Commercial Photography in National Parks
Text & Photographs By Jim Burnett  © All rights reserved.

Some of the premier locations for outdoor photography in the U.S. are located in areas administered by the National Park Service (NPS.) There are over 380 such sites, including not only national parks, but also monuments, recreation areas, seashores, and a host of other designations. Perhaps you're considering taking some photos in one of those areas that you later hope to sell. Does that make you a "commercial photographer," subject to any special requirements?
During my 30-year career as a NPS ranger I found that there was sometimes confusion by photographers, and occasionally staff members, about when a permit is required for © Jim Burnett photography. There are minor differences in rules in some parks, so the best advice is always to ask at the local area if you have any doubts. However, the following general guidelines for still photography (as opposed to commercial video or "motion pictures") should help unravel some of the mystery. Here's a summary from several NPS websites:
"The NPS does not require a permit for still photographers, commercial or non-commercial, when going [anywhere] or doing anything that members of the visiting public are generally allowed to go or do without a permit." In other words, as long as you're doing the same things as other visitors to the area, and don't break any of the usual rules, you shouldn't need a permit.
A permit is required if your photographic activities involve any of the following:

  • Taking photographs that involve product or service advertisement or the use of models, set dressings, props or equipment too large to be hand-carried;
  • the potential for damage to park resources or significant disruption of normal visitor use;
  • entry into areas not open to the public or before or after normal visitation hours.

    Those seem pretty straightforward. As examples, don't ask everyone else to move out © Jim Burnett of the way so you can get your shot, or bypass a closed gate, fence, or "area closed" sign. By all means, don't cut off a tree limb for an unobstructed view or otherwise alter the natural setting. Some locations require everyone to stay on a boardwalk or trail to protect fragile natural resources, so avoid the temptation to stray out of bounds in such areas. If it's obvious that you're shooting an ad for commercial purposes, plan to get a permit.

    A special point about wildlife photography: there can be a real temptation to get too close to animals or birds in search of that once-in-a-lifetime image. Not only is this potentially dangerous to you and disruptive of the wildlife, it can also be against the law.
    As an example, the number of injuries to visitors from bison, bears and other large mammals has prompted Yellowstone to enact specific regulations about how far you must stay from wildlife. Again, check when you arrive in any park for local guidelines and safety information. If wildlife photos are your thing, be properly equipped with adequate long lenses and lots of patience.
    A good source of official information is the NPS website: . From that page, you can go to the websites for each individual park and find contact information for that area. You can also do a search for terms such as "commercial photography."
    If you suspect you'll need a permit, contact the individual park headquarters well in advance of your visit. The permitting process can sometimes be lengthy and most park staffs are heavily overworked, so don't put yourself or the employees in a difficult situation with a last-minute request.
    In short, if you look and act like any other visitor as you take your photos, you should be just fine. Well, on second thought, try to behave more responsibly than many tourists and you'll not only simplify your life, you'll also have a safer and more enjoyable visit!
    "Veteran park ranger Jim Burnett is the author of Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America's National Parks. The book takes a fun and informative look at the lighter side of outdoor mishaps and at life as a ranger, and also provides some practical tips for safe trips to the Great Outdoors. Details are available at

    Click the author's gallery image on the top of the page to view the author's photographs.

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