Is it kosher to take photographs of private residences?
February 25, 2010 2:10 PM   Subscribe

Is it ok to take photographs of people's houses from the street for a school project?

I'd like to take pictures of homes in a historic part of my city for a grad school class project involving the neighborhood as a whole. It occurred to me that I'd be sort of freaked out if someone was taking pictures of my (not so picturesque) house, and I wondered whether it's considered not cool to do this.

I'd rather not ask each individual owner for permission, especially as part of the project involves a run-down part of the neighborhood where I plan to just ride my bike down the street and snap some photos.

In general, I like taking photographs of interesting buildings, signs, etc., but for some reason an office, commercial or industrial structure seems to be appropriate for photographing, while I'm not so sure about residences.

My question is: is this ethical? Am I invading people's privacy by taking photos from the street without asking? Am I risking a confrontation?

These photos will be seen by a class of about 30 students, but I won't otherwise make them public.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Google street-view is way ahead of you on this one. Not that that necessarily makes it any more or any less ethical.

I would think it was okay as long as you made sure to not take pictures of the buildings and not the people inside them.
posted by colfax at 2:14 PM on February 25, 2010

Your location is in the United States. The houses are visible from the street, a public byway. You are able to photograph them without asking permission. It is perfectly legal.

Read more on your rights.

I have done similar things and never worried about it. If people ask what I am doing, I usually say "taking pictures". If they want to know more, I take the time and explain it to them.
posted by fake at 2:20 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's perfectly legal as well as perfectly ethical, especially if no publication is planned; you don't need permission.

But if you want to go the extra mile, where practical (owners live in the houses), you could drop an explanatory leaflet into the mailboxes a few days in advance, and tell people to call you if they have a problem. But in a rundown section of town it's likely the owners are absentees, so it might not work there.
posted by beagle at 2:22 PM on February 25, 2010

If it's the historical part of your town, they're surely used to people taking pictures of their homes. Obviously, be mindful of taking pictures through someone's open windows. Be friendly if anyone confronts you about it, but I'd play it cool--not OMIGOD I'm so sorry I didn't mean to freak you out--but rather, No photos? OK, that's fine. Moving along...

I would not worry about this at all.

posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:23 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've done this before when we were renovating our home and I wanted to copy the curb appeal of houses that I admired. I was also a little uneasy about it, but I was never confronted. This was in a semi-uptight suburban area with very little pedestrian or street traffic. I would go ahead with no reservations, and if a homeowner does ask, you have a very good explanation.
posted by raisingsand at 2:23 PM on February 25, 2010

You may be risking someone asking what you're doing, but likely not "confrontation." On the ethics side, I think you're fine as long as you're taking pictures of these houses as buildings (e.g. the architecture: "Many houses feature attic gables.") and not as homes (e.g. personal effects or touches "While parts of the neighbourhood are well maintained [picture of handpainted sign with the family's name on it], renters in the southern area, tend to be less concerned than property owners with curb appeal [picture of litter on the lawn]"). If you're treating them as people's homes and not as buildings, that's a little more on the creepy side.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:25 PM on February 25, 2010

It's legal if you stay on public property. If I were you I'd present myself to appear as professional and nonthreatening as possible, and be ready with an interesting story and half-apology ("I thought about asking, but thought it would be better not to disturb you") for anyone who asks. Offer to show them the results or send them a print if that's possible for you. Also, think about doing it at a time when as few people as possible will be home.
posted by crabintheocean at 2:27 PM on February 25, 2010

I used to work for a real estate developer, and he would send me out to take pictures of different types of infill houses (some just narrow single-family, some rowhouses, etc.) to compare / get ideas / whatever.

Sometimes this involved sketchy areas; sometimes it involved busy streets with lots of people hanging out. I never had a problem. No one ever gave me trouble or even looked at me funny.

The only person who even asked what I was doing was a guy who gushed about his home for a good five minutes. It was a Habitat house and he told me all about the work he did and how his family was so fortunate. He could not have been more proud that I wanted to take a photo of his home.

If you're still worried about people's questions, you could memorize a brief, simple, one sentence description of why you're taking the photos.
posted by peep at 2:29 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Certainly not illegal, and I would argue perfectly ethical as well. It's not as if you are photographing something you can't plainly see with your eyes.

If they didn't want the front of their house to be visible, they shouldn't put it right next to the street!
posted by jckll at 2:41 PM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's perfectly legal. Whether or not it's ethical is purely subjective, though I believe it is...
posted by xammerboy at 2:50 PM on February 25, 2010

City planners photograph residential neighborhoods all the time and then publish the images in professional journals, books, reports, etc.: no big deal. If you're uncomfortable, bring along a friend so you can pretend to snap his/her picture, while actually aiming the camera at the house or streetscape.
posted by carmicha at 2:51 PM on February 25, 2010

It doesn't seem that way for Albuquerque (listed as your location), but some counties actually put photos of many (all?) properties online. You can try any address in Allegheny County, PA, for example.

(No idea of their copyright status tho...)
posted by tss at 3:05 PM on February 25, 2010

I've done this for a historical survey, and some people were (naturally) suspicious of what I was doing. I made sure to carry information about the project as well as ID that showed I wasn't a cop or an immigration officer. Maybe you could have a letter from your grad school to show, just in case?

Taking pictures from the street is fine. Obviously, don't go down driveways or open gates or get too close so that you would technically be trespassing.
posted by vickyverky at 3:07 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you're fine.

My general rule for this is that people's level of freaked-outedness is directly proportional to lens length.

Point-and-shoot? Pretty much never an issue. DSLR with big long telephoto lens? People start to get a little weird.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:35 PM on February 25, 2010

I am not the OP's attorney. This is not legal advice.

There is an ancillary issue you may wish to consider, regarding copyright.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:49 PM on February 25, 2010

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