle nuances.
When Is It Not OK to Photograph Someone’s Car?
There are some clear-cut situations where you should absolutely not take pictures of cars. Those might be blatantly obvious, but then you can’t say we haven’t warned you.
- Never photograph a car crash that you might be driving past. Show some common decency and respect to those involved.
Humans are wired to be biased towards the negative, morbid, and dangerous. Resist the temptation. Avoid congesting the road and let the professionals deal with it instead.
- Never take pictures of vehicles at or near power stations, TSA checkpoints, military installations, and similar ‘sensitive’ environments.
Those basic rules of thumb aside, car photography in the wild is pretty fair game. As long as you are on public property, you are usually allowed to photograph anything and everything around you.
There Are Exceptions to Every Rule…
Obvious exceptions include certain parks and memorials.
Here, you will often find the specific rules of conduct clearly visible on a sign near the entrance. They’ll mostly mention littering and perhaps not using a tripod.
In a nutshell, avoid hanging out at the kindergarten/school/the local bank with your Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens.
As long as you’re walking around, doing casual, not-creepy, non-intrusive, hand-held photography, you’re in the good.
Then again, it’s smart to do your due diligence and know what to say, just in case there is a confrontation.
In the FAQs section below, you’ll find the answers to some of the most pertinent questions on the topic of car photography.
u003cstrongu003eWhat to Say If the Car Owner Gets Mad?u003c/strongu003e
First of all, this is u003cemu003eextremelyu003c/emu003e unlikely to happen. Just imagine, how would u003cemu003eyouu003c/emu003e feel if someone clearly showed appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of your daily driver by photographing it?u003cbru003eu003cbru003eIf the owner is clearly enraged, it’s most likely because they feel threatened. Then, the best thing to do is deescalate the best you can. u003cbru003eCalm, confident posture, soft eye contact, slight smile, non-threatening demeanor, optimistic tone of voice. u003cbru003eu003cbru003eSay something like, u0022Oh, this is u003cbru003eu003cemu003eyouru003c/emu003e ride? Love it, bro. I’m also a car lover u003cemu003eandu003c/emu003e a street photographer… (ask a genuinely curious, nerdy car question).u0022
u003cstrongu003eIs It OK to Upload Car Photos to Instagram?u003c/strongu003e
Now we are getting into grey territory. While it’s usually within the law to photograph anything in a public space, uploading to social media is a different beast. u003cbru003e u003cbru003eIf you don’t get explicit (preferably written) consent, you should best blur out any license plates. To be 100% on the sure side, avoid posting people’s faces, too.u003cbru003eu003cbru003eYou can deal with the objection in three ways; before, during, and after. Or, as we say in u003csu003estreetu003c/su003e car photography; it’s easier to ask for forgiveness rather than for permission. u003cbru003e u003cbru003eYou better believe it, owners of exotic, vintage, or modern supercars are pretty dang used to them being photographed all the time. u003cbru003e u003cbru003eEven if only with a hand gesture, asking for permission conveys respect and class.u003cbru003e
u003cstrongu003eCan I Take Photos of License Plates?u003c/strongu003e
So long as the vehicle is in a public area, its license plate is the same. Just avoid uploading it to the web, thus revealing the location of said motor vehicle and its owner, and you should be good.u003cbru003e u003cbru003eOccasionally, you might need to photograph a plate (for documentation purposes). In this case, you would obviously avoid posting to socials but instead safely store the photos.u003cbru003e
u003cstrongu003eWhat to Say to the Police When Taking Car Photos?u003c/strongu003e
Most of the time, the police could care less if you photograph other people’s cars, or even patrol vehicles. u003cbru003e u003cbru003eUnless it’s conflicting with any of the above — or preventing the officers from doing their work. u003cbru003e u003cbru003eDuring the confrontation, it’s advised to film the whole encounter (on mobile) to protect your civil rights and to document the interaction. u003cbru003e u003cbru003eBe calm, friendly, and cooperative. Know your rights, and do not get bullied around.u003cbru003e
u003cstrongu003eCan I Sell My Car Photos Online?u003c/strongu003e
It’s entirely ok to sell car photos via online stock photo sites like Adobestock, gettyimages, etc. u003cbru003e u003cbru003eJust make sure to get model releases for any identifiable people and brands involved if you wish to sell the work as commercial (non-editorial) photos.u003cbru003e
Other Articles In This Series
You might be wondering where else you can take photographs. This series of articles might be of interest:
- Can My Neighbor Take Pictures of My Backyard?
- Can You Take Pictures of Atoms?
- Can You Take Pictures of Books in Library?
- Can You Take Pictures of Celebrities?
- Can You Take Pictures of Checks?
- Can You Take Pictures of Coworkers Without Permission?
- Can You Take Pictures of Military Aircraft?
- Can You Take Pictures of Other Galaxies?
- Can You Take Pictures of Other People’s Houses?
- Can You Take Pictures of People’s Cars?
- Can You Take Pictures of People’s License Plates?
- Can You Take Pictures of Police Cars?
- Can You Take Pictures of the Milky Way with an iPhone?
- Can You Take Pictures of the Mona Lisa?
- Can You Take Pictures of the Pentagon?
- Can You Take Pictures of the White House?
- Can You Take Pictures on a Plane?
- Can You Use a Polaroid at Night?
YES! You can take pictures of people’s cars and mostly even avoid trouble while doing so.
Common sense and soft skills come a long way. Also, remember that while in a foreign country, you’ll often get the “photo-tourist pass.”
Knowledge is power. Use your newly acquired superpower responsibly.