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No Photography Allowed

February 27, 2012

UPDATE 7/1/2015: The White House just announced that photography will be allowed on regular tours of the White House. Contact your Senator or Representative and set up a tour today.  You can check out Michelle Obama’s announcement of the policy change on Instagram.

I get embarrassed when I’m “corrected” by a security guard about having a tripod where it’s not allowed. It’s also disappointing to realize that I won’t get a photo that I’ve imagined (at least where a tripod is necessary).  That’s one reason why I started this blog; to save you that hassle.  In each of the blog articles I try to outline the random patchwork of tripod restriction areas across the many sights in DC.

With this post, I want to take that one step further and tell you where you’re not allowed to take pictures at all.  Nobody really talks about where photography is not allowed. Hopefully this post can help you avoid run-ins with security guards and the disappointment of pre-planning a photo that just won’t happen.

For Security

Washington, DC tries (and sometimes fails) to properly balance security with public interest.  Any place that attracts visitors is going to attract cameras; SLRs, point-and-shoot, cell phones, etc.  Figuring out where to draw that line can seem arbitrary and burdensome to photographers.  Nowhere does this balance tip more toward the security side than the seats of power;  the Capitol, the Supreme Court; and the Pentagon.

The House and Senate Chambers – On the regular tour of the Capitol building that you arrange through the Capitol website or through your Congressperson photography is allowed, even encouraged. If you want to see a session of the House or Senate however, you’ll have to check your camera with the Sergeant at Arms’ Staff at either the House or Senate Gallery Staging Areas (<– this is a correction, thanks to a vigilant reader).  You can get floor passes to sit in on a Congressional Session by visiting the office of your Senator or Representative.

The Supreme Court Chambers – Again, photography is allowed throughout the building, just not in the courtroom.  Visiting the courtroom is filled on a first-come, first-served basis by standing in line during times when the court is in session.  You can either sit in for the whole time or walk through as the justices are hearing arguments.  No photography please!

The Pentagon – Given its recent history and the generally secretive nature of national security it probably isn’t surprising that photography isn’t allowed around the Pentagon.  As soon as you come out of the Pentagon Metro Station you’ll see “No Photography” signs everywhere.  It’s also probably no surprise that you can’t take pictures while on tours of the interior of the building.  Exception: The Pentagon 9/11 Memorial.   Photography is allowed in this narrowly defined area.

In General – As a general rule you should avoid taking pictures of security checkpoints, bag screeners, or individual security guards.  This will definitely raise some red flags for security who are told to be vigilant for those gathering intelligence for a future attack.

For Peace and Quiet

There are some places where photography is banned, not so much for security, but for the protection of artwork and for the sanity of people who want to enjoy a place without mirrors clicking, shutters closing, cameras beeping, or flashes popping.

National Archives Rotunda – Like many places that house artwork and fine print work, I’m willing to bet that this was meant as a ban on flash photography to protect documents that are sensitive to light, but they soon realized that people don’t know how to turn off the flash on their cameras so expanded it to complete abstinence. You can bring your camera in but you’ll have to stow it while walking through the rotunda.

Library of Congress Reading Room – This is one of the most beautiful rooms in all of DC and it would quickly fill up with people if they didn’t have restrictions.  You can get into the room to study or do research by obtaining a reader identification card but you can’t take any photos.  There is an overlook that is accessible to non-card carrying visitors but photography is banned from there as well.  Exception: The Library of Congress Reading Room Open House. On Columbus Day (in October) and President’s Day (in February) the Library of Congress opens the Reading Room and the Overlook to visitors and photographers.

In General – You should also avoid flash photography in any building that has artwork (painted or photographed; not sculptures) or documentation out of respect for the artist/author and for the people who would like to see a non-faded version of it 100 or 200 years from now. There will often be signage that specifically state “Flash Photography Prohibited.”

A Public Service Announcement – Don’t Be a Dick to Security

Also, please, please, please don’t get into altercations with security who ask you what you’re doing or ask you to move along.  At least once a month I’ll read an article about a photographer who gets hassled by security.  Most often these stories take place in the Metro or near public transportation hubs like Union Station or Reagan National Airport.

All of these stories go the exact same way.  A security guard or police officer asks a photographer what they’re doing.  The photographer explains. The guard doesn’t understand and asks further questions or asks the person to go elsewhere. The photographer attempts to demonstrate their intellectual superiority by quoting something about photography in public places that they read on the Internet.  The guard gets upset that they’re being corrected and/or talked down to by the photographer and the situation escalates into something more than it has to.

Explain what you’re doing to the guard and if he or she still asks you to go…just acknowledge that they have a tough job (picking out genuinely dangerous folks from hordes of innocuous ones) and go.  Maybe the guard does legitimately need further training about dealing with photographers but arguing with them isn’t going to change their mind.  Ask to speak to their supervisor if you’d like to address it.

I’ve only been stopped once. I was on the National Mall attempting to make a timelapse video of clouds passing over the Smithsonian Castle.  I had my camera on a tripod and I was looking up a lot, which I guess was pretty suspicious.  A Park Police officer drove up and asked me what I was doing, I explained, and he drove away.  He did pass by a couple more times in the half hour I was out there but everything went well.  Granted, I’m a nerdy, young-looking, white male so I probably don’t fit a lot of mental profiles that might make a behavior seem any more suspicious than it is.  The moral of the story is that it doesn’t have to turn into a thing.

Have Something to Add?

