Permit Requirements

Federal Agencies

National Park Service

Bureau of Land Management

US Fish and Wildlife Service

US Forest Service

State of California

California State Parks

Northern California Agencies

Marin County Parks

Marin County Open Space District

UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley

City and County of San Francisco

San Francisco Parks

San Francisco Botanical Garden

San Mateo County

Santa Clara County

Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District

City of Palo Alto

Southern California Agencies

Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara County Parks

City of Santa Barbara

City of Los Angeles

City of Los Angeles Parks

Orange County

Orange County Parks

Still Photography and Permits
On US and California Public Land

By Jeff Conrad for the Large Format Page

Parks and other public lands are popular places for photography by snapshooters, serious amateurs, and professionals. In most cases, the photographs can be taken without any special permissions. But if the activity has the potential to cause damage or to interfere with the activities of others, a permit is often required. And in some cases, a permit may be needed any time the photography is intended for sale.

A permit is a document granting permission to engage in a specified activity that would otherwise be prohibited. A permit to photograph on public land is usually issued by a federal, state, or local agency that manages the land, but sometimes an agency may arrange to have permits handled by a private party.

Basis for Requiring Permits

The main purpose of requiring a photography permit is to regulate large-scale activity so that it doesn’t get out of control. Requiring a permit allows an agency to

  • Ensure that staff are aware of the activity, so that they are not caught by surprise if other visitors bring it to their attention.
  • Minimize conflicts between different groups engaging in similar activities. This can be especially important at a popular location with limited space.
  • Provide oversight, and if necessary, personnel, to minimize the chance of damage to the site and minimize interference with the activities of the general public.
  • When appropriate, ensure that those engaging in the activity have liability insurance so that the agency is protected in the event of damage to the site or claims by others (e.g., a person trips over a tripod leg and becomes a nymphomaniac as a result).

In some cases, the issuing agency charges a fee for engaging in the permitted activity, so requiring a permit also helps ensure that the fee is collected.

The rationale for a permit is less clear when the activity has little potential for damage or disruption. Nonetheless, many public agencies require permits for photography done for “commercial” purposes, often without defining the term. But “commercial photography” has several different meanings among photographers and among public agencies. Photographers often distinguish between “commercial” and “editorial” work, sometimes with varying ideas of what belongs in each category; public agencies seldom recognize the distinction. At least ostensibly, most state and local agencies in California require permits for any photography for “commercial purposes,” perhaps with the assumption that “commercial” is equivalent to “large-scale and disruptive.” These agencies typically regard as “commercial” any photography done with the intent of sale for profit, including editorial, stock, calendar, greeting card, and fine art. Some agencies even claim to include images to be posted on a website, entered in a photo contest, or used in a commercial portfolio. In contrast, most federal agencies base permit requirements on the activity’s impact rather than on commercial intent, and accordingly require permits only when the photography involves models or props.

Commercial Filming and Product Photography

Many regulations that cover commercial filming and photography were obviously written for motion picture and television production and large-scale commercial product photography, and perhaps the inclusion of small-scale commercial photography was an unintended consequence. Commercial filming, and to a lesser extent, commercial product photography, can have significant impact on the locations in which they take place, sometimes involving large crews, considerable support equipment, numerous vehicles, temporary structures, and perhaps requiring temporary closure of areas, trails, or roads. The activity merits regulation to protect resources and avoid undue interference with the normal activities of others, and in most cases the privileges and cooperation that a permit elicits are well worth the effort to obtain the permit. Commercial still product shoots are usually planned well in advance and often involve only a few locations, so that the logistics of obtaining permits and insurance are relatively straightforward. The cost of obtaining a permit is a customary business expense that is passed along to the client. There is little justification for jeopardizing a commitment to a client and needlessly antagonizing agency staff by failing to obtain required permits for such activities. And in some cases, failure to obtain a required permit can result in a citation and a significant fine.

Small-Scale Commercial Photography

Professional photography that doesn’t involve models or props is usually on the border of what does and what does not require a permit. The photographic activity involved usually differs little, if at all, from that of a serious or casual amateur who would not require a permit. The impact of the activity is often so low that it’s nearly invisible, and not even considered when regulations are drafted. In contrast to motion picture or product shoots, editorial, stock, and fine art photography often involves short visits to many locations administered by many different agencies, with specific locations often chosen on short notice, so the logistics of obtaining permits and providing certificates of insurance can be considerable. In many cases, there is no immediate client, so the photographer must absorb the cost of obtaining the permits and providing indemnification.

Drawing the Line: Objective Criteria?

