There’s an interesting and useful post at Photojojo that pretty much synopsizes the rules regarding photography in public places. One thing it doesn’t mention is that while you have the right to photograph, you may not have the right to use the photo. It all depends on the use. Art? OK. Editorial? Probably OK. Commercial? You need a release to publish.
But the most important thing to remember is the Hassle Factor. You are within your rights, but some security guy comes out and starts giving you a bunch of guff. (This has happened to me, I was on an assignment photographing a hospital exterior in the evening, I was across the street from the hospital on a sidewalk, with the camera on a tripod, and security people came across the street to harass me.) Now, you can argue you have the right to photograph there (in my situation, the hospital was aware of the assignment!), but when they threaten to call the cops, you have to ask yourself: do I want to spend the evening down at the station? Even if I get the photo, even if I’m within my rights, do I want to tick off everyone in the world and spend an hour or two discussing my rights with the police?
The blunt fact is: it doesn’t matter. If you have the time and inclination to support your rights, you can, but it doesn’t matter how much you complain, no one is going to get reprimanded for taking a call from a concerned citizen and escorting you downtown. The authorities unfortunately have every right to hinder you in your job, as long as they don’t threaten to arrest you or take your gear. They can question you until you call your lawyer.
Since 9/11 there’s been all kinds of paranoia about photography in public places, and you can drive by power plants with big signs that say “no photography.” Who enforces that? I mean, terrorists can’t get what they need from Google Earth? Do these people really have a clue who they need to be afraid of?
Something from a few months back: