Have you ever broken a law to get a photograph?

Picture: No trespassing signs and fence along the shore of Lake Tahoe, South Lake Tahoe, California

Image: No trespassing signs and fence along the shore of Lake Tahoe, South Lake Tahoe, California

Have you ever broken a law or ignored a warning to get a photograph?

The things some photographers do leave me raising an eyebrow, rolling my eyes, or worse, feeling like the words, “I’m a photographer,” is becoming more and more a dirty phrase.

Now mind you, I’m not as pure as fresh-fallen virgin snow, but fortunately I can say most of my tainted snowflakes fell during my teenage years, which I thankfully survived. However, this post isn’t about stupid teenager mentalities, but rather us adult photographers and the lengths we’ll go to get a photograph.

A spate of images which I’ve seen over the last few months seems to point out that some photographers don’t mind bending or breaking an occasional rule or law in order to get a photo.

Image: Footprints in the mud on the Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park, CaliforniaIt started earlier this year with a brutally wrenching photo posted by the National Park Service of footprints trampled into the mud at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Now this something I personally know to be well-signed at the parking lot. The park service clearly says driving on the playa is prohibited, but it’s unclear if these *idiots* broke an actual law by ignoring a posted request to not walk in the muddy portions of the playa. (Photo: Neal Nurmi / NPS)

I know for the National Parks, many things are posted as advisory warnings, but you won’t necessarily be breaking a law if you ignore them. Examples common in my local park, Yosemite, include things like “Stay back – Waterfall”, “Stay off – slippery rocks”, “Don’t hike in Tenaya Canyon”, “Don’t climb Half Dome if a storm is forecast”, etc.

But those warnings are clearly different from something like where there is a law saying “No Entry” or “Prohibited.” In the above cases, you may have to pay for your rescue if you ignored a warning, but I’m not sure you’d get a fine just for being an idiot who wants to climb Half Dome during a summer thunderstorm.

So what about where there are signs clearly posted for laws prohibiting something?

Before I go further; it’s confession time: my personal infraction level seems to be entirely weighted to sleeping in my truck where it may not have been allowed. (Some cities or entire counties may have ordinances against sleeping in vehicles.) I may have also broken a speed limit on dirt road once or thrice. But I can’t think of any time over the last many years of doing photography where I’ve specifically trespassed or broken any other laws to get a photo. I suppose you could chalk it up to being too scared, too chicken, or too respectful.

However, I’ve recently seen a bunch of photos posted by photographers who clearly seem to think it’s OK to go where they’re not supposed to go, or do something they’re not supposed to do, just to get a photograph. Whether it’s photographing a bridge from a certain location, entering an abandoned building, climbing on tufa at Mono Lake, standing on a branch of a Bristlecone Pine, or shooting a waterfall; I’m curious at what point does the desire for an image cause us to risk bending the rules or breaking a law?

Picture: Teenagers playing in the Sacramento River below Mossbae Falls, near Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County, California

Image: Teenagers playing in the Sacramento River below Mossbrae Falls, near Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County, California
Two of California’s most-scenic waterfalls cannot be reached because of no trespassing or prohibited entry, both of which are posted for safety reasons. Fortunately you can still photograph one of those waterfalls (in Big Sur) from a distance via a popular lookout trail. The other is Mossbrae Falls in Siskiyou County, near Mount Shasta. For over 100 years, people have been walking along the railroad tracks to reach this secluded waterfall. But until the age of digital photography and the internet, this location was not well known, and pretty much ‘off-the-radar’. Access along the tracks was pretty much a given access easement. But as word and the number of photos of this location spread, so did the number of people trying to reach or photograph this beautiful location.
But as I wrote in my book, Photographing California; vol. 1 – North, a few years ago, the crowds causing parking problems in the small town of Dunsmuir, and erosion along the banks of the railroad tracks caused enough of a problem that the town closed the parking area, and the railroad posted clear No Trespassing signs. The local Sheriff office now routinely cites people it catches walking on the tracks. (FYI: My images were shot a number of years before the access along the tracks was ‘officially’ terminated or the start of citations being handed out.)

Unfortunately, there is no access from the opposite side of the river, which crosses private property. This has rendered the falls inaccessible, except by traveling up or down the Sacramento River. Although there is a current plan to put in a public trail, that option doesn’t exist yet. So what’s a photographer to do if they want a photo of this waterfall? Trespass, or wait until the path is built.