I want this page (and this site) to be a resource for people visiting DC with their camera as well as local photographers.  If you know any locations around DC I should add to this list let me know in the comments below or via my CONTACT FORM.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2012 10:27 am

    I agree that you shouldn’t be a jerk to security / police whenever they inquire about your photography. I was at the Supreme Court a few weeks back to take a pinhole photo using my tripod. Instead of just setting up wherever I wanted while spouting, “I PAID FOR THIS WITH MY TAXES I CAN BE HERE,” I politely asked a Capitol Police Officer where it would be cool and where it wouldn’t be cool to set up my tripod. He said anywhere on the sidewalk would be ok, but they preferred that I not to set up on the marble steps. That sounded reasonable to me, so I complied.

    But at the same time, I would like to make the point that it would always be in your best interest to understand the law and your rights regarding photography in public spaces and on public property. You don’t have to be mean-spirited to understand your rights.

    • February 28, 2012 11:08 am

      Very true Eric. Knowing your rights and knowing when they’re being flagrantly abused is important.

      I was trying to be a bit provocative which sometimes leads to unfair treatment of the issue. I just get frustrated by how people in the “confrontation articles” express their disagreement, especially in situations that are ambiguous and up for interpretation.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • February 28, 2012 11:14 am

      Your comment brings up another great point that’s worth pointing out. If you’re doing something you think might be interpreted as suspicious you can head it off at the pass by talking to security beforehand.

  2. Xavier permalink
    February 28, 2012 11:47 pm

    There is a location I’ve always wondered about. In the Pentagon Metro Station, not even in the Pentagon itself, there are signs indicating “No photography” What is the status of that? What is the enforcement there? Who are the authority in charge of the Pentagon metro station? I’d imagine it’ still Metro Transit Police, but other forces may have jurisdiction there as well.

    • February 29, 2012 8:36 am

      I’m not sure Xavier. I’ve only been to Pentagon Station twice. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was additional, multi-layer security there. I was a security guard while on a military base, and remember how stressful that was, so I tend to give excessive deference to security at (and around) military sites. That station is the same as any other station. I’d just recommend people take their pictures at Gallery Place, L’Enfant, or some place like that.

  3. February 29, 2012 10:08 am

    Here’s an interesting article from TBD.com that doesn’t totally disagree with what I wrote here but ends with the phrase “Know your rights and demand them, photographers.” I don’t disagree with that but this article also has quotes from photographers that illustrate what I dislike about these incidents; a sense of intellectual superiority: “I find that in these situations it’s usually best to ignore them and go about my business rather than waste time trying to educate an unreasonable person as to what my rights are.”

    If anything my article advocates moderation. I think this is an interesting discussion though.

    http://www.tbd.com/blogs/tbd-on-foot/2012/02/photographers-shouldn-t-have-to-defend-legal-metro-photos-to-wmata-14638.html

  4. February 29, 2012 12:53 pm

    I’ve spoken with Metro officials and their on-the-books rule is you can take photos anywhere within publicly accessible areas in the Metro system (you can’t walk along the tracks) just as long as you don’t use a tripod, and you do not obstruct the flow of people (almost said human traffic haha)

  5. July 4, 2012 5:26 pm

    I understand there are places were I cannot take pictures, however am I still permitted to have my camera with me as long as it is in a bag/backpack? I don’t want to have to go back and forth to the hotel or scour DC for a trustworthy locker. I know the White House says no cameras at all, but wasn’t sure about other sites. Thanks!

  6. July 4, 2012 6:46 pm

    The answer to your question is, it depends. The White House and Pentagon tours don’t allow you to bring cameras at all. You can have your camera for walking around the Pentagon to get to the 9/11 Memorial. You can take it into the overlook for the Library of Congress Reading Room. You can take it with you into the National Archives. And you can check it if you go into either chamber of Congress.

    Really there aren’t many places where you have to ditch the camera completely and those are the places that require a little more planning. If you can, try to plan them close together so you don’t have to go back and forth. I found my congressman’s staff very helpful with making these arrangements.

    Hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have any other questions.

    • James permalink
      March 1, 2013 9:09 am

      Hi Brandon
      Not clear if photography (without a tripod) is permitted at Metro Stations ??

      • Marque permalink
        November 30, 2014 5:58 pm

        Yes photography is permitted in Metro Stations if you DO NOT use a tripod or anything else that prohibits the free flow of pedestrians and is not unsafe (i.e. you can’t use it on the edge of the platform). The Pentagon station is the one exception where not photography is permitted whatsoever.

  7. February 21, 2015 12:44 pm

    My husband and I got married at Fairfax County City Hall, and afterwards, we took our photographer into the city and took pictures in a couple of museums. But I love pictures that show movement, so we asked one of the Metro security guards if we could jump the rail to take some pictures with the waffle ceiling and trains moving behind us. He looked confused at first – he probably doesn’t get that request too often – but he did let us in and gave us a time frame to get it done.

    Their jobs are hard, I don’t envy them and I applaud any effort to make it easier for everyone. Great post.

  8. January 19, 2016 8:05 am

    I’ve used a “tripod Pass” obtainable at the Park Police office one block from the Capital and it has worked out great. General rule, no tripods inside the memorials.

Trackbacks

  1. Photographing the White House Grounds « PhotoTourism DC
  2. Photographing The White House « PhotoTourism DC
  3. Photographing the Interior of the U.S. Capitol « PhotoTourism DC

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