How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Model Releases

If you’re thinking of selling, or even just displaying, the photos you take of other people, it’s a good idea to get the subject or subjects to sign a model release. Photographers and attorneys can debate when such a release is actually needed — but when I have recognizable faces in my images, I like to have a release just to be safe.

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s simply not practical, or even possible, to get my subjects to sign a release. So I have a trick I use in those situations: I make sure to take pictures where I can’t recognize the subjects’ faces.

model releases

When I’m out shooting in public places (like beaches), and I am too far away (as I was for the photo above) to get to the subjects in time to have them sign a release, I consciously look for moments when the subjects’ faces are turned away from me. I do the same in other situations where it’s difficult to get a release signed — such as a busy street in Manhattan.

Simplifying My Life

Does this choice rob me of some great shots? Of course it does.

But does it also simplify my life and provide good photos in situations where getting a release would be a major hassle or impossible? Definitely.

For the photo above, I watched a father and daughter gathering periwinkle shells at the beach for about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, I was a few hundred feet above them, on a rocky overlook. Finding my way down to them with my tripod and cameras would have been pretty dangerous.

So instead I watched them, waiting until they were just “generic humans” on the shore. I know this kind of trade-off isn’t always necessary — especially for editorial usage — but it makes my life easier.

The advice I give other photographers is to carry model releases with you, get them signed when you can, and get a phone number and address from your subjects. And if you can’t get them signed, make the subject unrecognizable.

That way, you never have to worry about which photos have a release and which don’t, and which uses are legally acceptable and which aren’t.

9 Responses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Model Releases”

  1. Hi Jeff,

    I fear you may come undone. Hiding the face is not enough, apparently. There's several points of recognition where people can be identified, the rough question being, "Would the subject's mother recognise them?"

    We discussed this at length with a newspaper lawyer last year. Usage varies by country. Here in the UK, only commercial use requires a model release.

  2. Interesting article, however I feel that it really depends on location as to where the model release is required. I don't ever really sell my photographs for commercial use, but my street photography I do use on my website, and because it's in a public place I don't have to worry about model releases.

  3. Every commercial or stock photographer knows that they must have a model release or no one will buy their work. I believe Jeff's article is meant to apply to stock photography, but I think it's easy for new people who don't do those things to get the wrong idea and feel restricted.

    It's my understanding that in the United States a release is only needed for commercial use, such as in an advertisement, catalog or brochure. As long as I am standing on public property, I can photograph anyone. I have that right, just as they have the right not to go to public places where they can be photographed. I can use their image in a book, or sell limited edition prints if I want to. If it were any other way, news photos would be impossible, as would candid "art" photos such as street photography, etc....

    See the Legal Handbook for Photographers by intellectual property attorney Bert Krages.

  4. Dear Jeff,
    What a great idea! Thanks so much for mentioning this. I always carry model release forms but often hesitate to bother with taking pictures of people due to the hassle with trying to get them signed afterwards. So this is a good way of getting around the problem.

  5. Am I at legal risk in the US if I use a photo with a Creative Commons license where a recognizable face is in the photo and the photographer did not acquire a model release? This would not be for commercial use, just the cover of a free ebook.

  6. On public place photos of people where in identifiable subject is small, I've used my clone tool to make the persons facial features soft and out of focus so as to make identification for the most part impossible. Works for some situations as long as it doesn't detract for the purpose of the photo.

  7. Had a colleague shoot a similar scenario, older couple on the beach walking during sunset. While their faces were "hidden" or turned away.

    The photo ended up being run in a Erectial Disfunction ad, in the same area the couple lived in. They saw the ad and immediately went to court. While they weren't able to win, it did cost him quite a large sum in legal fees.

    Get the model release.

  8. Nick For the most part because you aren't selling the photographs you are covered under the law. You aren't using them commercially to sell a product. As long as the photo was made in a public place, I believe you could be considered using it editorially.

    However sometimes it depends on the use. Say for example you were to put a photo on a subject matter that degraded or negatively implied the person was part of something they were not. Then you could be in legal trouble.

    Notice though, I'm not a lawyer and I try not to play one on the internet. You should check with a legal representative if you are worried or have any concern. At the very least get look at the book that Lance suggested.

  9. This approach used to work a number of years ago, but these days, most stock agencies won't even take an image that isn't released, whether the people are recognizable or not.

    As it was explained to me by a photo editor, legally, getting releases isn't so much to protect you from the people who are in your photos, but more to protect you from people who might SAY that that's them in the photo. This is why unrecognizable people photos DO need to be released, especially for RF.

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