Does the urgency or desire to get a photo warrant taking the chance of getting caught trespassing. or perhaps, even worse, risking serious injury or even death if a train should come by at exactly the wrong moment, and you’re stuck in a place with no chance of safe retreat? (In Big Sur, the beach at the base of the falls is closed due to the risk of falling off the steep, fragile, and eroding cliffs.)

Now let’s say you choose to go and take pictures of said waterfall, regardless of the rules or posted signs. You then post your beautiful images of the falls online to the ohhs and ahhs of admiring fans, followers, and fellow photographers. I’m just curious what message you’re sending? Look at this beautiful photo; I broke the law to get it, so you should, too? What about the more contradictory, “It’s OK if I do it, but you shouldn’t”?

So… where’s your line? Are there absolutes? Are there exceptions, and if so, when and why? Have you seen any photos taken by someone doing something or of someplace they shouldn’t have been? Anyone else feel like confessing? I hear it’s good for the soul, but don’t take my word for it.



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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.




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29 Comments on “Have you ever broken a law to get a photograph?”

  1. Richard Wong Says:

    Thanks for posting this Gary. I recently mentioned the Mossbrae Falls access issue on my blog post as well (I did not attempt to visit). I personally think photographers are buffoons for trespassing for the sake of photography, social media fame, etc… If you do that you go from “photographer” to law-breaking citizen. Another trespassing spot I frequently see posted online these days is that Bay Bridge / SF skyline photo from under the bridge. Photographers are dumb enough to even write about how they pull it off. They should receive a retroactive citation in my opinion.

  2. Richard Wong Says:

    Or trampling across sensitive meadows in Glacier National Park that the NPS says are off-limits to get to Triple Falls.

  3. Ludwig Keck Says:

    There are many locations that are off limits to photographers. Sometimes it is not at all obvious. Most shopping centers and malls prohibit photos, that is understandable, these are private property, but I was accosted by a security guard on a public street with “You can’t photograph this building!” No. it was not a bank or high security location, just a tall condo building with shops on the ground floor. No way I could have known. Then there is the issue of photographing strangers. When is “street photography” invasion of privacy? What can you do with such photos without the strangers permission? Can we assume that photography is allowed unless there are explicit signs forbidding it? It is very easy to run afoul of restrictions and laws. Before I go into a museum, zoo, botanical garden, and other such places I inquire about taking pictures. In some places we photographers are welcome, in others we are trespassers.

  4. murphyz Says:

    In your examples above I would not have crossed a signposted line and walked on the mud surrounding at Racetrack Playa as I feel that would have spoiled the environment (even if it’s just an aesthetic thing) and I’m more cautious towards that than I am to other things. However, I have, and do, happily enter buildings – abandoned, under construction, etc – to get a unique vantage point to take photos or to see what is there. The signs I ignore for this are generally ‘do not enter’ or ‘you are trespassing’ type ones. Entering these locations I don’t believe that I will come to any harm, regardless of how unsafe the structure may be. If my mindset was such that I did feel I would come to any harm, I would not do it. Likewise, when it turns out that you are seen and the police are called, and you waste their time and resources on the fact they call out a search helicopter and that type of thing, then yes there is guilt at having caused that trouble, but I don’t enter the building expecting to get caught. On a good day you get in and out unseen, and unhurt, and while there – as with anywhere – you take care not to damage anything you come into contact with.

    In the UK it’s generally civil trespass rather than criminal trespass, so you will be simply escorted from the premises. If I’m in a country where I am not confident of the law, I will not do it. However I would happily work my way up to the rooftop of a building I was in, such as my hotel, where there are rarely any signs saying not to. If I hit a locked door I turn back, otherwise I enjoy the view.

    Getting a unique image can of course be motivation, but it’s getting that unique experience and view which is the real motivator. I would happily do it without a camera, but when you get caught it’s less convincing that you are there for the view if you don’t have one to hand, so it makes sense to go with the gear and shoot while you are there. I feel there is a big difference in the signs telling you to keep out because the area is private or unsafe, than those which are saying keep out to protect something there. I am more likely to respect the latter, as the intention is not to ruin anything by the visit.

    The Racetrack Playa image above makes me unhappy. For the SF bridge noted in the previous comment, I went there, I saw the fence, I saw the sign and I respected it, as I wasn’t sure of the law there and because I was on a work trip so first and foremost I knew I was representing someone else by being in that location. If that had been in the UK I would have likely crossed it as I would have known what to expect should I be caught.

