If you’re active in photographer groups on Facebook, chances are you see someone post about Colorado photography permits on the daily. It can be overwhelming, because each city, county, state park, national park, etc. all have their own rules for when you need a permit, and how to apply for one.
As more and more couples want to elope in nature, it’s falling on us photographers to know the permit rules for dozens of locations across Colorado. And not just the locations, but also whether you need a different permit for photo shoots vs elopements, if the cost changes with the number of people involved, how far in advance to apply, and enough other details to make your head spin.
And while some jurisdictions make it easy to find permit information on their websites, others really make you work for it. Because I’ve found myself typing out this info dozens (if not hundreds) of times over the years, I wanted to put together a big post with everything I know about photography permits in Colorado.
When do I need a photography permit?
You usually need a photography permit for any commercial photography activity. Most places define “commercial activity” as any shoot where you are either getting paid for your work, or where you’ll be using the photos to promote your business online (i.e. posting photos on social media or your website). Some places only require a permit if you’re being paid, and other places don’t require a permit at all for the kind of photography where a client has hired you for wedding or engagement photos, family photos, or similar.
It really depends on each location, which is why doing your research before every shoot is so important. I’ve included details about all the most commonly requested locations in Colorado in this post, but there are dozens of other locations that you’ll have to research on your own.
Many locations treat photography and videography differently, even if you as a videographer are only using handheld cameras similar to what a photographer would do. If you’re a videographer, and the location you’re interested in does not specify photography vs film on their permit info, you might want to contact them directly to explain what you do, and how it’s different from a large commercial video production like a TV commercial.
How do I apply for a photography permit?
Again, it depends on the specific location. Some places, like Rocky Mountain National Park, Boulder OSMP, and Jefferson County, make it easy with an online application. Other places make you fill out and email in a PDF form. As best as I can, I’ve included the instructions for how to apply for each photography permit on this list.
What are the requirements for getting a photography permit in Colorado?
Many locations require that you submit proof of business insurance along with your permit applications, and some require that you submit a certificate of insurance that names the location as an additional insured. I’ll have more information about this under each location as well.
How much do photo permits cost?
Anywhere from $25-350, depending on whether it’s a single use or annual permit, the location itself, and whatever other factors these locations use to determine their cost. I’ll list out the permit cost under each location, where known.
What happens if I shoot without a permit?
It can be tempting to risk it and shoot without a permit – especially for new photographers who are just starting out, not charging enough to cover the cost, and who may not have business insurance yet. But if you take away one thing from this post, let it be this: don’t shoot without a permit.
If you are stopped by a ranger while on your shoot and asked to show your permit, and you don’t have one, you’ll be asked to leave immediately. You may also be given a monetary fine – anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars, depending on the location. And lastly you risk being banned from shooting at the same location in the future. It’s embarrassing to be confronted in front of clients in the middle of a shoot, and you open yourself up to unhappy clients and bad reviews. Don’t do this to yourself and your business.
Individual consequences aside, when photographers ignore the rules, it also hurts the entire community, and all of our businesses. If a location frequently sees photographers breaking the rules and shooting without a permit, they may make permits more expensive, require paid permits when they used to offer free ones, limit the number of permits allowed – or make photo shoots illegal altogether. This has happened in many popular locations already, and we’d hate to see it keep happening.
In my (not so) humble opinion: if you can’t afford the cost of a photography permit, you can’t afford to call yourself a business. Shoot in free locations until you can afford to charge more and pay for the permit, or don’t shoot at all. It’s a cost of doing business – and you get to write off all these permits on your taxes!
Colorado Photography Locations
This is a list of all the most common photo shoot locations in Colorado, both those that require a photography permit and those that don’t. It’s not by any means a complete list of permits, as there are hundreds of different locations, and I haven’t personally researched them all. Some locations don’t list permit information online, and prefer that photographers contact them directly for the most up-to-date information.
That being said, this list is long enough that I hope it’ll help you start understanding where and when you need a permit in Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park Photography Permit
Rocky Mountain National Park is possibly the single most popular photography permit in all of Colorado (or at least it feels that way based on what I see photographers posting in Facebook groups). Be aware that the photography permit does not cover any wedding/elopement ceremonies. For those, couples must apply for a separate $350 Wedding Special Use permit.
Permit required: YES. RMNP requires a permit for all commercial photography, including styled shoots where you are not paid by clients.
Permit cost: $50 for a single session, or $350 for an annual permit. If you buy 7 single session permits in one calendar year, the permit office can convert you to an annual permit for the rest of the year. The permit does cover your entrance fee to the park, but not your clients’.
How to apply: You can get a single session permit online instantly, or find instructions for the annual Commercial Use Authorization permit online and submit it via email or mail. You will need to submit your insurance info for both the single session and the annual permit.
Boulder OSMP Photography Permit
Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks is another of the most popular photography permits in Colorado. This permit covers locations like Chautauqua, Lost Gulch, Flagstaff Mountain, South Mesa Trail, and many others. (Read more about my favorite Boulder locations here.)
