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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

Yes Please

Do you want to work with models, studios, media companies, fashion brands and others in the public eye? If so, you’ll need a simple model release form.

A model release form can range from a single page of simple text to a hefty document, written in the most highbrow English.

As a photographer, it’s important to know when you need one.

Image of a photography model release form, pencil and field notes resting on a wooden table

What Is a Model Release Form and Why Is It Important

A simple model release form, at its most basic, is a contract. It is one of the most important legal documents you need as a photographer. The state laws all over the United States will differ, but it’s better to have.

The stipulations in the contract outline what you can and cannot do with the images. They offer protection to the photographer and the client. And even those you are photographing.

It releases you from future liabilities and possible lawsuits. These range from invasion of privacy to defamation of character. This is whether you photograph professional models or candid photo shoots.

This is a crucial step in commercial photography. It allows (or forbids) the uses of images for the purposes of promotion or sales.

There is no law requiring a signed agreement between a publisher, photographer or a model. But to ensure you are safe, you need to cover your legal rights.

A man in black hat sitting on a stone wall writing a model release form for photography

When Do You Need a Model Release Form

How Will the Picture Be Used?

Knowing the intended use for the image is one way to know if you need a simple model release form. If you plan to use your work for commercial purposes, then you definitely need a model release form.

If no, then you don’t. It sounds simple, yet it can become very complicated.

A published image does not, in and of itself, mean commercial use. Think of work appearing in newspapers, educational books, and consumer or trade publications. These do not need a model release.

These published areas count as editorial, or “fair use.”

Commercial use is quite vague. It includes advertisements, catalogues, brochures, web use, greeting cards and in-house newsletters, et al.

And you definitely need a model release form for this

The exact ins-and-outs of what makes an image commercial or not can be confusing.

The legs of a model in black jeans kicking up against a wall - model release form

Example

Let’s use an example. Let’s say that you have photographed a well-known politician. But did not get a model photo release.

You sell the image to a local newspaper. They use the image alongside an article written about said politician.

The image accompanies a news story, so this counts as editorial usage. Money changing hands doesn’t render the image and usage as commercial.

But the politician might want the image to use for an ad campaign. This requires a model release form. Here, we see the same image used for two different purposes.

How the photograph is going to be used is the most important aspect. It determines whether you need a photography model release form or not.

The image below, for example, could fall under both editorial and commercial usage. The image could have a fashion/business purpose. And although it’s in a public place, there are still legal issues.

A girl in a black hat sitting at a wooden table outdoors - model release from

The image could appear in a newspaper or online article about fashion trends in Paris. That would count as editorial.

The same image could appear in the same newspaper. But this time it might be an advertisement for Parisian tourism. Then you need a photography model release form. The image has crossed over to the commercial side.

Let’s look at the image below. If you use it to show the attendees of a concert, you don’t need a photography model release form. But if the image promotes a specific product, such as earplugs, it is commercial use.

A shot of a cheering crowd at a concert - model release form.

Can the Subject Be Identified?

The other thing to think about is if any of the subjects in your image are identifiable. Are they recognisable and the subject of the image? If the answer is yes, you need a model release form.

If they aren’t, then you don’t need a model release. But, as we have seen above, there is a hazy line between the two opposing areas.

There is more than one way to identify a subject. The most obvious is their face. But it can also include tattoos, characteristic marks, silhouettes, or uniforms. Even locations can count.

Here, you still need a photography model release form.

The images below first appear to not have any identifiable subjects. This means there’s no need for a photography model release form. Regardless if used for commercial or editorial publishing.

But we can identify the musician based on many factors. These include his posture, body language, stature and choice of instrument.

Getting legal advice in these matters is helpful.

Atmospheric concert photography shot of a guitarist onstage - model release form

Someone might recognise the tattoo artist. We cannot see his face, but we do see the distinct shape, size and design of the body art.

Artistic portrait of the back of a person with black and white tribal style body paint facing a white background - model release form

As for these hockey players, their parents could tell who was who straight away. Even with eye protection and guards. This is something you need to be aware of.

Three girl playing lacrosse - model release form

When/Where Was the Photograph Taken?

This is another area that might involve a simple model release form, even if it seems like it shouldn’t. You don’t need a photography model release form for public spaces. These include parks, fairs, festivals, or streets.

This is especially the case if they are going to sit in a portfolio, or exist as a print on my wall.

But if you think that you may use that image one day for commercial purposes, get a simple model release form. Do this if you have identifiable subjects in your image.

Better safe than sorry. You may have a saleable image which you can’ t use otherwise, and you may never see the people in the image again.

You don’t need a photography model release form for street photography. Even if the face is recognisable. But if you intend to use them for commercial purposes, then a free model release is necessary.

From a legal point of view, you can photograph anyone in a public setting. But it may not always be a good idea. Those under 18 need a signature from their parent or legal guardian.

A woman sitting at the window of a bus - model release form.

What Should Your Model Release Form Say?

A simple model release form is a contract that allows the commercial use of images. There is a basic idea of what needs to be in this contract. But the streets differ somewhat between states and countries.

There are so many photography model release forms and resources out there. We recommend not creating your own.

The idea with the contract is that it protects the interests and the rights of both parties. It is a two-way street. It helps both parties, and safeguards them against unwanted actions.

You are, after all, asking a bit from those photographed. They relinquish their right or claim over how, where and when these images appear.

An overhead shot of two people at a laptop discussing a model release from for photography.

This can be a big deal, and you should prepare yourself to reimburse them somehow. This can mean money, via a lump sum or a cut of the profits. It can also mean prints or anything else you agree on.

The photographer might not be the publisher of said image. Those authorised to publish the images on the photographers’ behalf also need consent.

Let’s go back to our original example. If that politician uses your image for their book cover, you are not the publisher. In this case, you are licensing the image to the publisher.

But you need permission from the photographed subject for a third party to use it also.

A photography model release form should be short and sweet. It needs to contain the photographed persons’ name, address, phone number and witness.

There are much longer versions, used for more important, commissioned work. The shorter versions are more for unplanned photographs.

A group of models and photographers backstage at a fashion shoot

Important Things to Remember

Keep these forms forever. These forms do not have a statute of limitations, and don’t run out. You will always need to present the model release form when you want to use or sell the image.

Also, it will stop legal proceedings or allow you to defend yourself if ever sued.

Some people may be hesitant in signing these forms. The contract doesn’t state exactly where and when you will use it. It only says that you can use it anywhere, at any time, for anything.

You will need to respect their decision if they refuse.

Taking photographs of a model or group of people will be easier. Photographing random people in the street? More difficult.

Have your subjects fill out the form beforehand, if photographing for commercial reasons.

If they say no, the photography session doesn’t take place, saving you a whole bunch of time.

A close up shot of a man writing a model release from for photography.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

CLICK HERE if you want to capture breathtaking images, without the frustration of a complicated camera.

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer currently based in Budapest. His favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto

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