  5. M Says:

    Gary

    It’s a tough not so black and white issue. We live in a world of lawyers and fences. Speeding is illegal, like you pointed out car camping is illegal…..where do you draw the line? Obviously damaging tufa, ancient trees, or fragile lake beds is over that line. But is walking somewhere and not hurting anything evil? Other less litigious countries have very different types of access restrictions….perhaps the US needs to trend back in that direction before the only nature we are allowed to experience is a paved and fenced path 20 ft from the edge of the waterfall.

    M

  6. Ced Bennett Says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Gary. And I add to that, those photographers who violate rules (not just laws) when photographing inside building were the signs clearly say, no photography and/or no tripods. These same folks have legitimate concerns about their ownership rights to their images and others who steal them but think nothing of violating ownership rights of buildings or art in those buildings (and even brag about how they pulled it off and got away with it).

    I suspect that, aside from doing what’s right, these scofflaws don’t seem to realize or care what their disregard for signage is doing to the profession in general, Nor do they seem to care what affect they are having on the creation of even more restrictions for all of us.

  7. Lori Carey Says:

    Even more than being a legal issue I see it as a lack of respect for others and respect for the land and wildlife. I have been furious lately at the number of new enthusiasts who boldly state “We’re photographers and the rules/signs don’t apply to us!”. Not long ago there was a very popular “rock star” photographer on G+ who stirred up the masses to defend their right to photograph whatever and whenever they want and boycott any place that prohibits photography. When a big name says it is okay, everyone falls in behind him. That selfish, entitled attitude gives all of us a bad name and sadly it seems as if it’s becoming more prevalent these days.

    I respect the laws and signage because, like you, I fear that one day all we will be able to do is look at the world from behind a fence. I respect the sensitive nature of the land, the need for animals to have some peace during breeding/nesting season and the need to protect sensitive resources so they will still be there tomorrow for others to enjoy.

    Confession – recently I inadvertently hiked into an area that was temporarily closed for nesting at an archaeological site because it was too dark (and maybe I was too tired) before sunup to notice the small sign (which was the first thing I noticed as I was leaving in daylight!). I would never approach a nest or get close to any animals so I’m fairly confident I didn’t disturb any. Even still, I haven’t shared those images because I’m embarrassed by my actions.

    I wish more people would speak up when they see someone bragging on social media about breaking laws just to get the photo. It seems we are in the minority these days.

  8. Leon Says:

    I have not been back to Mossbrae Falls since they closed the parking area, the reason being because I do not like to trespass. I think, however, that there is a HUGE difference between trespassing at Mossbrae Falls and going down to the beach at McWay Falls. If you want to go to Mossbrae, well that does not really bother me. If you want to take a risk that you will be fined, go ahead; it is the same risk you take if you want to speed or car camp illegally. That does not make it right, I’m just saying it does not really bother me too much. You are not doing any damage to the environment or property by walking along the railroad tracks. Mossbrae Falls has always had public access in the past, historically, and the waterfall itself is on public land; there really “should be” and “needs to be” public access to it. However, people going down to the beach at McWay Falls really tick me off. The cliffs there are extremely sensitive, and if you go down there, you are contributing significantly to the erosion of the cliffs – even one person has great impact. And in addition, if you are down there and mess up the beach in any way (which people do), then you are ruining the experience of others who came to enjoy the view (and photograph) the falls from the viewpoint above. It is stupid, irresponsible, and idiotic. It is on the same level as climbing on a tufa, or ruining the playa at DV. That is my 2 cents.

  9. QT Luong Says:

    I’m not going to say anything about the legality of my activities in public, but I’ll note that there are basically two types of regulations: those meant to protect the resources and those meant to protect your safety. They don’t carry the same weight.

  10. Tj Says:

    My own personal belief regardless of photography has been that trespassing is a really stupid law. The earth is here for everyone to explore and to say “no you can’t go here” to me is just lame. Everyone should be able to go wherever they want without limitations. However, with that being said I understand that things such as trespassing somewhere and graffiting or wrecking the place are not okay. So for me, I believe that as long as you are causing no harm than why not. And if it gets me a good picture, hell yeah I’ll do it.. But many people disagree with me and that’s okay

  11. Richard Wong Says:

    What really pisses me off is when you go to a place like Muir Woods and you see the tourists climbing all over the redwood trees to pose for pictures. It makes no sense to me why people have so little regard for the subject matter that they damage the very thing they came to see! All just for a few stupid pictures.