It is easy to say that “potentially damaging or disruptive” activity merits regulation. But it is no easy task to express this concept in suitable regulatory language. Ideally, criteria for determining whether a permit is required would be completely objective, easily evaluated by observation, and unambiguous to both regulators and those regulated. More than a few agencies have attempted this, and most have failed to achieve their objective.

Inherently Large-Scale Activity

Under former 36 CFR 5.5(b), the National Park Service required a permit when the photography used models or props for the purpose of commercial advertising, presumably under the assumption that the activity was usually large scale and potentially disruptive. Determining whether the photography was for commercial advertising could sometimes be a subjective call, but it could be argued that if this intent wasn’t fairly obvious, the activity probably didn’t merit regulation. The difference between “commercial advertising” and “commercial purposes” would presumably be to indicate activity of a larger scale, and place the permit threshold beyond activity that is indistinguishable from that of a serious amateur, reducing the chance of a dispute over whether a permit is required.

Commercial Intent

As a practical matter, absent obviously professional models, large equipment, or similar indicia of photography for commercial advertising, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between commercial and noncommercial intent on the basis of equipment or photographic activity, and some agency personnel concede that regulations based on “commercial” intent are essentially dependent on the photographer’s claim (or denial) that the photography is for commercial purposes. Nonetheless, at least ostensibly, California State Parks and many local agencies in California require permits for photography done with commercial intent.

The Internal Revenue Service, who are well aware that photographic equipment can be used for recreation as well as business, have developed systematic criteria for determining whether activity is done with the intent of making a profit; the criteria are described in Publication 535, Business Expenses (PDF). Several factors are considered, and no single factor is decisive. Among the nine factors listed, only one, “You carry on the activity in a businesslike manner,” can be even partially ascertained without access to financial records. And use of “professional” equipment with apparent technical skill would in turn seem a small part of operating in a businesslike manner. Presumably, the IRS could not determine whether photography was for “commercial purposes” solely by field observation. It is not clear how others could do so, either.

Federal Agency Regulations

Federal agencies do not consider commercial intent in determining when a permit is required for still photography; if the photography involves “models, sets, or props,” a permit is required. But the definition of “sets and props” differs from the conventional meanings in that it includes equipment as well as items that appear in the photograph. Most pieces of equipment described as “sets and props” are large items that are seldom used in still photography other than large-scale advertising shoots; camera and tripod are specifically excluded. There is a considerable range between these two extremes, and it is not yet clear where the line will be drawn.

Noncommercial Photography

Photography for personal use doesn’t usually require a permit, as long as you follow the same rules as the general public. A few sites do restrict the use of certain equipment (such as tripods or artificial lighting), or certain activities (such as leaving a tour group or leaving a trail), but these restrictions are usually clearly stated as such, and not related to “commercial” intent.

How do agency staff know the photography is for personal use? If they ask (or suggest that it isn’t), you tell them that it is. Assuming, of course, that it is. Some agency staff may initially assume that anyone using a tripod, medium- or large-format camera, long lenses, light meter, or other “professional” equipment is doing “commercial” photography and requires a permit. However, such equipment is used by amateurs and professionals alike, and in most cases, sales to amateurs considerably exceed sales of the same equipment to professionals. Fortunately, staff at many sites are accustomed to visitors who are serious amateur photographers, and realize that “professional” equipment isn’t what determines commercial intent. Many agency staff are serious photographers, and routinely use such equipment themselves. A claim that photography is for personal use will often not be challenged unless circumstances strongly suggest otherwise. There are exceptions, of course, and in such cases, you need to decide how far it is worth pushing a disagreement.

News Photography

Coverage of breaking news is usually protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and accordingly doesn’t require a permit, but some agencies require that it be done under supervision of agency staff to ensure adequate protection of site resources.

Know and Obey the Rules

Be familiar with the local rules, and whenever possible, governing statutes, ordinances, and regulations before arriving at a site, and ensure that your activity is in compliance with the rules. This sometimes requires a bit of effort, but ignorance of the law may not be accepted as an excuse. If you follow all the rules, the chances are good that no one will bother you. And if you’re ever questioned by agency staff, the discussion will usually be more productive if it is obvious that you know the rules and have made all reasonable effort to comply with them.

