Photography in National Parks- a local look

7 07 2008

A senior portrait at San Jose Mission in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Alicia Wagner Calzada

With my attention focused on the national discussion of photography permits in the national parks, I thought I would check on my local national park. I have done photo shoots at the San Jose Mission National Park many times, for both editorial shoots and for individual clients.

What I found was proof that there are major contradictions out there and a definite need for the national system to give more specific recommendations.

Here is what is listed at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park website (new policy effective in 2006). Instead of having one straightforward policy, there are four different policies stated that contradict each other and might each be interpreted by a park ranger in their own way:

First, on the FAQs page:

“I want to use the missions as backdrops in my family and wedding photographs. What do I need to know?

  • “If you or a family member is taking pictures, there is nothing special you need to do… If you are using a professional or commercial photographer, you or the photographer must apply for a permit at least 14 days in advance. There will be a fee involved.”

Ummm…. Aaack!!!

But then, clicking on the more information button and the “commercial filming” link:

“Commercial filming includes capturing a moving image on film and video as well as sound recordings.

Still photographers require a permit when

  1. the activity takes place at location(s) where or when members of the public are generally not allowed; or
  2. the activity uses model(s), sets(s), or prop(s) that are not a part of the location’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities; or
  3. Park would incur additional administrative costs to monitor the activity.”

(this is more in line with what we at the NPPA have been saying. Any permit should be based on the level of interference, not what the photographer will later do with the image.)

But if you read further on down the same page, you see this lovely chart …..

Commercial Filming/Videos Still Photography
1 – 2 people, camera & tripod only $0/day
1 – 10 people $150/day 1 – 10 people $50/day
11 – 30 people $250/day 11 – 30 people $150/day
31 – 49 people $500/day Over 30 people $250/day
Over 50 people $750/day

If I was a ranger, I would see the column on the right and assume that a photographer with 1-10 people was responsible for paying $50.

Finally, further down the page, the link to Appendix 13,exh.1: still photography pulls up a document that says:
“The NPS will not require a permit for photographers, commercial or non-commercial, to go anywhere or to do anything that members of the public are generally allowed to go or do without a permit. This is true whether or not the photographer uses tripods, strobe lights, or interchangeable lenses. Coverage of breaking news never requires a permit but is subject to restrictions and conditions necessary to protect park resources, public health and safety, and to prevent impairment or derogation of park resources, values or purposes.”

“A permit is required if the superintendent determines there is a potential of a photography project’s harming or having an impact on the park’s natural, cultural or recreational resources, or creating unacceptable health or safety risks, or disrupting visitor use and enjoyment. A permit is also required pursuant to 36 CFR 5.5(b) for persons taking photographs of vehicles, other articles of commerce or involves the use of a model, set or prop for the purpose of commercial advertising.”

This is a fine policy. I just wish I got there sooner.





2 responses

10 09 2008
Mary Neal

Considering plenty of San Antonio brides want their bridals or engagements taken at these missions, what is your take on what is required? I had always heard you had to get a permit, but you’re right, this is all completely contradictory. It seems they were attempting to allow tourists with their cameras, but not professionals…Although, I wouldn’t consider a bride as a model…

17 09 2008
Alicia Wagner Calzada


I have been able to shoot portraits before there without any trouble. But it was years ago. To avoid being hassled in the middle of my shoot with a client that just spent a bunch of cash on photo portraits, I would definitely call them and double check. Ask to speak to the person in charge.

Then write down their name and number and bring it with you so that if you are challenged during the shoot, you can tell whoever: “Park Superintendent Mary Neal confirmed to me that no permit is required for this shoot. Call her and ask”

Or just buy the permit to be sure. Be sure to just build that into your price. Mark it up a little to account for the time and energy spent getting the permit. It can be a pain sometimes to deal with government.

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