  12. Chuq Von Rospach Says:

    Richard, for many of those people, it’s not the subject matter that is important, but that they’re there and they want others to know they were there… Just look at how so many vacation pics are framed…. (“you can’t see it, but behind my wife is Old Faithful….”)

  13. Joe Azure Says:

    Interesting topic… If one owns private property, and wishes to keep people off of it for any reason, they probably have that right. That is why we have private property laws (and easements).

  14. John Mueller Says:

    The majority of the laws that photographers break in order to obtain a photo are the trespassing laws. Fortunately I’ve been studying the Ca trespassing laws (CPC 602 and 505) and am familiar with the intricacies with them. I actually carry copies of them with me at all times just to use in defense if I’m approached by a landowner, stranger or peace officer. I won’t get into what they say, but knowing the law well can probably save your butt if you’re in an area which may be considered off limits.

  15. Jim Stamtes Says:

    Interesting subject Gary. I agree with QT Luong. I’m not talking. However, most of the regulations or laws I come across that prevent me from ‘getting the shot’ are at some point ridiculous. Those that are charged with protecting our public lands have a huge job and it is easier to lock us out then to manage us. The one I come across most is the distance we must stay from wildlife in our National Parks. 100 yards for bears and wolves, 25 yards from all other wildlife. Squirrels and birds, too. In our National Forests we can get a permit to kill the same species we can’t approach to within 100 yards in parks. Go figure. But I get it, we are a litigious country and if we get attacked by a bear that has been harassed all day long by photographers and tourists, we will sue the park service. There is even a ‘willfully remain’ reg. if an animal approaches you. The very reason I go to National Parks is to have the experience of closeness to nature, to have a wild animal accept me. And you want me to retreat? No way, I’ll let my subject do it’s thing and get as close as it wants (as long it is not being aggressive). But never in view of other people. Not because I’m worried about getting in trouble, I just don’t want others to ruin my experience. See, I’m selfish, too.

  16. G Dan Mitchell Says:

    Thanks for this article, Gary. I acknowledge that there are gray areas. I suppose that the “worst” I have done is probably to step over a wire fence to be closer to a cliff view—pretty small potatoes, and most likely a violation of the personal safety rules and not the law. (I have some significant background in outdoor places and doing a variety of outdoor activities, so I probably am better equipped to rationally judge such risks that your average tourist.)

    To some extent it comes down to a matter of respect, and this is important for folks whose very work is taken to promote and portray a deep respect for subjects that are often regarded and precious and fragile. Anyone who accepts the description of “nature photographer” or “landscape photographer” or “wildlife photographer” should understand (and probably embraces) the idea that this is not just a recognition that they know how to operate cameras really well, but that they are viewed as having a special relationship with these special places.

    Violating that trust is no unimportant matter. Sometimes a person who really loves these places will put their well-being ahead of his/her personal desire to “get the shot” and refrain from doing things that are arguably unethical. I know I have and I suspect many others have as well.

    Take care,

    Dan

  17. Rob Says:

    For those who believe it’s ok to trespass on private property, what if it was reversed and I trespassed onto your property or into your house to get a better view for my shot? I believe that unless you are shooting on your own property, you are a guest on someone else’s and you disrespect them by breaking their rules. Is your shot really so important?

    Not too long ago a very popular photographer shared a photo he shot inside a museum that prohibited photography. His comment was that he felt the rule was stupid, so he ignored it. As a previous commenter mentioned, many of photographers expect others to respect their copyrights and not infringe on their intellectual property, but have little respect for the property of others.

  18. Reilly Says:

    I bounced back and forth a lot on where I landed with this, but I realized that no matter the sign, I would pursue the shot.
    But the key for me is that it isn’t just the picture I’m getting, it’s the whole experience, the tension of doing something dangerous or controversial. Those pictures will encompass that whole journey, and pushing the boundaries is a great way to look at something differently.
    If I do choose to press on past a no trespassing, or private property sign, then I have made the choice to accept whatever outcome that may present. If I am hurt, I knew the stakes. It is going around the law and pushing my luck, but I’ve found that those risks usually generate huge rewards

