Photography Model Release: When You Need One

Jun 30, 2021 | Business Tutorials, Tutorials

The Photography Model Release: When You Do & Don’t Need It

The model release is an essential document for the photography business owner, and presenting it to your clients should be a standard part of your client workflow.  Even if you are not in business yet, but you are building your porfolio with the hope of someday being in business, you will want to get a model release from those you photograph.  So let’s dive into why and when you need a model release a little bit further.

The Bottom Line

Let’s get to the bottom line first:  If you plan to use photographs of your clients on social media or on your website to help promote or grow your business, or for any commercial purpose, you will need to obtain a model release.  Even if you are not in business but simply want to use the images for some other promotion or commercial purpose (stock photography, etc), then you are going to need a model release.

What Is A Model Release?

A Model Release a short document that is typically signed by the subject of the photograph (or parent/legal guardian if they are a minor) giving the photographer permission to display their photographs and use them in marketing promotions in accordance with the terms defined in the release.  A model release is needed whenever you take an image of a recognizable person or identifiable feature (such as a tattoo), if you plan to use that image for commercial purposes (such as promoting your business in your portfolio or on social media). If you have captured a photograph for editorial use, you do not need a model release.

And important point to remember is that the model release deals with your usage of the photo, not the taking of the photo.  Your business policy document/contract is more related to the capturing of the photo, the terms upon which the client my use the images, and the nature of your relationship with the client.  And your print release relates the the permissions you are giving your clients to print their images after the images have been creates.  The model release is the client giving you permission to use their likeness in your commercial endeavors (running and promoting your business).

What Constitutes “Commercial Use” photography?

Commercial use photography is intended to enhance a business interest. Advertisements, brochures, web use, greeting cards, catalogs, newsletters, etc, all MUST have a model release. Even street photography requires model release if it is for commercial use. It is important to know that simply posting an image in your portfolio may constitute commercial use due to the fact that you hope you gain additional business from it.

As far as social media goes, it can be ok to share a photo of someone in your feed without first obtaining a model release, however if that post can be interpreted as promotion of your business, it is essential that you have expressed consent to use the photo in a promotion manor.  Since this threshold can be hard to determine (and let’s be real, when business owners share on social media they are most likely trying to gain more clients), it is essential that you have a signed model release of your subjects before posting on social media.

What constitutes “Editorial Use”?

Editorial photography is work that is going to appear in newspapers, educational books, and consumer or trade publications. Editorial use photography DOES NOT need a model release.  Editorial use photography is intended to inform and educate, and it cannot be used to promote or sell a product or service.

What About Minors?

A minor is any child under 18.  If you are photographing minors, the parents must give expressed permission to use their child’s likeness for promotional purposes.  If they don’t sign a release you should not share the image.  If you are photographing a family you will need expressed permission to use images of both the parents and the children.

What If People Won’t Sign?

Some of your clients simply will not be comfortable with signing a model release, and this is something you need to come to terms with. Forcing clients to sign will only hurt the reputation of your business. The good news is that, is my experience, most people will sign a release. I have probably only two-three clients a year that will not sign.  When they don’t sign it’s best keep their images fully private, and to leave it at that.  However, if you feel comfortable, you can ask if they prefer 100% privacy or if they just don’t want their images shared on social media.  Sometimes people have reservations about their images being shared on social media but they are comfortable with the work being used in a website portfolio.

When To Get A Model Release

You will want to obtain a model release as part of the booking process.  If clients don’t sign, I always make a note within my studio management tool so that I don’t forget in the time that goes by between booking and the shoot.  If they do sign, then you are covered for when you are ready to share their images on social media and within your website portfolio.


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