Agency staff aren’t always familiar with the laws, and may sometimes question a claim that you don’t need a permit, so it may help to carry printed copy or know how to quickly access the material from a mobile device. In some cases, this may suffice to convince whoever has approached you that you’re not doing anything that requires a permit.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you and agency staff may agree to disagree. If you’re certain that you’re correct, it’s reasonable to be firm in asserting your position, but always a good idea to be polite in doing so, even if you feel that you’re being treated unfairly or rudely. Although the First Amendment protects considerable abuse hurled at law enforcement personnel, that protection may be less honored in the field than in a courtroom. And if you come across as belligerent, you may get little sympathy from anyone witnessing the exchange or watching it later on YouTube.

If all else fails, asking to discuss the situation with a supervisor or someone else at the site’s headquarters who can verify the requirements may effect a resolution; it probably helps if you can point to specific material that can be readily located.

Common sense should always prevail—if the conversation moves beyond disagreement over the rules to “You’re going to get cited if you don’t leave,” it may be better to walk away and return another time.

If you don’t know the rules, you’re obviously rolling the dice if you push an argument with agency personnel. If an alleged rule seems ridiculous, it well may be. But if you’re wrong, things probably will not end well. Better to back off, learn the rules, and return another day. Staff may still disagree with you, but at least you’ll know whether you’re really doing anything wrong.

Avoid Surprising Agency Staff

Some sites are less accustomed to serious photographers than others. If a site has a staffed visitors’ center or entrance station, it may help to mention your intent to photograph and ask if the site has any special rules for photography or if any sensitive areas require extra precautions; this will ensure that you’re apprised of the rules and of any special restrictions such as remaining on trails. Although you generally have no obligation to do this, agency staff will usually appreciate the consideration; they’ll often try to be helpful, and may point out photo opportunities that you would otherwise miss. In many cases, an individual photographer will not be asked about commercial intent, even at places that nominally require permits. At the very least, checking in ensures that agency staff are aware of your presence, and are less likely to panic at another visitor’s report that a filming crew has invaded the site.

No Special Privileges

Possession of a camera does not bestow privileges that are not available to the general public. If a photographer, professional or amateur, requires access to a location closed to the public, access to a site outside of normal visiting hours, or special assistance from agency staff, a permit is usually needed. If you exercise privileges that you do not possess, you not only are asking for trouble, but also risk creating a bad impression of photographers in general.

Authority for Requiring Permits

The authority to require permits comes from federal, state, or local statutory or administrative law, and the governing law is the definitive reference for the conditions for which permits may be required. In most cases, agency policy—either formal or perhaps simply stated on a Web page—does not have the force of law.

Finding the governing law is not always a simple matter, however. Laws that cover photography appear under a variety of general topics, and are described in various ways. Although photography is often specifically mentioned, some agencies simply interpret prohibition of “commercial activity” as the basis for requiring photography permits.

If a law is ambiguous, its legislative or regulatory history may help clarify its intent. In some cases, a law may be ostensibly clear but at odds with its history or stated purpose; a good example is the regulations for parks in the City of Palo Alto, where it is clear that what the law says is not what was intended. A similar argument could be made for the regulations for California state parks. And perhaps for the permit requirement in San Francisco parks, where requiring a permit solely for intent to sell seems at odds with the purpose of requiring permits stated in Sec. 7.01 of the San Francisco Park Code.

Ultimately, questions of a law’s intent, validity, or application are matters for the courts to decide. But bringing the question before a court is a significant and expensive undertaking, so it’s seldom done for comparatively trivial matters like photography permits. Accordingly, a definitive interpretation of a questionable permit requirement may not be available.

Most requirements for local agencies are covered in county or municipal codes, but some entities, such as the City of Palo Alto, authorize certain officials or departments to issue regulations without formal action by a legislative body, so simply searching a code may not suffice. If an agency claim that permits are required, there often is a sound legal basis, but discovering that basis is not always easy. Even agency staff, especially at the local level, are often unaware of the governing laws—but that may not stop them from insisting that a permit is required.

The United States Code is available on the Cornel University Law School’s Legal Information Institute website and on the US House of Representatives Office of the Law Revision Counsel website. The Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register are available via the US Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System website. These documents can be searched using the FDsys Advanced Search feature. The California Codes are available on the State of California website, and the California Code of Regulations is available online from Westlaw. Many city, county, and special-district codes are available on their agencies’ websites.

For convenience, this article includes the text of many of the cited statutes, ordinances, and regulations. Any of these laws is subject to revision, however, so the best approach is to obtain the most recent version from the official source.

Photography on Federal Public Lands

In the late 1990s, Congress sought to provide additional revenue to national parks by eliminating a provision in the Code of Federal Regulations that prohibited charging a location fee for commercial filming. The resulting legislation was expanded to include still photography and cover all public lands administered by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior; it mandated requiring permits for photography that involves models or props, prohibited requiring permits in most other situations, and prohibited issuing permits for activities that could adversely impact resources or site operations. It became Public Law 106-206 when signed by President Clinton on 26 May 2000, and was codified at 16 USC 460l-6d.