Permit required: YES. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, you also need to submit your “trip requests” to the Boulder OSMP permit office at least 72 hours in advance. You’ll get further instructions for how these requests work along with your permit, but basically you have to email them and ask for approval for shoots, including the date and time of your shoot, location, and how many people will be in your group.
Permit cost: $50 for a limited annual permit, which includes up to 50 visitors in one calendar year. (Photographer + two clients = 3 visitors.) $300 for an unlimited annual permit.
How to apply: Apply for your Boulder OSMP Permit online. You will need to submit a certificate of insurance that names Boulder OSMP for all permit applications.
Jefferson County Photography Permit
Jefferson County (or Jeffco, if you’re local) is another popular place for photo shoots, and includes locations like Mount Falcon, Elk Meadow, Flying J Ranch, Lookout Mountain, and Matthews/Winters Park.
Permit required: YES. The Jeffco photography permit is required for all photo sessions where you receive any form of compensation. For large sessions that involve props, filming, or anything beyond a simple portrait session, you need the “Other commercial activity” permit.
Permit cost: $25 for a single day permit, and $100 for an annual calendar year permit.
How to apply: You can apply for both permits online from Jeffco.
Larimer County Photography Permit
Larimer County Parks and Open Spaces covers Fort Collins and Estes Park, with popular locations like Horsetooth Reservoir, Carter Lake, and Hermit Park. Here’s a full list of covered locations.
Permit required: YES. A permit is required for all portrait and commercial shoots in Larimer County.
Permit cost: $25 for a single day, or $150 for an annual permit. Larimer is one of the few places that makes their annual permit good for a full year from the date of purchase rather than following the calendar year.
How to apply: Apply for your permit online from Larimer County. They say to submit your application at least 30 days in advance, but I’ve been approved on shorter notice before.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the most unique and epic photo locations in all of Colorado. And like all National Parks, it requires a permit for both photo shoots and elopements.
Permit required: YES. Permit is required for all photo shoots.
Permit cost: $200 for an annual calendar year permit.
How to apply: Learn more on the GSDNP website.
Denver Parks & Recreation
Denver Parks & Recreation and Denver Mountain Parks is one of the biggest permit areas in Colorado, and have luckily simplified their process quite a bit over the past years. This includes popular locations like Echo Lake, Summit Lake, Lookout Mountain Park, Red Rocks Park (not including the amphitheater grounds), Sloan’s Lake, City Park, Cheesman Park, and Washington Park.
Permit required: NO for most sessions. You do not need a photography permit for portrait sessions that include fewer than 5 people total (including photographer and clients), and that only uses handheld cameras. If you’re photographing a larger group of people, or plan to use tripods, light stands, or other non-handheld equipment, you do need a permit.
Garden of the Gods Photography Permit
Garden of the Gods is by far the most popular place for photos in the Colorado Springs area, and it’s a bit of a unicorn – it’s beautiful and it doesn’t require a permit! What’s the tradeoff, you ask? It’s also one of the busiest locations on this list, so be prepared to run into lots of tourists, hikers, and other photographers.
Permit required: NO. You do not need a photography permit for Garden of the Gods for portrait sessions, elopements, and similar work where a client has hired you for photos that they’ll be using privately. There is a permit required for large commercial shoots, for example filming a car commercial or taking photos of multiple models for an outdoor retailer catalog. But if you’re reading this post, I’m guessing you’re a portrait photographer.
Eldorado Canyon State Park
Eldorado Canyon State Park outside of Boulder is a beautiful place for photos, especially if you’re looking for cool rock formations (or rock climbing photos). Every Colorado State Park has their own rules around photography, and is managed by a different permit office, so please research each one individually.
Permit required: YES. A permit is required for all sessions where you’re either getting paid or using the photos for advertising.
Permit cost: Depends on the scope of the shoot.
How to apply: Learn more about how to apply here, but in short you should contact Park Manager John Carson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 303-494-3943 ninety days before the shoot.
Gross Reservoir outside of Boulder is a popular hiking and paddleboarding destination, but unlike most of the Boulder area, it’s managed by Denver Water.
Permit required: YES. A permit is required for all photo shoots, elopements, etc.
Permit cost: $50 for a one-time single day permit for simple portrait sessions. $200 per hour one-time permit with two hour minimum for larger commercial shoots. No annual permit option.
How to apply: You must apply for a permit at least ten business days in advance of your session, and include detailed notes on where along the trails you’re planning to shoot, how many people will be in your group, where you’re parking, and how many cars your group will bring. Learn more from the Denver Water Photo and Film Policy.
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Paint Mines Interpretive Park in El Paso County, is about an hour and a half south east from Denver, and an hour east from Colorado Springs. The uniquely colored rock formations makes it a popular place for portrait sessions. It’s super important to stay on the trails, and to not climb, scramble, or sit on the rock formations.
Permit required: YES for all commercial work (whether you are paid or posting on your website or social media), no for personal photos and landscapes.
Permit cost: $100 for a single use day permit.
How to apply: Read more on the El Paso County website, then call the parks office at (719) 520-7529 for more information on how to apply.
