A Guide to Filming and Photography Permits for the National Park System

What you need to know about obtaining a National Parks shooting permit. Additionally, learn about special usage licenses that provide you with incredible access to these places. 

Let’s cut through the red tape and debunk some common misconceptions about obtaining licenses to photograph on public land. It is difficult to cover all of the possibilities in a single article. But we’ll cover the fundamentals for federal lands, which then flow down to state and county assets.

We’ll cover certain unique licenses that offer you more privileges than the average tourist, as well as some limits on flying and shooting with a drone, along the way. Let’s start with the National Park Service’s stance against commercial photography and filmmaking.

Permits for Photographers in National Parks

Photographers that specialize in still images are in luck. A permit is only required for photography in a National Park if the following conditions are met:

  • The activity takes place in a location or at a time when the general public is not permitted
  • There are no natural or cultural resources, or administrative facilities, at the location where the model(s), set(s), or prop(s) are used.
  • The park would have to spend more money on the administration to keep track of the activities

To determine if Sasquatch still exists, you’ll need a 600mm f/4 lens and a camera body if you plan on visiting one of our National Parks. If the park you want to visit charges an entrance fee, you will need to pay that.

Let’s pretend you’re photographing a supermodel in Yellowstone for advertising near the Madison River. A model is wearing a long, flowing white evening gown, and there are five people to handle the three strobes, makeup, mosquitoes, and a dress that keeps getting caught in the shrubbery, and it’s the hottest day of the year, following a monsoon rainstorm, with bugs feasting on everything warm and alive (perhaps not true). That will require a permit!

This type of permission will cost you between $50 and $250 each day, depending on how many workers you employ to swat the mosquitoes off the supermodel.

Commercial Filming/Video Permits for National Parks

Within the National Park System, commercial filmmaking and video is a whole other scenario. It is the process of capturing a moving image on film, electronic, magnetic, digital, or other media by a person, business, or other entity for the purpose of earning revenue for an audience. So, if you plan on selling any of the material you record with your camera, you’ll need a permit to do so.

It may even be necessary to obtain a permit for non-commercial filming. Permits are required when a park system needs to control your activity to protect park resources and values, avoid friction between user groups, or guarantee public safety. Filmmaking for tourism bureaus, convention and visitor bureaus, and student filming are just a few examples of non-commercial filming. You probably won’t require filming permission if you decide to switch on your camera to record some motion video of, say, bears strolling down the road.

Obtaining a commercial filming permit is a straightforward process. The costs start at $150 per day and may go up to $750 per day if you’re traveling with a large group and/or need the park’s assistance.

Photography Workshop Permits

To hold a photography workshop in a National Park, you’ll need a permit. A Commercial Use Authorization, or CUA, is required for workshops. It requires the holder to perform all business-related activities outside of the park, such as lectures, marketing, and so on, but it enables tours within the park to take pictures.

CUA costs and applications differ depending on the park. Some people are straightforward, while others will desire your second child in addition to your first. The costs vary a lot as well. Some parks charge anywhere from $100 to $600 per day. In addition, at the end of the year, you will pay the park system a portion of your gross revenues from that workshop (typically 3 percent ).

Insurance and Liability for Photographers

You’ll require general liability insurance regardless of the permit categories indicated above. Depending on the permission, different amounts of insurance may be required. Most plans cover businesses for a million dollars or more, and I’ve never had a problem needing more than my agent advised.

When it comes to liability insurance, the workshop business model has an entirely different issue. Photography classes are classified by most insurance companies as guided sports, similar to fly fishing or backcountry skiing. As a result, they will either refuse to insure your business for photography workshops or demand exorbitant fees to do so.

The last dilemma arose for us this year when we purchased our first home and hired a new insurance agent to review all of my policies to ensure that the new property was covered. After doing some research on the insurance issue, I discovered an Allstate Agent in Utah who is a photographer and knows everything there is to know about workshop liability insurance. I got insured in less than an hour, but it included a limit on how much of my revenue was earned from photography classes. Fortunately, I was inside that range.