Final implementation of Public Law 106-206 fell to the individual agencies. The US Forest Service regulation took effect in 2004; the regulation for the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service took effect in September 2013.

The current regulations are similar to the former 36 CFR 5.5(b) that governed still photography in national parks for decades, but there are some notable differences. The new regulations require a permit when the photography uses “a model, set, or prop,” and these terms are given definitions that differ from the conventional meanings. The quotations below are from the definitions by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service; the definitions by the Forest Service have slightly different wording, but work to essentially the same effect.

“Models” are persons or objects photographed to promote the sale or use of a product or service; in addition to people, they include animals and “inanimate objects, such as vehicles, boats, articles of clothing, and food and beverage products.”

“Sets and props” are “items constructed or placed on agency lands to facilitate commercial filming or still photography”; they include equipment and other items that do not appear in the final image. The illustrative list includes “backdrops, generators, microphones, stages, lighting banks, camera tracks, vehicles specifically designed to accommodate camera or recording equipment, rope and pulley systems, and rigging for climbers and structures”; the definition specifically excludes a camera on a tripod. There is a considerable range between the two extremes, and it remains to be seen where the line will be drawn, and whether it will be done consistently among different locations.

Fee Schedules

The USDA and the DOI published proposed fee schedules for filming and photography in August 2013. The schedules include categories for “more than a camera and tripod,” perhaps suggesting that anything else will be considered a “prop.” It remains to be seen how this will be applied—for example, whether items such as an external flash, a handheld light meter, a collapsible reflector or diffuser, a monopod, or a camera bag will be considered props.

Still vs. Motion Images: Advances in Technology

Most current digital still cameras include the ability to record high-quality video as well as still images. In most situations, it may be impossible for an observer to determine whether the photographer is recording still or motion images without searching the camera, and regulations that depend on the distinction between still and motion recording may prove difficult to enforce. This could be especially significant on federal public lands, where noncommercial recording of motion images is subject to no restrictions, whether or not the recording uses actors, models, or props. In effect, permit requirements could change at the flip of a switch.

Permit Requirements for Various Agencies

Laws and policies for a few public agencies and private entities are summarized below.

National Park Service

Neither a permit nor a fee is required for still photography, unless the photography

  • Uses a model, set, or prop; or,
  • Takes place at a location where or when members of the public are not allowed; or,
  • The NPS would incur costs for providing on-site management and oversight to protect agency resources or minimize visitor use conflicts.

A photography permit will not be issued if the NPS determine that it is likely that the activity would:

  • Cause resource damage; or,
  • Unreasonably disrupt or conflict with the public’s use and enjoyment of the site; or,
  • Pose health or safety risks to the public; or,
  • Result in unacceptable impacts or impairment to National Park Service resources or values; or,
  • Violate the Wilderness Act (16 USC 1131–1136) or any other applicable Federal, State, or local law or regulation.

When a permit is required, the fee varies with the size of the crew. A certificate of insurance naming the US government as additional insured is usually required; the amount of insurance varies with the risk posed to park resources.

Permit requirements are governed by 43 CFR 5.2. Model and sets and props are defined in 43 CFR 5.12; the definition of prop explicitly excludes “a camera on a tripod, without the use of any other equipment.”

National Park Service policy on filming and photography is described in several documents available on the NPS website:

Permits are issued by each park administrative office, which may be located using the Find a Park web page. Additional information and permit applications are available on some individual park websites.

Contact Lee Dickinson, Special Park Uses Program Manager, at 202-513-7092 or Lee_Dickinson@nps.gov for questions about permit requirements.

Last updated September 2016

Bureau of Land Management

Permit requirements are governed by 43 CFR 5.2, and are essentially the same as those for lands administered by the National Park Service; the policy is posted on the BLM website. For most photographers, the new regulations work to the same effect as policy described in a letter issued jointly by the BLM and the Forest Service in August 1994.

When a permit is required, the fee varies with the size of the crew, and varies from state to state. A certificate of insurance naming the US government as additional insured is usually required; the amount of insurance varies with the size and nature of the activity.

The most current information about BLM regulations and policies related to still photography is usually available on the BLM filming web page. That page and its subpages include permit application forms, and a list of contacts for popular filming locations.

Contact Vanessa Engle in the Lands and Realty Group at 202-912-7339 or vengle@blm.gov for questions about permit requirements.