  19. Carole Says:

    Hi, a very good thing to ponder, for those of us who will actually obey the rules; the rest will be blissfully ignoring them no matter the cost. In my teens and twenties I would sneak around to get a great pic, however, a particularly terrifying experience involving a winter storm at a vacant park and the US Navy, cured that tendency. And that was 25 or more years ago. Before that I had gleefully climbed atop hotel roofs, over embankments, etc…not anymore. I also now value my body and do what I can to stay mobile and healthy. Respecting my body, nature and boundaries developed through experiences. While I have always loved and hiked into lakes, camped, and sought out the solitude of nature, I am more at peace now and do not feel the need to push boundaries or test the patience of the owners just because I have to have that one shot. Not that I don’t occasionally wish I were more daring, but I have mellowed enough to realize there is always another opportunity somewhere else, or even an overlooked shot in the area. As I have gotten older it has become more important to me to be a good representative of those who take pictures, and do my best to respect rules and interact in ways that leave a good impression.

  20. enlightphoto Says:

    I should mention that I did recall one time when I had accidentally trespassed out in the California Delta; I knew the land was private but assumed the paved, yellow-striped road was a public county road. I was shooting pictures of birds when the land-owner came up to greet me armed with a pistol and escorted me off the island. Not a fun experience. I couldn’t imagine deliberately trespassing to invite that kind of potential encounter.

  21. Robin Black Says:

    For me, this comes down to a very basic issue of ethics vs. ego. This (very good) post happened to coincide with a photographer I follow on Facebook posting a photo of Fly Geyser in Nevada–a place that, while strangely beautiful and something we’d all love to shoot, is not only on private property, but on property the landowners have been VERY clear they do not want people trespassing on, period. The photographer’s attitude is that HE doesn’t believe in the law, and HE wants that shot, so HE is going to trespass–and that makes it right in his mind, and he just shrugs at anybody who’s taken aback by that. While I may have considered stepping over a fence in the past, I’ve more and more come to a position that respecting the law–no matter how much it annoys me–is more important than my own desire to get the shot, and choosing to violate it doesn’t just break the law, but may end up impacting other photographers or even the spot itself. One individual has no right to do that.

    There’s now apparently a rumor circulating that the landowner is so tired of the flagrant trespassing that he’s going to bulldoze the geyser (it’s an accidentally manmade structure in the first place–we could have a separate discussion over whether it has now evolved to a “natural” feature or not). So, folks like that who arrogantly trespass may end up being responsible for the destruction of a coveted photography spot. That’s ego winning over ethics, no matter how “wrong” a person thinks the law is, and I am appalled at that photographer’s selfish and cavalier attitude.

    Similar laws protecting public treasures like the Wave in Coyote Buttes are also often broken–again, ego over ethics. That’s an extraordinarily fragile and unique landscape, and it’s protected for a very good reason. And if you get caught violating that law on public land? You won’t just be dealing with an angry landowner, you’ll be facing federal prosecution and likely be banned from public lands for a period of several years. If you won’t respect that out of consideration for all other photographers, you should at least respect that for your protection and right of access.

  22. Joe Azure Says:

    I’m pretty sure Mr. J isn’t going to bulldoze Fly :) That said – it is wrong to ignore the landowner’s wishes regarding access to private property. Get permission like the rest of us please.

  23. H William Says:

    At first I was amazed at the selfishness expressed by so many but then I realized that we live in a “Me First” generation and so many really don’t give a care about anyone but themselves. Guess it’s a sign of the times. Appalling!

  24. Rachid Dahnoun Says:

    This is definitely not a black and white issue for me and depends on the situation. Without going into excessive detail my opinion could be summarized as follows. If the trespassing causes direct harm to people or the environment than I am against it. However, for all other scenarios I subscribe to the practice that it is much better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

  25. Rob Says:

    I cannot begin to tell you how tired I am of hearing photographers say “it is much better to ask for forgiveness than permission” (as in the comment above) to justify trespassing. If you go someplace knowing beforehand that you may have to ask forgiveness, then you already know that you need permission and you have no right to enter without it.

  26. Nigel Voak Says:

    Yes I must admit I probably have. I like photographing architecture and often there are signs prohibiting photography, particularly in state owned buildings here in Italy. These I happily ignore if I can, especially in publicly owned buildings that I help to pay for with my taxes. I do not use flash so I do not damage anything. Here is an example of a Roman building in Aosta that I photographed when the warden was out of sight. nigelvoak.blo...ontains.html

    Usually for non state owned places I ask permission that is usually granted, but with state owned sites here in Italy it would just mean a bureaucratic nightmare.

