Recently a workshop participant contacted me about model releases. She had a taken a fantastic portrait in Romania, and wanted to submit the image to a contest. But the rules of the contest stated that you needed a model release for any portraits submitted to the contest. My friend had a lot of questions…why do they need a release? Can you still get a release? What form is best? Do they have one written in Romanian? All good questions!
First, do you need a release? The bottom line here is how is the image going to be used. If you are using the picture for education or to inform the public, then you don’t need a release. If you are using images in a magazine, a book or newspaper, then you won’t need a release. But if you are using the image in any commercial way like advertising, then you will need a release. With the photo contest example above, the contest might use a winning picture for advertising the contest or some product related to the contest. Make sure to read the fine print on any photo contest to see what rights they are asking for if your photo wins (more on this in another post).
One point often brought up with model releases is you only need a release if the subject is identifiable in the image. Take a look at the image above. You can’t tell who the hiker is…he is a silhouette. But here is the reality when working with many commercial clients. They don’t distinguish between identifiable or not, just is there a person in the image or not. If there is a person in the image, even if they are a tiny silhouette in the distance, you need a release or they won’t accept the image. They are protecting themselves against any possible lawsuit from the subject in the image. Stock agencies often separate their collections as those images that are released and those that are not released.
Do I get releases on all my portraits subjects? No, it just isn’t possible. And often when traveling many of my subjects may not want to sign a release. Imagine just meeting someone on the street, you don’t speak their language, and you are handing them a form telling them to sign here. I wouldn’t sign it! But on many of my travels I set up more formal portrait sessions, sometimes with help from the local guide, and I will ask for a release. I always offer to send the subjects prints. If the shoot is set up with models, we often pay the models and signing a release is more accepted in these situations.
There is a great app, Easy Release, that you can use on your phone to get a release on the road. The app guides through the process, and tags a cell phone photo of the subject to the release. Then you can send yourself a jpeg of the signed release…nice to have it in your mailbox when you get home. This app also comes in many languages.
Can you get a release later after a shoot or trip? Yes, you just have to contact the subject/model and ask them to sign. I once had a hotel chain ask to use a portrait in their brochures and advertising. The image was a quick shot on the road when I took it, and I didn’t have a release. I told the client I couldn’t license the image to them without a release. About two weeks later I got a call from the hotel chain…they had sent someone to Easter Island, found the model and had him sign a release. Unbelievable….but now I could make a nice stock sale!