Special Use Permits

This is where the fun really starts! The park system may also grant permits for specific purposes in addition to photography, videography, and workshops.

For example, Zion offers a limited number of backcountry permits that allow visitors to hike the whole Narrows Canyon. It starts around 20 kilometers up the valley from the Sinawava Temple. The permit permits the bearer to sleep inside the canyon for the night and tour the canyon in its entirety over the course of two days. Backcountry camping permits are available from Grand Teton National Park, allowing tourists to explore hundreds of miles of the Teton mountain range. A permit for a self-guided snowmobile excursion into Yellowstone National Park was the impetus for this entire story.

In essence, a lottery system allows individuals to apply for a set of dates to enter Yellowstone in the winter using their own personal snowmobile. For each day when over-snow traffic is authorized, one permit is provided for each park entry (typically Mid-December through Mid-March of each year). Because each permit permits five snowmobiles per group, it’s a fantastic way to spend the day with friends and family.

You can also go wherever you wish within the park with the self-guided snowmobile permit. Users must first complete an online course and pass an online knowledge exam before purchasing or renting a 4-stroke snowmobile. You may take a private snow coach if you don’t feel like spending the day snowmobiling in the park. Imagine your childhood monster truck driving you around Yellowstone, allowing you to explore t

Having private access by snowmobile or private snow coach is a dream come true for photographers like myself. Have you ever seen winter fox hunting? Simply park and begin photographing. You could be concerned that if too many people become aware of this, it would degrade the winter beauty of locations like Yellowstone. In the winter, there are tight restrictions on the number of people and businesses who may visit the park. You’ll only encounter a large number of other people if you come across anything very photogenic, such as eight wolves blocking the road before daybreak as everyone enters the park.

Many special-use licenses are now available for purchase online at Recreation.gov. The diversity of sites accessible to explore will astound you.

Drone Rules and Regulations in National Parks

Since we’re discussing permissions and the legalities of photography in our parks, it’s a good time to address some common misconceptions regarding drones. Drones are not permitted in any of the United States’ national parks. There are some parks that hire professional drone operators to administer and inspect areas, but drones are strictly prohibited for the rest of us.

A license is not required to fly a drone, contrary to common assumptions. If you’re a hobby photographer who enjoys taking aerial photographs, you may get a drone and shoot anything you want. A commercial drone license is required if you plan to sell or get paid for the footage you capture.

If you have a current private pilot license, you can complete an FAA-approved online course to have a commercial drone ticket added to your private certificate. A private pilot license holder whose skills have not been updated through a biannual flying review must update their skills or take and pass a written exam in order to qualify for a commercial drone license. Tests for this exam are offered at locations across the country that are FAA-approved testing centers. There are a variety of online courses available to assist you in preparing for the multiple-choice test. Drone Launch Academy’s version appeals to me the most. After passing the FAA exam, you can start billing for your time spent flying a drone.

Even if you are a certified drone pilot, you cannot fly in our national parks unless you have a contract with the park. You can approach a park for contract work with the license. When flying a drone for profit, you’ll also require liability insurance. Verify was recommended to me by my insurance agent. It enables you to add liability insurance for a specific drone shot on the fly. For coverage, you may adjust the liability amounts, flying lengths, and durations. Then, once you’ve paid, add more insureds and print or mail a Certificate of Insurance. This is the ideal coverage for any photographer who does not fly for a living. The cost per instance is as low as $10. In the app, Verifly also displays your current location on a GPS map, which you may alter if your flight area is in a different place or at a different time of day.


We hope that we were able to address many of your questions about the different permissions required by our National Park System. As well as mentioning some unique applications that you may not be aware of. If you’re charging for your photography services, keep in mind that state and county-protected areas would almost certainly need you to get comparable permission.

Our National Parks have permits mechanisms in place so that everyone who visits may enjoy our natural treasures. You can obtain access to a large number of protected resources at different times of the year with a little work and a little insurance. This provides you with a fantastic opportunity to create original pictures and film.

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