    In National parks I respect the rules to the letter as the laws are there to protect the enviroment from the ignorant and horrors like the photo on your blog make me angry.

    I also once explored an almost derelict uninhabited 15 century tower house to see the structure on the inside. I suppose I was trespassing.

    I must say I have never lost any sleep over photographing where photography is banned nor infringing the hideous privacy laws we have here in Europe. I would just avoid situations where I might get arrested and I avoid certain street photography subjects that our neurotic society now equates with a certain deviancy.

  27. Ted Says:

    My 2 cents on the problem: there should be rules that concern the safety of the individual and laws to protect what needs protecting – delicate natural areas, sensitive areas (military comes to mind); private property and so on.

    Rules are mostly created so the owner of the land is covered from liability should anything happen to you: “Don’t climb Half Dome if a storm is forecast”, “don’t get too close to niagara falls” – I once saw in a park an advisory that said something along the lines – “slippery when ice or snow is present, risk of falling”; if you do, and you get injured or worse, they’re covered; and in north america where everybody just waits for a reason to sue anybody else, there will be more and more and more rules and limitations and so on. Feel free not to follow them but be ready to face the consequences to yourself.

    As for the laws that protect what needs to be protected, do what they say! no photo is worth destroying something nature created in hundreds, thousands, or millions of years. As for private property, look at it the other way around – of you’re ok with strangers entering your house for a better view, by all means, go ahead… Just don’t be too upset if others have a different view on things!

  28. David Leland Hyde (@PhilipHydePhoto) Says:

    Great that you are writing about these issues, Gary. It is important for the photographic community to read, think about and voice opinions on such issues, even it leads to disagreement. I believe in civil disobedience when a law is unjust, but self-determining the justice of a law on the spot to suit my own fancies and ulterior motivations, is delusion. Many people put much energy into recognition, but don’t consider the shame of being a bad example–or don’t care. How can people care so much about what people think of their photographs and not care at all about what people think of their ethics? Destructive narcissistic contradictions seem to be involved there somewhere.

  29. G Dan Mitchell Says:

    In most cases, I think that if you/we disagree with the law we should at least first try to work to change it.

    Of course, when we come to real examples it quickly becomes clear — at least to me — that things can become a bit situationally subjective. As you point out, Gary, some of the “rules” are jus that, rules but not laws. Some of them are there to protect people who don’t know what they are doing. For example, there are signs (and a fence!) at the top of Vernal fall telling people to not step beyond the fence. Don’t worry… when the water is high or lots of others are about I don’t step over that fence. However, after a lifetime of mountain travel including a lot of cross-country travel and some serious rock-climbing, I know my own limits and tend to rely on them for my own safety more than relying on rules designed to protect folks who are not familiar with outdoor situations.

    In other cases, it is pretty apparent that the “rules” (and even “laws”) are not meant to be enforced literally. Speed lints are a fine example. Although I tend to turn on cruise control and drive at the limit, the fact is that everyone from drivers to cops to judges understands that a 65mph speed limit really means, “Don’t go much faster than 65mph.” But note that the situation here is clear to virtually everyone, and no one is making their own personal, ego-centric exception to the laws that everyone else follows… and there is arguably no harm to others.

    On the other hand, we have cretins like those who walked all over Race Track Playa when it was muddy. These folks not only violated a clear rule, but they also violated a social contract and set themselves above both the law aIn thnd above other visitors to the area. They act as if they are personally entitled to behave in ways that would be untenable if everyone acted that way, and they think nothing of the fact that thousands of others will be “injured” by their behavior. Such people, unless they are just plain ignorant of what they are doing, act in a way that is borderline sociopathic. That is a harsh word, but in fact they do lack empathy with their fellow humans and for the landscape that they mess up.

    In the end, regardless of the technical issue of where the boundary lies, it is hardly ever necessary to consider breaking the law in order to make a photograph. (An exception might be for a person using photography to reveal some hidden news, and who might trespass in order to perform a service to society.) The world is full of so many beautiful photographic subjects that if one is unavailable, all one needs to do is look a bit further and find another one. I can tell stories of times when I’ve been unable to make a photograph that I hoped to make, and when forced to let go of that and look for alternatives I have frequently done some of my best work!

    Dan



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