I'm travelling to NY and Washington D.C. in the near future and am contemplating which camera to bring. I've noticed that many of the museums and tourist attractions have lengthy lists of prohibitied items, among them camera restrictions.

Could it (in general) be a problem to visit tourist attractions in the US if I carry my DSLR camera (with a normal-zoom lens) with me?

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    Will you have some kind of small bag with you? Because in almost any situation where carrying the camera would be a problem (which are rare), you can simply put it in your bag and not use it. While large bags may need to be checked at museums, small purse-sized bags are generally allowed. The White House has a very specific policy about the size of cameras that are allowed though, should you be able to take that tour. – Zach Lipton Jan 19 '17 at 23:52
  • Yes, I'll probably carry a bag of some sort where I can put the camera if needed. Good point! – m__ Jan 20 '17 at 4:56
  • @ZachLipton *Prohibited: ...cameras with detachable lenses..." so no. – Chris H Jan 20 '17 at 10:20
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    I took a large DSLR - 5D IV and a couple of large Zooms (24-70, 16-35, 70-300) with me to NY and Washington a few months ago. Perfectly acceptable. There was a couple of places (Capitol Building, National Archives Building)that said put it away, so I put it in a over the shoulder camera bag, and they were happy. – Jeff Jan 20 '17 at 12:43
up vote 26 down vote accepted

Whether or not photography is allowed, and what kind of equipment is allowed, varies not only by museum or installation, but by collection or exhibit. Where it is allowed or disallowed, the museum is unlikely to draw a distinction between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR; after all, a DSLR from 10 or 12 years ago is probably not the equal of a modern smartphone camera. It is the act of taking a photo, and not the equipment you use to take it, that has legal or physical implications. Of the seven museum policies I have quoted below, only one even mentions camera size.

Photography may be barred, particularly in art museums, and particularly at special exhibitions, due to legal and creative concerns. Flash photography may also be barred anywhere it could be damaging to artifacts or to patrons' experience. Increasingly, however, the larger museums do permit photographs to be taken, provided they are for noncommercial purposes, and taken with a handheld camera. Mounts are commonly barred due to safety and liability concerns, and probably also because they would enable you to take professional-quality images.

Typical is the National Gallery of Art in Washington's policy:

Photography for personal use is permitted except in special exhibitions and where specifically prohibited. Monopods, tripods, and selfie sticks are not permitted in the galleries or auditoriums.

Similarly, the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, states

Photography is allowed at the National Portrait Gallery unless otherwise noted. Hand-held photos with a flash can be taken in the museum’s galleries and the Great Hall. Please be mindful that the spaces are open to the public, therefore visitors should not stage any photographs that impede others’ enjoyment of the spaces. The only place where visitors may use tripods is in the Kogod Courtyard. Standing and hand-held lights are not permitted in the building.

The Guggenheim in New York too offers that

Still photography for non-commercial, personal use is permitted, unless otherwise noted in the galleries. The use of tripods and camera extension poles is prohibited.

But the Metropolitan Museum of Art varies a bit:

Still photography is permitted for private, noncommercial use only in the Museum's galleries devoted to the permanent collection. Photographs cannot be published, sold, reproduced, transferred, distributed, or otherwise commercially exploited in any manner whatsoever. Photography is not permitted in special exhibitions or areas designated as "No Photography"; works of art on loan from private collections or other institutions may not be photographed. The use of flash is prohibited at all times and in all galleries. Movie and video cameras are prohibited. Tripods are allowed Monday through Friday, and only with a permit issued by the Information Desk in the Great Hall.

For some other famous art museums, I found the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA):

You are welcome to take personal photography and video in most of LACMA’s galleries. Exceptions are noted with this icon near the title of each work, or at the entry to select temporary exhibitions. Please, no flash or tripods.

Art Institute of Chicago:

Photography and video are permitted in the museum under the following guidelines:

  • Museum staff reserves the right to prohibit the use of camera or video if it is a disruption and/or perceived that it might endanger works of art or museum patrons.
  • Equipment must not exceed the size of a SLR camera designed for personal use.
  • On occasion, lender restrictions prohibit photography and video in special exhibitions. We will clearly note when those restrictions apply. Otherwise photography and video are encouraged. Dry sketching is also permitted.
  • Flash, tripods, monopods, handheld microphones, selfie sticks, and other extraneous equipment are not allowed in the galleries.
  • All imaging documentation must be for personal, nondistributional, noncommercial use only.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA)

Photography is allowed for personal, noncommercial use (except where indicated). No flashes, tripods, selfie sticks, or videography.

Smaller museums, which may not have the manpower to patrol their patrons, may naturally be more restrictive. But as you can see, carrying a handheld camera, even a DSLR, will raise no eyebrows in the larger museums.

