Dear Photographer: When Are Model Releases Necessary?

I’m a documentary/editorial photographer and I’m a bit confused when it comes to model releases. Ninety percent of the time, I do not have subjects sign releases. Publications have never asked me for them when purchasing my images and so far there has been no problem. However, I’ve recently been asked to show some of my work as part of a group show in a gallery. Should I be worried that I don’t have model releases for the images they are wanting to show? Are there any hard and fast rules when it comes to releases that I should be aware of going forward?—Anonymous

  • It sounds as though you’re taking photos in a documentary fashion. When you are recording something that’s happening, and not creating something on purpose, then you don’t need a release. After all, you will often have many people, pets, and personal property in a photo that you cannot possibly get releases for all of it. So with documentary photography, it’s not necessary.

    If, however, someone were hiring you for your services for something like wedding, portrait, ect photography; then you need the release.

    So, you’re fine. No worries.

  • With all due respect to the previous poster, “recording something that’s happening” vs. “creating something on purpose” isn’t the legal test for whether a release is needed. It depends on what you plan to do with the photo after taking it. I’m not an attorney, so please don’t rely on what I say as the absolute and final word. You should pick up a book called “The Law (In Plain English) for Photographers” by Duboff. Also search Google; you’ll find a ton of info.

    From everything I’ve learned over years of shooting, you don’t need a model release for editorial or fine art (if you’re shooting an editorial cover, you might be wise to get one; you’ll have to check into that). You do need one if the image will be used in a commercial way: being sold as stock, being used in someone’s marketing materials (including your own), etc. Some contests require you to confirm that you have model releases. So, in the case of documentary photography, if it’s for editorial and fine art, no problem. But if you want to go sell it for stock later, or if a company comes to you wanting to use it in their advertising, you do need model releases (AND property releases) for the people and property in the photo. Not everyone in the deep background, but for all the recognizable people in the foreground (I’m not sure where the distinction lies; again, consult with a book or an attorney). Animals are considered property. In general it’s always a good idea to get them. If you are a professional, consider this part of your job.

  • Eric

    As a photo editor for 20 years, I must say that Samantha’s comments are outright dangerous to stay posted on this site – bad advice, incorrect information. Ethan is pretty much on target. To his comments I would also add that if you are a serious art photographer and you can imagine your work ever being used in that rarified gray area between fine art and commercial (the way very high-end advertisers sometimes do these days), or you have any designs on your photography ever being used on the cover of any magazine, or any other commercial purpose, model releases are essential. Even if the intended 1st use is not commercial (such as in your portfolio, or inside a magazine, or on a blog such as this), it is smart to get model releases so that you, or your future agent, may use the images for commercial purposes in the future, whether that’s for a promotion of a gallery, the cover of Art Forum, or an advert for Citibank.

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