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Photographers, When Do You Need a Model Release?

by Dan Bailey on April 7, 2011 · 16 comments

One of the most common questions I get asked by other photographers is, “Do I need a model release?”

The reason for this confusion is there are usually a number of qualifiers to go along with that question: “…if I’m not charging,” or “…if I don’t plan to sell the image as stock,” or ”…if it’s only for editorial.”

So here’s the scoop:

Stock Agencies Require Them
If you ever plan on trying to sell an image as stock, you should always try to get a signed release. In fact, many stock agencies won’t even accept images that aren’t released. That doesn’t just go for people. It goes for property as well.

That’s Not You
Releases protect both you and the end user or agency from any liability or claim that might arise from people who are are or aren’t in the photo. Even if the subject isn’t recognizable in the photo – because they’re in silhouette, for example, or because the photo is cropped – you should still get a release. In those cases, the purpose of the release isn’t so much to verify what’s in the photo as it is to prove who or what is not in the photo. This way, no one can gum things up with claims like, “That’s my hand!” or “That’s my house!”

The reality is that if a photo is going to be used for advertising or corporate use, getting signed releases from every person or piece of property (that includes pets) in the image is an absolute necessity. Any major client will demand them.

RF, Too
The same is also true if the photo is to going to be royalty-free. Since RF images are not trackable and can potentially be used for anything, they need to be released.

Releases generally aren’t necessary for editorial usage, though you should try to get them whenever possible – having a signed release just makes an image that much more marketable. Plus, there’s no guarantee you won’t run into potential claims with editorial uses. It’s rare, but it does happen.

But It’s Free!
I’ve heard about portrait photographers running into trouble when they use client work in their own promotions. One shooter had a particular customer who kept demanding compensation because said photographer used shots of him in his website portfolio. He wound up taking the shot down to get rid of the headache.

Since displaying our past work is the key to getting future work, that kind of thing can be damaging. It also sets a very bad precedent, so in order to protect yourself, simply write up a release permitting you to use images in your own promotion. Don’t shoot a job until the customer signs the form.

You may want to consult a lawyer to get the proper wording, but there are also many pre-written releases out there.  An app like Easy Release, for example, will make you look cool and professional, especially if you have it installed on your studio iPad. Your clients will have so much fun signing the touch screen that they’ll almost forget that they’re entering into a binding legal agreement.

Plus, putting an app like Easy Release on your iPhone ensures that you always have a release form with you at all times, so that the next time you capture a great shot, you’ll be able to sell it and make lots of money.


Senior contributor Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, outdoor and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.



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