When Do You Need A Model Release?

You’re out at an event enjoying the celebration and casually taking photos of the happenings. Later, you realize you can use a few of the images for your online portfolio and a few you can present to a client. Problem is, you don’t have permission from the people in the photographs. You wonder if you can you use the images without it or if you need a signed model release. 

A model release is a written agreement between the photographer and the person(s) being photographed giving the photographer permission to use the photograph commercially. 

Two factors to consider to whether you do or do not need a release are: if the person in the photo is identifiable and how the image will be used, commercially or editorially.

• If you’ve captured the back of a person or their silhouette, and they are unidentifiable, no release is needed. 

• If the photo will be used commercially in a way that promotes a product, service or idea, such as in an ad or brochure, then you definitely need a release. Using the photos for purposes of trade or advertising puts you at risk of being sued for invading a person’s right of privacy unless you have a signed model release.

• Images used for editorial purposes such as a magazine or newspaper article or used in any educational way do not require a release provided the person in the photo was in a public place when the picture was taken.

So let’s say you have photographed a group of people at a public gathering, event or party. If you want to use the photo in a blog post in which you write about the event, no problem and no release needed. However if you want to later use the photo on a poster or brochure to promote your company, your product or your religious or political views, then you do need a release of every identifiable person in the photo.

If you want to print the photo, sell it as art, use it as part of an exhibit or even include it in a book, you do not need a release. However, if used in a book, the image should not be on the cover and it should not be used to promote the book. In those instances, it would be considered part of an advertisement and a release would be needed.

While researching this article, it seems there is a lot of conflicting information about whether you do or do not need a release to post a photo in a portfolio on your website.  Some argue that a website portfolio is a form of advertisement as it is used to attract potential clients or customers so you do need a release. Others argue that showing the work that one creates falls under fair and editorial use so you don’t need a release.  So you could simply get the model releases signed and not have to worry about whether it’s OK to post the photos or not. 

You can also check the Rights of Privacy and Rights of Publicity in the State you live and photograph in.

The responsibility for permission falls on the publisher of the photo. If you are selling your images for stock, you will have more success if you can provide the model release with the license. Without it, the images can still be used for editorial purposes but they’ll likely have less value than those with a signed release.

This article is only a guideline to using model releases. There are many other factors that come in to play and there are variances in each state. This article is not intended to give you legal advice, it is written only as a guideline of things to consider when taking photos of people and how you might use them.

For more information on the subject, read the ASMP article, “ASMP Property and Model Releases” https://asmp.org/tutorials/property-and-model-releases.html#.VATTCiQQzdR
You will find helpful tutorials and a variety of model release forms.

Also view the article from PDN Online, “What Photographers Need to Know About Model Releases”  http://www.pdnonline.com/features/What-Photographers-N-10515.shtml


  1. Martha Romans says:

    Thank you! This is just the kind of information I have been looking for.

    One topic you didn’t address is using photos taken at public events on social media. Are the rules the same or different when posting a photo on a Facebook page?ers Does it matter if the page is a personal page versus one maintained by a business or nonprofit organization?

  2. Marie Joabar says:

    Martha, I remember your sending an email asking for more info about this topic so this article is a result of that. Thank you for giving me the idea. 

    As for your question about Social media and model releases, here is some additional info.

    From the PDN link, http://www.pdnonline.com/features/What-Photographers-N-10515.shtml#sthash.lgsiE58Y.dpuf
    “The pivotal question in publicity rights is whether someone is portrayed in a manner where a reasonable person would perceive them as supporting or advocating a product, service or political or religious point of view. This assessment transcends any and all media forms. But social media is still evolving, and complex contexts can blur interpretations. “

    So, it seems regardless of the platform the bottom line is how the image is being used. If used to comment on an event or as editorial, there should be no problem and no release needed. However if it is used to promote a product, service or political or religious point of view, then a release is needed.

    I don’t think it matters whether the social media site is a personal account or a business or organization account, what really matters is how is the image being used on it.

    Hope that helps!

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