Modeling Releases

What are Releases?

Releases are a fancy way of saying "permission." You are saying that you won't try to sue or stop the person(s) you are granting the "permission" to from acting and using the rights you have given them.

Why are Releases Necessary?

When it comes to photography and using another person's photo, every state has a statute about a "right to privacy." Essentially, each state says that no one is allowed to use another person's photo for a commercial use without their permission. The only exception to this is photos which are used in a timely manner for news coverage. Since celebrities and politicians (and other famous people) are news stories in-and-of-themselves, they are fair game to be photographed for "news" at anytime.

Without a release, a photographer using a photo in a brochure might be successfully sued because there is no way of knowing whether or not the person wanted to have their photo displayed or used (they could claim that they thought the photos were for "personal & private" use and that the resulting distribution of the image has caused undue emotional stress, etc., etc., etc.).

Professional photographers understand the laws (well most professionals do, but some simply ignore the laws) and will require always require a release from models.

Modeling Release Forms

If a photograph is ever going to be used for a commercial purpose (even to show in a portfolio or on a website), the person in the photo has to give the photographer (or user of the photo) the rights to use the photo. This comes in the form of a modeling release. Without a modeling release (some kind of documentation that the permission was granted), the model could later sue the photographer for using the image on the basis that it invaded that model's "right to privacy."

A modeling release essentially allows photographers and their clients to use or sell your photo. As a model you should understand that release forms are a routine and necessary requirement for almost all photography sessions. You should rarely have a concern about signing a modeling release, but always read each release carefully and make sure that you understand what rights you are assigning before you actually sign the form. When in doubt, ask your agency for advice. If you are worried about where, when, or how your photos are going to be used or published, then modeling is probably the wrong profession to be in.

Release forms may be unlimited or limited. Unlimited releases allow the photographer or his client to use the photos in any manner for any period of time. Limited releases modify an unlimited release by stating the photos can only be used in certain media, or for certain purposes (advertising, editorial, gallery display), or for certain periods of time (i.e. from June 1, 2008 until June 1, 2012).

Be Prepared to Sign or be Asked to Leave

If you are concerned about how the photos might be used, then the best advice is to NOT POSE for those particular photos. Most photographers and agencies rather a model say "no thanks" before considerable time, energy, and expense is put into creating the photographs than to have a model complain and cause trouble after the shots have been taken (even if the model already has signed the appropriate releases -- it's bad public relations to have a model saying your business treated him/her unfairly). Make sure that you read and understand the release you are signing. If you are not comfortable with the terms, either ask to have them modified or simply refuse to pose.

A reputable photographer will take the time to discuss and answer any questions you might have about release forms.

What Photographers Need to Be Worried About

Photographers should always obtain a signed release form from models for any photos they plan to publish or exhibit. While laws vary from state to state, publishing a photo without written consent opens the door to lawsuits based on various right of privacy issues. Many if not most magazines and stock agencies will not accept photos which do not have accompanying release forms. Better to be safe than sorry.

There is also the ethical issue of publishing a photo without consent. Think twice before publishing an image without written consent, if only to protect yourself, your reputation, and your profession.

Release forms are also required for certain personal and intellectual property. For instance, legally you need to obtain the owner's permission to photograph houses, businesses, pets, furnishings, etc. Also, you need to have permission from the owners of any trademarked or copyrighted items included in the photo -- for instance, logos and T-shirt designs are often trademarked and copyrighted -- and you can get sued if you try to sell a photo with someone else's intellectual property (copyrights, trademarks, etc.) in your composition.

  • DuBoff, Leonard, "The Photographer's Business and Legal Handbook", Images Press, 1989.
  • DuBoff, Leonard, "The Law [In Plain English] for Photographers", Allworth Press, 1995.
  • Several publications are available from ASMP (American Society of Magazine Photographers) which contain pertinent information, as well as sample release forms. Please contact ASMP for current information.

Remember to be aware of any local laws in your state or country.