When is a model release required?


By Andrew Hudson Published: June 7, 2011 Updated: November 17, 2016

A model release is often required if a person could say: “Hey! That’s me!”

When submitting a photo to a microstock agency, an agency will generally require a model release when:

  1. A person is pertinent to the image in some way, and;
  2. A person could conceivably in any way identify themself in the photo.

Model releases for each person in a photo must be dated and witnessed, and a copy submitted with each photo.

When is a Model Release Not Required?

You don’t need a model release when:

  • The person cannot be identified in any way, for example, when a general body part such as an arm is shown.
  • The person is not a signficant part of the image, for example, when they are part of a general crowd.
  • You are using the photo for personal use only, such as in a private photo album.
  • The photo is used strictly for fair use purposes such as editorial news stories.

When Do Microstock Agencies Require Model Releases?

Anytime the person is a significant part of the image and can be identified in any way. This includes a silhouette with defining features, a tattoo, their relationship to you. If the person is merely in the photo but is incidental to the photo and not a significant part of the image, then you may be OK without a release.

Here is what iStockphoto says:

The most important things to remember are:

  • If the main subject of the image is a person — even if the person’s face is not visible — it will require a model release. Images of people photographed from behind or without their permission or awareness will generally not be acceptable.
  • If the photograph is of a minor (a child under the age of 18), a model release must be signed by a parent or legal guardian.
  • A complete model release must be uploaded with each file that requires one.
  • If you’re uploading successive shots of the same model, the model release must be included with each image.
  • A model release must include the date the shoot took place.
  • A valid witness signature must appear on the model release. It must be from a third part — someone other than the photographer or the model/parent.
  • If the photo is of the photographer (a self portrait), a model release is still required. A model release for self portraits does not expire; you can have an unlimited date range on your self-portrait model release.

When is a model release always required?

  1. When the model’s face is visible.
  2. When unique features are visible (tatoos, scars, custom clothes, etc.).
  3. When the photo is suggestive or has nudity.
  4. When the overall situation in the photo (location, events, etc.) would make the subject recognize herself with little difficulty.
  5. When the model is participating in a professional or semi-professional sport or activity (motor cross, rodeo, basketball, etc.).

When might a model release be needed?

  1. If the person is the main subject of the photo.
  2. If the person is a secondary subject, that is still essential to the overall photo.
  3. If the person in the photo is doing something, most people would rather not see pictures of themselves doing (scratching their privates, slipping on a banana peel, etc.).

A couple of general rules:

  1. Always submit a release if you can. In the end it makes everything better for everyone involved.
  2. Don’t be a jerk. If you think the person in your viewfinder wouldn’t sign a release, don’t take their picture with a “creative crop” and sell it as stock.

— iStockphoto

How to Photograph Models


Reply by Anonymous

March 12, 2015

The only time you need a model release is when you intend to sell the photo commercially such as to advertisers, or product promotion or whatever — you are allowed to sell photos normally of people without the use of a model release. Straight up sales that do not include commercial use are considered editorial use — fair use. Stock image sites have their own specific rules, but the general rule outside of stock photo/micro sites etc. are that you don’t need a model release if a person is in public, they have no right to ‘protect their image’ basically. How do you think paparazzi gets away with the shots they do? I’m sure their targets would never sign a release knowing that their image was going to stories derogatory of them. ’fair use’ covers use of photos for non-commercial sales.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

March 13, 2015

We’re mixing several things here.

Yes, people in the street can generally be photographed (a form of free speech), and a model release is not required unless the photo is used commercially. But if you are photographing people with the intent of selling your images, you should get a model release.

A model release is, at minimum, a polite way to respect a model. Having a written agreement means helps ensure that both photographer and model have a similar expectation for the arrangement.

In the U.S., privacy/publicity law is a state issue, so requirement depends upon the state. Some states (notably New York and California) give people rights to protect their image.

Fair Use is a matter of copyright law, not privacy law. A model could potentially use the photo without permission if the use was ”fair use”, but a photographer can’t rely on fair use to use an image of a model since privacy law, if applicable, generally does not include a “fair use” provision.

Fair Use in copyright law is a large gray area. It is an affirmative defense (meaning the user has to prove the use is fair), and some uses that appear to be editorial have been ruled commercial (not fair use).

Paparazzi photos (taken from a public viewpoint) can be sold and published as the subjects are usually celebrities (public figures can have legally different privacy rights than regular people) and the publishing is usually newsworthy (a fair use). But photos of ordinary people for non-newsworthy uses do not have either defense.

In summary, privacy is a complex issue and a model release is a polite and easy way to avoid potential disagreements later.

Reply by Aashika Kansara

May 11, 2013

helpful information... Thank you!!!!

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