The issue of whether permits are required to photograph on Federal lands can be a little confusing. One key to this confusion is the difference between commercial photography and professional photography, with the law addressing only commercial photography. To a photographer, commercial photography means shooting for advertising, that is, to promote commerce. (Think of TV commercials.) Shooting for magazines or fine-art counts as editorial photography; it might be professional, but it is not commercial. The law, however, often fails to specifically define commercial photography, or in some cases even equates professional with commercial. Even when the law distinguishes between professional and commercial, a few enforcement personnel don't understand the difference and can make life rough for perfectly legitimate pros. You amateurs aren't off the hook here, because to a few misguided rangers the mere use of a tripod can mark you as a pro, even though you are an amateur shooting only for yourself.
So, do you need a permit? It's a pain to get one, after all. Fortunately, the law is pretty forgiving of us nature photographers. The Department of Interior (National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and the Department of Agriculture (National Forest Service) both operate from the same Federal law, which basically states:
Neither a permit nor a fee is required for still photography, unless the photography --
Photography is not allowed if the photography or related activity is such that
In short, if you shoot only where the general public could shoot and you don't do anything stupid, you don't need a permit.
The exact law can be found online at http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode. A fine review of the situation is at http://largeformatphotography.info/photo-permits. Laws can change and I'm not a lawyer, so you should check for yourself the current status of laws relevant to your situation. Carrying around a copy of the federal regulation is a good idea -- you'll never win a shouting match with a ranger, but friendly discussion backed by the regulation can enlighten a ranger who's questioning your presence.
All this being said for Federal lands, State lands can and do operate under their own rules. To shoot in California State Parks, for example, amateur shooters need no permit, but editorial and fine-art photographers as well as commercial photographers are supposed to obtain permits. (Although it probably won't come up with a ranger unless you bring it up first.) Below the Federal level, you'll have the check the regulations yourself for the spots you plan to visit.
Here is the exact text of the Federal law, valid as of April 27, 2004:
Sec. 460l-6d. - Commercial filming
(a) Commercial filming fee
The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture (hereafter individually referred to as the ''Secretary'' with respect to lands under their respective jurisdiction) shall require a permit and shall establish a reasonable fee for commercial filming activities or similar projects on Federal lands administered by the Secretary. Such fee shall provide a fair return to the United States and shall be based upon the following criteria:
(1) The number of days the filming activity or similar project takes place on Federal land under the Secretary's jurisdiction.
(2) The size of the film crew present on Federal land under the Secretary's jurisdiction.
(3) The amount and type of equipment present.
The Secretary may include other factors in determining an appropriate fee as the Secretary deems necessary.
(b) Recovery of costs
The Secretary shall also collect any costs incurred as a result of filming activities or similar project, including but not limited to administrative and personnel costs. All costs recovered shall be in addition to the fee assessed in subsection (a) of this section.
(c) Still photography
(1) Except as provided in paragraph (2), the Secretary shall not require a permit nor assess a fee for still photography on lands administered by the Secretary if such photography takes place where members of the public are generally allowed. The Secretary may require a permit, fee, or both, if such photography takes place at other locations where members of the public are generally not allowed, or where additional administrative costs are likely.
(2) The Secretary shall require and shall establish a reasonable fee for still photography that uses models or props which are not a part of the site's natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities.
(d) Protection of resources
The Secretary shall not permit any filming, still photography or other related activity if the Secretary determines
(1) there is a likelihood of resource damage;
(2) there would be an unreasonable disruption of the public's use and enjoyment of the site; or
(3) that the activity poses health or safety risks to the public.
(e) Use of proceeds
(1) All fees collected under this section shall be available for expenditure by the Secretary, without further appropriation, in accordance with the formula and purposes established for the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program (Public Law 104-134). All fees collected shall remain available until expended.
(2) All costs recovered under this section shall be available for expenditure by the Secretary, without further appropriation, at the site where collected. All costs recovered shall remain available until expended.
(f) Processing of permit applications
The Secretary shall establish a process to ensure that permit applicants
for commercial filming, still photography, or other activity are responded
to in a timely manner
Timothy Edberg / 6511 Homestake Dr. South / Bowie, MD
(301) 809-5857 / 1-877-471-6414 (toll-free)