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Professional photographers challenge $100 fee to shoot in Fairfax County parks

The Whitfield family of Fairfax County was photographed in a Fairfax County park. The county park authority now requires a permit and a $100 fee for photography by a commercial photographer, and photographers led by Pamela Lepold are challenging that. (Pamela Lepold Photography)
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UPDATE: More than 50 people supporting the photographers showed up for the park authority meeting on Jan. 21, Pamela Lepold reports. Lepold also submitted letters from 62 people calling for the photo fees and permits to be eliminated. Her report, and photos of course, are here.

ORIGINAL POST: It’s not an easy life for many professional photographers in the Washington region. A recent survey of 346 local portrait photographers found that more than 55 percent of them make less than $30,000 a year. And now, a group of photographers is pushing back against the Fairfax County Park Authority’s demand for $100 every time they shoot in a public park.

The fee for “for profit/commercial use photographers” is $100 for the first two hours, $50 for each additional hour, and requires a permit for each session submitted five days in advance. For frequent commercial photography in Fairfax parks, an annual permit is available for $500. On Wednesday night, the Fairfax County Park Authority will hold its annual meeting on fees, and a group of photographers and interested parties plan to show up and explain why this fee is unfair to the customers who use the parks for their picturesque settings, and who will have the fee passed on to them as part of the cost of a photo shoot.

The photographers argue that the fee will fall disproportionately on lower- to middle-income folks who want to use public parks for their backdrops, when they don’t have their own lush property to use. “It’s a stretch for them to hire a photographer at all” for a family or baby portrait, said photographer Pamela Lepold of Fairfax. “But then to pay a $100 fee, they just can’t afford it.” The average cost of a private photo shoot ranges from $200 to $266, the survey by photographer Kat Forder found, so a $100 fee can equal a 50 percent price hike.

Lepold also researched the fees charged by surrounding county park authorities and found none, though the National Park Service and many smaller or private parks do charge some fees. The photographers are not seeking to exclude wedding photography from the fees; they acknowledge that wedding parties can be big and sometimes intrusive and fall into a different category from the families or couples who just want a nicely shot portrait for the wall or the website.

The Fairfax parks started charging the fee in 2011, park authority spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said. It does not apply to individuals snapping pictures for their own private purposes. “Only if you’re doing it for profit,” Pedersen said.

Pedersen said the authority staff in 2010 researched what parks around the country were charging, and found the average was about $64 an hour for commercial photography. So Fairfax decided to charge $100 for two hours. The National Park Service charges $90 for a permit and a $50 fee per day for less than 11 people. Fairfax County also decided to ask commercial photographers to obtain a permit in advance, as the national parks do, simply to allow individual park administrators to manage the usage of the park. She also said the permits do not usually take five days to process.

Taxpayers support the park, Pedersen said, so if photographers are using the park “for profit, really we do owe the taxpayers the fee. If you do business someplace, you’ve got to pay for it.” Pedersen said there had been “passive enforcement” of the fee since 2011, but a new brochure and signs apparently brought it to the attention of the pro photographers.

But Lepold noted that the county parks in Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William as well as Alexandria City do not charge a fee. She also said the photo fee is not consistent with the Fairfax parks’ philosophy of charging fees which recover relevant costs, are competitive with comparable facilities in the area and balance the availability of the facilities with affordability.

Lepold also found that when the park authority researched fees charged by other parks in 2010, it only presented privately funded botanical gardens to the park board for its consideration, not public parks. Pedersen pointed out last week that a quick Google search shows that plenty of public parks around the country charge fees for portrait photography, some more and some less than Fairfax’s $100. Pedersen also provided Lepold with a list of local parks with fees, but Lepold noted that most were private parks, that Meadowlark Gardens in Vienna charges only $25 (plus admission) and that Brookside Gardens in Montgomery County is free for families up to 10 people.

Forder, the photographer who conducted the survey of what her colleagues make (and charge), has been following the issue of charging for photography in public spaces for years. She said the $100 fee is significant because “we certainly do not have big margins” between cost of a shoot and profit. She agreed that charging for use of public space is not inherently unfair, “but let’s do it sanely. Let’s make it equal for all businesses using the parks.” Forder wondered if there would soon be charges for fitness instructors who hold classes in public parks, or dog walkers who use the parks for their, uh, walking, or nannies and their charges, or painters and their paints, and so on.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Forder said. “Let’s do it with public consultation, and use a process that doesn’t take days and days of time to get a permit. And something that is transparent, so we can see where the fees are going.”

Lepold’s petition to the park authority and accompanying research is here.

A public hearing on Fairfax’s park fees is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Room 106 of the Herrity Building, 12055 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax. Pedersen said the photography fee was not originally on the agenda but can still be considered. Those who cannot attend may provide feedback until Feb. 5, online at Parkmail@fairfaxcounty.gov or by mail to:  Fairfax County Park Authority, 12055 Government Center Parkway, Suite 927, Fairfax, VA 22035-1118, Attention Public Information Office/Fee Comments.

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