Last updated September 2013

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Permit requirements for lands administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service are essentially the same as those for lands administered by the National Park Service. Permit application forms are available on the Special Use Permits page. The contacts page includes a list of refuge managers.

Last updated September 2013

US Forest Service

Permit requirements for National Forest System lands are essentially the same as those for lands administered by the National Park Service; neither a permit nor a fee is required for still photography, unless the photography

  • Uses models, sets, or props that are not a part of the site’s natural cultural resources or administrative facilities; or,
  • Takes place at a location where members of the public generally are not allowed; or,
  • Takes place at a location where additional administrative costs are likely.

Permit requirements are covered by 36 CFR 251.50–51. At first glance, § 251.50(c)(2) appears to require a permit for all still photography; however, “still photography” is defined in § 251.51 to be that which would require a permit under the conditions stated above. For most photographers, the regulation works to the same effect as long-standing policy covered by previous versions of Section 2725.51, Commercial Still Photography, of the Forest Service Manual; that policy also was described in a letter issued jointly by the BLM and the Forest Service in August 1994.

Policy directives are given in Chapter 40 of Forest Service Handbook 2709.11, Special Uses Handbook; the beginning of § 45.5 includes definitions related to commercial filming and still photography. The complete Forest Service Manuals and Forest Service Handbooks are available on the Forest Service website.

When a permit is required, the fee varies with the size of the crew. A certificate of insurance may be required if the activity poses sufficient risk; the amount of insurance varies with the size and nature of the activity.

The most current information about US Forest Service regulations and policies related to still photography is usually available on the Forest Service Filming Special Uses page; that page also includes national and regional filming contacts.

Last updated September 2013

California State Parks

Any photography for “profit and sale” requires a permit and a certificate of insurance, with the State of California named as additional insured. There is no fee unless the photography requires monitoring by park staff; in many cases monitoring is not required for still photography. Additional information about insurance requirements is available on the California Film Commission website.

  • Permit requirements are seldom waived when a photographer contacts the district office and states the intention to photograph for sale for profit.
  • Most field park staff do not raise the issue of commercial photography with an individual still photographer, regardless of equipment, unless the photographer specifically mentions it, or is part of an entourage that includes models, props, and assistants.
  • Sometimes, however, park staff may approach a photographer who appears to be using “professional” equipment and ask if she is shooting commercially. In rare instances, photographers so approached have been asked to show identification and been detained for warrant checks, and in a few cases, have been asked to leave the park, or have been cited, sometimes with equipment or imaging media confiscated as evidence. To be completely safe, a person planning stock or similar photography may wish to contact the appropriate district office. A list of district offices and telephone numbers is available on the DPR website.

Some parks require that visitors remain with tour groups or on designated trails, or prohibit the use of certain equipment, such as tripods or artificial light. When such restrictions are in effect, enforcement usually is very strict, with violation often resulting in a citation rather than a warning.

The requirement for commercial photography permits is covered by Title 14, § 4316 of the California Code of Regulations. Only parks owned and operated by the Department of Parks and Recreation are covered; if a park is owned by the state but operated by another organization, the operating organization’s rules apply. For example, San Bruno Mountain State Park is operated by San Mateo County and is therefore covered by San Mateo County rules.

The rulemaking history for § 4316 suggests that the intent was to regulate large-scale, potentially disruptive activities such as those of motion picture filming crews; however, the DPR generally interpret the permit requirement as applying to any photography that is intended for sale, including editorial, stock, and fine art. Some DPR personnel have reportedly interpreted § 4316 as requiring a permit for photography that is used in a portfolio, entered in a photo contest, or even simply posted on a website.

Photography at Hearst Castle is covered in Title 14, § 4600 of the California Code of Regulations; photography at the California State Railroad Museum is covered in § 4613.

Department policy is described in California Park and Recreation Commission Policy IV.4. That policy, as well as other information related to filming and photography in California State Parks, is included in Guidelines for Filming in California State Parks on the DPR website.

Last updated June 2012

Marin County Parks

Section 10.03.150 of the Marin County Code requires a permit from the Department of Parks and Open Space for any commercial photography or related activity in Marin County parks.

To issue a commercial photography permit, the Department require

  • A certificate of insurance providing general liability coverage of $1,000,000, and naming Marin County as additional insured.
  • A fee of $300 per day (or $75 per hour). Additional charges may apply if the activity requires monitoring by park staff.

A staff directory and park rules are available on the Department website. A list of permit contacts is available on the Marin Convention & Visitors Bureau website.

