Do I Need a Model Release?

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Do you get signed model releases?

It’s a question that I hear on a regular basis when doing a presentation on my work, which primarily revolves around street photography. It’s also a question that I hear posed to other photographers who produce similar work. The question is asked so consistently that I could set a clock by it when it comes time for the Q&A.

To my ear, the person posing the question may be curious about whether I get model releases. However, what they really want to know is whether they should be getting signed releases.

The answer to that million-dollar question is: it depends.

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“What are you intentions?” is a query that a southern father might have asked of a suitor for his daughter back in the day, but it’s no less apropos when it comes to a photographer and his photography. What you intend to do with all the images that you produce is really the determining factor of whether or not you should be getting signed releases.

Here are situations when you might want or might not need a model release. Please remember that I’m not an attorney and that if you want more definitive and binding information on model releases, there are of books and resources online such as from ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers).

Stock Photography

If you are aspiring to sell your photography as stock, you’ll make more money from people photographs if you have a signed release. This is because images with a release can be sold to end-users for commercial purposes such as an advertisement, product packaging or a commercial website. Basically, if the image is going to be used to sell a product or a service, the only images that will be considered require a release.

Stock imagery of people, which did not include a release, can still be sold as stock, but they will only be considered for editorial use such as a magazine article or a textbook or instructional book. However, you’ll be receiving much less in compensation as compared to that same image being used under a commercial license.

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Selling an image for commercial as opposed to editorial could mean the difference between hundreds or thousands of dollars. Even in an era of royalty free imagery, a commercially licensed image could still mean a nice check arriving in the mail.

If you have intentions of eventually selling your work as stock, you increase the value of the work by getting a signed release.

 Photo Contests

The questions as to whether you need a model release to submit your images to a photo contest will really depend on the organization sponsoring the contest. If the intention is to use the images for a commercial purpose, even to promote the contest of the following year with the winning entries, they may stipulate that a model release is necessary. So, while you don’t have to send the release when you submit your images to a contest, you might have to have a signed release should you actually win.

In many cases, the model releases may not be necessary. A magazine that publishes the winning entries is considered editorial use and might not involve the need for a release. Also, an exhibition of the winning entries in a gallery wouldn’t require a release, even if a print of the photography were sold.

Magazine and Newspapers

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Magazines and newspapers use a lot of photographs. With magazines, the portraits that accompany written articles are being used editorially. This is why a singular image of a person or even a crowd can be used freely even without anyone having signed a release.

So, whether you have offered an assignment to photograph a person or event, you don’t have to run around after every recognizable figure in your shots and get them to sign a release.

But if someone wants to take that same image and later use it for an advertisement or any other commercial use, the lack of a model release may put at end to that particular conversation before it’s started.

Exhibitions and Monographs

If your goal is to have your work exhibited and to sell reproductions in the form of prints or catalog/book, model releases are often not necessary. As a work of art, the laws in the US and in most countries are pretty liberal, even when the imagery includes people.

Even though the photographs will be sold in some form of or another as a part of an exhibition or show, you enjoy quite a degree of latitude when it comes to sharing images that may or may not have a release.

Bottom Line

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If you have serious intention of making some or all of your income from your photography outside of the world of fine art, you might want to get into the habit of obtaining model release. Even if, the day were you hang your shingle as a pro is months or years away, the value of your work may increase just because you have that signed release, especially with respect to stock.

I’ve heard many stories of photographs which were being considered for some commercial use, but which didn’t have the accompanying release. Sometimes, it’s a lost opportunity. But in some cases, it leaves the photographer scrambling trying to find the subject in the photo well after the fact to obtain a signed release.

I have a friend who is a travel photographer who sells his images as stock and gets a model release for every person that he shoots a portrait of. It’s so important to his business that he’ll have his model releases translated into the language of the country he is traveling. He is an artist, but a businessman who is also very aware of his bottom line.

That kind of focus may not be for everyone, but it does emphasize the point that you have to decide what you want to do with the many photographs you have and will be creating.

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