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    "a DSLR from 10 or 12 years ago is probably not the equal of a modern smartphone camera" -- a year ago, I did a comparison of a ten-year-old entry-level DSLR, an eight-year-old mid-range P&S, and a two-year-old mid-range smartphone. The smartphone came in dead last in all tests except panorama stitching. You're right, but probably not in the way you meant. – Mark Jan 20 '17 at 0:46
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    This answer is great although it only answers for art museums and not general tourist attractions (White House, Capitol, ESB, Statue of Liberty and so on) – m__ Jan 20 '17 at 4:57
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    Sometimes talking with the museum can get permission even if the general rule is no. "See, I've taped down the flash so it can't turn on accidentally and blast the collection. Is a monopod OK? How about a strap I stand on and pull up against to help stabilize the camera? ... OK, I can shoot available-light handheld and hope it isn't too noisy. Yes, I understand that I can't publish or post on line without explicit permission." If you can find the PR/press office, they might be able to make these arrangements and issue a note saying what's been authorized. – keshlam Jan 20 '17 at 8:13
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    When you print on 13x9 cm or show on a normal computer screen, the difference is not noticable. It is when you want to print a poster size in small print resolution that you need the professional camera quality. But a 25 year old DLSR would not do the job of the front camera of my phone, it did take seconds to make one photo and the total size was not huge then. Digital photography has improved hugely over the last 25 years. (I read the printing industry trade journals in the early 90's and remember the article on digital photography) – Willeke Jan 20 '17 at 16:53
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    @m__ "Tourist attractions" would be rather too broad to be reasonably answerable. I chose art museums specifically because these are the museums most likely in my experience to have restrictions; no one really cares how many pictures you take at the Air & Space Museum or the Botanic Garden or the Lincoln Memorial. – choster Jan 20 '17 at 17:25

Most museums prohibit flash photography; which is the basis of the camera ban.

For example, the MoMA PS1 has this to say:

Photography is allowed in the museum. Visitors can use small cameras and cellphone cameras. Flash photography, videography, tripods, and photography for professional purposes are not allowed.

Here is the justification from MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach for this change (previously, cameras were strictly forbidden):

Cameras are ubiquitous in daily life because of cell phones and other devices. More pictures are taken than are on display. Today, taking pictures is a participatory way of visiting exhibitions, and we embrace this creative and proactive viewing practice.

Source: Hyperallergic

Keep in mind that most of these artworks are kept under strict atmospheric conditions (including the type and intensity of light and the amount of moisture in the air, among others) and photography can easily ruin these priceless works.

Not to mention, a bunch of clacking of the shutter is really distracting. Again, I have to stress the entire no-flash issue.

Although a large majority of the works on display are in the public domain (so there are no copyright issues) but they may be under other restriction for reproduction.

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    In my experience, users of the coat check are told not to leave valuables in their coats or bags. Also in my experience, most museums allow you to enter with a camera but the guards will remind you not to use it in galleries where photography is forbidden, usually somewhat firmly. In galleries where flash photography is forbidden, they won't say anything unless the flash flashes. – phoog Jan 19 '17 at 21:37

I will add my personal experience in D.C.

  • Anywhere you can be, non-flash photography is fine. There may be exceptions but I never saw them. You can take a non flash photo anywhere. There are restrictions on rather the photo is for publication, sale, or personal use, but for a normal person, taking a non-flash photo is fine.

  • Outdoor exhibits and monuments, flash photography is allowed.

  • Indoor exhibits and items, tripods, mono-pods, selfie sticks, or anything else that keeps you from holding the camera to take the picture are banned. Using them may get you ejected from the exhibit. The reason is that it takes up space and slows everyone down.

  • Outdoor exhibits and items, most of the time, if you set up a tripod "out of the way" then it's fine. If you set up a tripod in the middle of the line, you will be asked to leave. I don't remember any exhibits or monuments where this was actually an issue, but the general rule is don't block the path.

What happens if you don't follow the rules is pretty varied. At most exhibits they just ask you to turn the flash off. At some they may escort you out. At a very few you could be arrested. At all of them in D.C. there will be armed security guards watching over the more valuable exhibits making sure you follow the rules (among other things of course). They are usually friendly and understanding. If they ask you to put away the camera, or to keep moving just do it and move on. Thousands of people a day come see the exhibits in DC, and rarely is anyone arrested or anything like that.

Most of these rules exist to protect the exhibit, as it would be harmed by the light of the flash, or to protect the people, 1 idiot setting up a tripod wrong could endanger 100 people in line (or at least slow them down). Usually the staff, guards, curators, and anyone else will go out of their way to make sure everybody has a chance to see the exhibit, and get what the want from it. In some circumstances if you tell them you want a picture and are having a hard time getting it, they will assist you in taking the picture, or make arrangements for you to come back when it's less busy.

In the US, the legal presumption is that you have the right to take a photograph anywhere you have the legal right to physically be.

In a practical sense, what that means any place owned by any level of government -- public museums, parks, city streets -- you can take pictures. In a private facility, the owner can impose pretty much any restriction he wants, but as a practical matter, private tourist attractions aren't going to want to scare off customers.

A big issue is places with a lot of copyrighted material: art museums, amusement parks, and movie theaters.

Art museums generally trust visitors to take pictures, on the assumption that the photographs will be of too low a quality to affect the value of the art.

Amusement parks are built around photography, so they would never interfere.

Movie theaters, of course, vindictively clamp down on any sort of recording. Make a video recording of a movie and you're doing time.

In certain very sensitive government-owned areas -- around nuclear power plants, for example, and in courtrooms -- photography is restricted for security reasons. Notices will be posted, extremely prominently.

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    Not quite applicable. Photography can be restricted on private property, and for this purpose museums and the like are often considered private property. If you can stand on the sidewalk to take your picture, the argument applies; if there is a door that is locked after hours and guards to ensure decorum, it probably doesn't. – keshlam Jan 20 '17 at 8:30

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