Last updated September 2016

Marin County Open Space District Lands

Section 100.02.160 of the Marin County Open Space Code requires a permit from the from the Department of Parks and Open Space for any commercial photography or related activity on District lands. The regulation for open space lands is nearly identical to that for county parks, and the policy for open space lands is the same as that for parks.

Parks and Open Space are currently under common administration. A staff directory and complete open space rules are available on the Department website. A list of permit contacts is available on the Marin Convention & Visitors Bureau website.

Last updated September 2016

UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley

A permit and fee are required for any commercial photography; the fee varies with the intended use of the images.

Tripods may not be placed in the flower beds.

Contact the UC Botanical Garden at 510-643-2755 or garden@berkeley.edu for additional information.

Last updated June 2012

City and County of San Francisco

Photography that doesn’t involve models, props, or crews usually doesn’t require a permit. However, photography that requires assistance from City employees or “interferes to any substantial degree” with the use and enjoyment of streets, sidewalks, or other public property requires a use agreement with the San Francisco Film Commission. To execute a use agreement, the Film Commission require

  • A completed use agreement form.
  • A certificate of insurance providing general liability coverage of $1,000,000 ($2,000,000 aggregate) and naming The City and County of San Francisco as additional insured.
  • A fee of $100 per day, which is valid for any location in the city.

Permit requirements are covered by Section 57.6 and the definitions in Section 57.1 of the San Francisco Administrative Code.

Chapter 34 of the San Francisco Police Code requires a permit for a photographer not associated with an established photographic studio who takes pictures of people in public places with the express purpose of selling the pictures to those people.

Use agreement forms and additional information are available on the Film Commission website. The Film Office may be contacted by telephone at 415-554-6241 or by email at film@sfgov.org.

San Francisco Parks

San Francisco parks are under the jurisdictions of several different agencies.

San Francisco Recreation and Park Department

A permit is required for all commercial still photography, including editorial, stock, and fine art.

Fees charged by the Department are based on the impact of the activity, and vary with the location, the amount of assistance or monitoring required, and whether or not the activity requires exclusive access to the area in which the photography takes place. The fee schedule is available on the Department’s Film, Video, & Photo Production page.

Some locations, such as Coit Tower, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, prohibit the use of tripods because of restricted space. The restrictions are clearly indicated at the entrances to those locations. Monopods are allowed at the Conservatory of Flowers.

Section 7.12 of the San Francisco Park Code requires a permit for commercial photography in San Francisco parks, and Sec. 7.17 requires the permit to be shown to a Recreation and Park Department employee or police officer upon request.

San Francisco Botanical Garden.
The San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum is operated by the Recreation and Park Department and the nonprofit San Francisco Botanical Garden Society.

A permit is required for any commercial photography, governed by Section 7.12 of the San Francisco Park Code. Permits are issued by the Recreation and Park Department.

Tripods may not be placed in the flower beds; however, an exemption can sometimes be obtained with a photography permit.

Additional information about City parks and rules for filming and photography are available on the Recreation and Park Department website.

San Francisco Port Parks

Some parks are under the jurisdiction of the Port of San Francisco. Section 6.11 of the San Francisco Port Code requires a permit for any commercial photography in those parks.

Yerba Buena Gardens

Yerba Buena Gardens is under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, but is managed by MJM Management Group under contract with the OCII. Conduct is covered by the San Francisco Park Code, and permit requirements are the same as for other San Francisco parks. MJM Management Group issue permits.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Areas within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Permit requirements are the same as those for National Parks. See the GGNRA’s Filming and Photography page for additional information.

Permit Contacts

Permits for different locations are issued by different agencies and private entities; a list of contacts for the various agencies is available on the San Francisco Film Office website.

Last updated September 2016

San Mateo County Parks

Section 3.68.080 (w) of the San Mateo County Code requires a permit for commercial photography. To issue a commercial photography permit, the Parks and Recreation Department require

  • A fee of $250 per day per park.
  • A certificate of insurance providing general liability coverage of $1,000,000, and naming San Mateo County as additional insured.
The latest schedule of fees and other requirements is available on the Parks and Recreation website.

For additional information, contact the Parks and Recreation Department at 650-363-4020 or at ParksandRecreation@smcgov.org.

Last updated June 2012

Santa Clara County Parks

Section B14-54.4 of the Santa Clara County Code requires a permit for commercial photography; Section B14-11.1 defines as “commercial” any photography that is “performed under contract for profit or may be sold for profit at a later date.” A permit may be obtained in person at the Parks Administration office in Los Gatos or by phone from the Parks Reservations Office at 408-355-2201. In most cases, a permit can also be obtained on the spot from a park ranger.

  • An annual permit is available for $155, valid for most Santa Clara County parks.
  • A certificate of insurance is normally not required, but may be required for larger photographic projects, such as those involving sets, that put the county at greater risk.

For additional information, contact the Parks Reservations Office (number above), Reception at 408-355-2200 ext. 0, or by email at parkinfo@prk.sccgov.org. For large shoots that may require special conditions, contact the Parks Use Coordinator at 408-355-2220. Additional contacts are listed on the Department website.

Last updated September 2016

Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District Lands

Section 603 of the Regulations for Use of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District Lands requires a permit for any “filming operation involving the use of film equipment, lighting, props, or other similar materials, except for a single still, motion picture, video, digital or other camera, for commercial purposes.”

To issue a permit, the District require

  • A completed permit application.
  • A fee of $350 per day ($175 per half-day), which is valid for any preserve operated by the District.

A certificate of insurance is seldom required for still photography.

For additional information, contact the District at 650-691-1200 or by email at permits@openspace.org.

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District administer 26 bayland and foothill open space preserves covering nearly 50,000 acres in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties.

Last updated September 2016

City of Palo Alto Parks and Preserves

Permits are required for all commercial photography; they are intended to cover large-scale activity such as commercial product advertising but not to limit small-scale activity such as individual nature photography or photography involved with weddings or similar events. In many cases, permits can be waived for small-scale activity for which the photographer observes all other regulations such as remaining on trails; in most cases, there is no fee or insurance requirement.

Section 2.08.050 of the Palo Alto Municipal Code authorizes the city manager to prescribe regulations for the use of any City property by members of the public. Chapter 22.04 requires compliance with regulations for use of city property and prohibits commercial activity without a permit. Section R1-21A of the Park and Open Space Regulations a permit for any commercial photography.

For Baylands Preserve, call 650-617-3156; for Foothills Park and other open space preserves, call 650-329-2423. Additional information, including the Open Space and Park Regulations, is available on the Open Space and Parks page.

Foothills Park is open only to Palo Alto residents and their guests; other parks, including Pearson-Arastradero and Baylands Preserves, are open to the public.

Last updated June 2012

Santa Barbara County

Section 14C-5 of the Santa Barbara County Code requires a permit for still photography on public or private property in unincorporated areas of the County or on property controlled by the County within incorporated areas.

Section 14C-6 (d) of the County Code provides an exemption for photography that is solely for private or family use.

Section 14C-6 (f) of the County Code provides an exemption for small-scale photography. The exemption is usually granted for stock and similar photography that doesn’t involve models, props, or crews, but the exemption must be requested in writing from the county film permit officer.

Section 14C-13 of the County Code requires a certificate of insurance providing general liability coverage of $1,000,000 and naming the County of Santa Barbara as additional insured as a condition for issuing a permit.

Detailed permitting information, fee schedules, a list of permit contacts for various locations in Santa Barbara County, and a permit application are available on the Santa Barbara Film Commission website. Contact the County Film Permit Office at 805-568-3030 for additional information.

Santa Barbara County Parks

Photography in Santa Barbara County parks that does not qualify for a permit exemption under Section 14C-6 (f) of the County Code requires a permit review fee and a use fee. Use fees for parks, buildings, and grounds range from $100 to $500 per day.

Permit requirements for Santa Barbara County parks, including contacts and a fee schedule, are covered in greater detail on the County website.

Last updated September 2016

City of Santa Barbara

All commercial still photography, including stock, editorial, and fine art, requires a permit from the Department of Parks and Recreation, who coordinate issuing of permits for the City. To issue a permit, the Department require

  • A completed permit application.
  • A certificate of insurance providing general liability coverage of $2,000,000 per occurrence and naming the City of Santa Barbara as additional insured.

The Waterfront Department normally require that photography in the Harbor area or on Stearns Wharf not interfere with vehicle, vessel, or pedestrian traffic. Amateur photographers with large tripods or other “professional” equipment who are concerned about being questioned by Department staff may wish to check in at the Harbor office before photographing.

Section 15.16.010 of the Santa Barbara Municipal Code prohibits practicing or conducting any occupation, business, or profession in any City park or on any City beach without a contract with the City of Santa Barbara, and the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Santa Barbara City Council interpret any still photography intended for sale for profit as conducting a business.

Section 17.13.030 of the Santa Barbara Municipal Code requires the permission of the Waterfront Director, permits from the City, and payment of appropriate fees for commercial photography on Stearns Wharf.

