Model Releases

When you sell a picture through an agency and it shows a recognisable person, then the agency may require that you have a model release. This means that the subject of the picture has signed a contract saying that you have their permission to commercially exploit their image. Without it, then your picture will only be sold for editorial uses - in books, newspapers and magazines where releases are generally not needed, but fees are usually lower.

Now I have mixed feelings about model releases. I used to use them a lot, but came to the belief that many releases are often completely counter-productive. There were times when I photographed people who could not read or write in their own language and basically ended up copying their names and addresses on to a release. In most countries there are precedents that say that a contract has to be fair to be legal. Having someone who cannot read and write in their own language 'sign' a contract in a language the do not understand, concerning a concept which they do not comprehend is not going to be remotely legal.

Why does this matter? Well it is the user of a picture not the photographer who is ultimately responsible for any legal action arising from any use. This means that if a company buys one of your pictures from an agency and uses it for an advertisment and the subject of the picture sues, then it is the publisher of that picture who is liable. Yet, if you claim to have a model release and they buy the picture in good faith, then you are responsible if your model release proves later not to be legal and valid.

In effect: no release, not your problem, but you might struggle to sell a picture for commercial use. Invalid model release, you are ultimately totally liable should that release ever be challenged in court.

This might sound paranoid, but the whole reason that clients will demand a model release in the first place is that they are concerned that the subject of the photograph will see it and sue them. This can be the case even if your subject is in a developing country. The world is increasingly global, and it is not inconceivable that the subject of a picture will see it published and might object. As we all know, there are plenty of lawyers around the world – especially in the USA – who will accept cases on a no win, no fee basis. It is also worth remembering that you don't get the choice of where any court case is heard. If the publisher of a picture publishes it online, or even has a US office, then it could be LA Law for you!

You might not even get the chance to defend the case. Often the paper trail will lead directly back to you, and if the publisher or the agency settle the case, then you might be forced to indemnify them for their losses.

Now, this might all sound completely gloomy, and put you off model releases completely, but that is not what I am saying. Model releases are vital for commercial photography, but you have to make sure that the model release is valid, and if necessary, will stand up in court.


Achieving a Legal Model Release

Getting a legal model release is not necessarily a simple matter. Firstly, the actual release has to be legal. Luckily there are a number of places where these can be downloaded. Next it has to be signed by the person you are photographing and in many jurisdictions there has to be some degree of payment – even a noimal amount. Lastly the document will have to be witnessed by someone who is there at the time that the subject signs it.

There are a couple of points that I think that you should consider in order to make sure that a model release is deemed legal:

1). Translate the release into the lanuage of the country you are travelling in
If you can't find a ready made form online, then consider having them translated and copied when you arrive. This might sound like a lot of work, but remember that an invalid release is worse than useless.

2). Remember to make some sort of payment
Many legal jurisdictions will need there to be some form of payment for the release to be legal. This can be a token amount, but if you are photographing poorer people in the developing world, then a higher amount might be appropriate.

3). Have the concept of model releases explained to the subject
Make sure that the subject of the picture understands what they are signing. In order for a contract to be legal, let alone moral, then the subject should understand what they are signing. If you don't speak their language adequately, then you should employ a guide and translator who can do it for you. This person can also witness the model release.

4). Make sure that the witness is accountable
You may have to contact the witness to get them to verify the model release. Having your own witness can help, as you should be able to track them down in the future. Using some random passer by is less secure. Make sure that you keep the contact details for the witness. Some releases don't have a space for witnesses

5). Check your subject is old enough
If your subject is younger than 18, then the model release will need to be signed by their parent or guardian.


There are some links to some sample releases here:


There are a number of products available that allow you to create a model and property rlease with a smart phone or tablet. These have the advantage that you can include a thumbnail picture of the person in question. Check that any library that you are intending to submit to will accept digital releases. A cross platform release application is Easy Release.