Denver Art Museum
Denver Art Museum requires a permit for all personal/portrait sessions, both inside the building and outside on the property grounds. They define personal photo shoots as any session like engagement, family, etc, where the photos are for the client’s personal use.
Permit required: YES.
Permit cost: $40/hour for interior shoots, free for exterior shoots.
How to apply: Submit an application online at least 10 business days in advance. A certificate of insurance is required.
Union Station Denver
Union Station in Denver has two separate permits: one for Wynkoop Plaza (the exterior) and one for inside the building. The interior does not allow flash photography, tripods, light stands, etc. You can only get an interior permit for shoots Sunday through Wednesday between 1:00pm and 3:00pm, and cannot take photos in the Cooper Lounge or The Crawford Hotel.
Permit required: YES, for both the interior and exterior.
Permit cost: Both permits are free.
How to apply: For photo shoots outside of Union Station, you must submit the application at least five business days before your planned shoot, with the requested date, time, number of people involved, and a certificate of insurance. For photos inside the Union Station building, you must submit a separate application at least five business days before your planned shoot, with the requested date, time, number of people involved, and a certificate of insurance.
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Red Rocks Amphitheater is one of the most iconic music venues in the world, and a highly requested location for photo shoots. The area is split between two jurisdictions: the Red Rocks Amphitheater grounds (stage, amphitheater seating, walkways, staircases, and parking lots), and the surrounding Red Rocks Park trail system. Red Rocks Park is managed by Denver Parks & Recreation, which as mentioned above does not require a permit for shoots with fewer than five people.
Permit required: YES for the Amphitheater, NO for the Park for shoots with fewer than five people and only handheld equipment (see Denver Parks & Rec further up this post).
Permit cost: Free for personal portrait sessions like engagements and family sessions.
How to apply: Fill out the Red Rocks Contact page form, select “Photography/Video Permits” under Department, and complete the rest of the form with info about your shoot.
Town of Vail
The town of Vail has lots of cute, photogenic locations – both in summer during wedding season and in winter during ski season when the town really comes alive.
Permit required: YES. A permit is required for all photo and video shoots within the Town of Vail.
Permit cost: Free one-time permit for portrait sessions.
How to apply: Complete the Town of Vail photo registration form at least ten days before your shoot, including a certificate of insurance.
White River National Forest
White River National Forest covers Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Marble, Eagle, and many of the other nearby trails and mountain passes like Maroon Bells, Hanging Lake, and Crystal Mill.
Permit required: YES. This is one of the more complicated permit locations (as National Forests often are).
Permit cost: $75 or more, depending on the number of people in your group.
How to apply: Read the Commercial Filming & Photography FAQs, then contact the specific ranger district for the area you’re interested in to get more info.
Roxborough State Park
Roxborough State Park in southwest Denver is a popular photo shoot location, because of the dramatic red-rock formations. As all state parks, it does require a permit for photos. They also have separate wedding locations that can be rented for ceremonies.
Permit required: YES. A permit is required for all professional photography, both paid work and photos used online/for advertising.
Permit cost: $55 for a quarterly photo permit, or $130 for an annual permit. You and your clients will also need to pay for park entrance fees separately.
How to apply: Apply for your permit online, ideally 90 days in advance, but they allow shorter applications for photo permits.
Denver Botanic Gardens
Denver Botanic Gardens has two locations: York Street and Chatfield Farms. York Street is the more popular location for photos, because of the greenhouse
Permit required: YES. A permit is required for all portrait photography, even if the photographer is not a paid professional.
Permit cost: $100 for a single session for 1-6 people, $500 for an annual permit. Annual permit holders must still make a reservation before every session.
How to apply: Reservations must be made at least one week in advance. More info on the York Street Photo Policy page.
The Dairy Block in Denver is a popular location for urban photo shoots, a block away from Union Station. Like with the interior of Union Station, you can only shoot here Sunday through Wednesday between 1:00pm and 3:00pm.
Permit required: YES. A permit is required for all portrait photography.
Permit cost: $200 per hour.
How to apply: Apply at least five business days in advance via their online PDF application. You must submit a certificate of insurance.
Staunton State Park
Staunton State Park is Colorado’s newest state park, located in Pine, around forty-five minutes south west of Denver. Staunton has varied landscapes, from rocky cliffs to pine forests, and is also one of the most quiet parks areas close to Denver.
Permit required: YES. A permit is required for all portrait photography (family sessions, engagements, etc). Weddings require a separate special use permit.
Permit cost: $45 for a quarter.
How to apply: Apply via an online PDF application.
I will keep updating this post as I learn about new Colorado photography permits, or as fees and rules change. But the rules for permits are changing all the time – especially ones where the applications depend on PDF forms are often updated yearly, and some of the links in this post may become outdated before I have a chance to update them.
This post is not meant as legal advice. Always do your own research on permit requirements, and contact the local authorities directly with any questions. I cannot answer questions about permits beyond what I’ve included in this guide, so please do not email me to ask about permits for other locations.