Section 17.28.100 of the Santa Barbara Municipal Code states similar requirements for commercial photography in the Harbor.

Detailed permitting information, fee schedules, and a permit application are available in PDF on the Santa Barbara Film Commission website.

Contact the Department of Parks and Recreation at 805-897-1999 or 805-897-1982 for additional information.

Business License Tax

Section 5.04 of the Santa Barbara Municipal Code requires an annual business license tax for a photographer who shoots for sale for profit, and is based in Santa Barbara or sells images in Santa Barbara. A photographer may choose to be licensed as a professional (description C on the application form) and pay a fixed fee, or as a home-based business or other business based outside City limits (description A4) and pay the tax based on gross receipts. Additional information, including an application form, is available on the City of Santa Barbara website.

Last updated September 2016

City of Los Angeles

Section 22.350 of the Los Angeles Administrative Code requires a permit, an application fee, and proof of insurance to use any City property for any commercial still photograph of, or including any City property. The Los Angeles City Council have delegated the authority to issue filming and photography permits to FilmL.A.; to issue a permit, FilmL.A. require

  • A completed permit application. The application fee is $63 ($660 if the crew size is 15 or greater).
  • A certificate of insurance naming the City of Los Angeles as additional insured. The required coverage is $500,000 ($1,000,000 if the crew size is 15 or greater).

For additional information, see the FilmL.A. Film Permits page or contact FilmL.A. at 213-977-8600 or info@filmlainc.com.

City of Los Angeles Parks

Permits are issued by FilmL.A., but the site must first be reserved through the Los Angeles Park Film Office. Certain activities may require monitoring by park staff and the payment of additional fees; Film Office staff will usually apprise the applicant if this or any other special conditions apply. The Film Office page includes a fee schedule and other details; the fees listed do not include the FilmL.A. permit application fee.

Certain locations, such as Griffith Observatory, require additional permissions and fees. The staff at Griffith Observatory are particularly sensitive to commercial photographers attempting to avoid payment of fees, and are likely to approach any photographer using a substantial tripod or other “professional” equipment.

For additional information, see the FilmL.A. Film Permits page, or contact FilmL.A. (213-977-8600) or the Los Angeles Park Film Office (323-644-6220).

Last updated September 2016

Orange County

Sec. 5-3-337 of the Orange County Codified Ordinances requires a permit for all still photography on County property; however, Sec. 5-3-338 exempts photography that is solely for private use.

To issue a permit, the County require a certificate of insurance indicating general liability coverage of $1,000,000, and an endorsement naming the County of Orange and as additional insured. The County require some specific language, on both the insurance certificate and the endorsement, that many other agencies do not require, and that may not be included on standard insurance forms. These requirements are described in the insurance instructions; the photographer’s insurance carrier should read the instructions carefully. Permit forms and insurance instructions are available on the Customer Care and Permit Services web page.

The fee for still photography is $150 per day, with a $500 surety deposit. The fee is good for any location in the County, provided that all locations are listed on the permit application and appropriate arrangements have been made with County personnel responsible for those locations. An annual permit for portrait photography is available for $150 plus a $500 surety deposit. Processing a permit application requires a minimum of three days.

For additional information about permits for locations other than harbors, beaches, and parks, see the Customer Care and Permit Services page.

Orange County Harbors, Beaches, and Parks

Permits for photography in County harbors, beaches, and parks are issued by OC Parks; fees are the same as for other areas in Orange County. To issue a permit, OC Parks require a certificate of insurance indicating general liability coverage of $1,000,000, and an endorsement naming the County of Orange and the State of California as additional insured. OC Parks require specific language not required by many other agencies, so the insurance instructions should be read carefully. Nominal time to process a permit application is five days, but this often can be reduced if an insurance certificate meeting all requirements is submitted with the application.

An annual portrait photography permit is available for $150 plus a $500 surety deposit; the permit can also be used for most other still photography. Insurance coverage must remain in effect for the entire year for the permit to remain valid. A photographer with an annual permit must make arrangements with the supervising ranger for the park, or other designated personnel, 48 hours in advance of the planned activity; if the activity would minimally disruptive, the 48-hour requirement can often be waived, but the supervising ranger must still be notified.

Information about County parks, including contact information, is available on the Orange County Harbors, Beaches, and Parks website. Permit applications and sample insurance documents are available on the OC Parks Filming & Photography Permits page.

For additional information, contact OC Parks at 949-585-6447 or 949-585-6463.

Last updated June 2012