When You Do and Do Not Need a Model Release

If you have ever worked with a model, you’ve probably heard of the concept of model releases. Here is an explanation of when you need them and what kind of language they should contain.

What Are Model Releases?

In short, photographers are protected from other people using their photographs by copyright law. Models (I’m using that term loosely to include anyone who gets in front of the camera) are protected from other people using pictures of them by privacy laws. The privacy laws vary from state to state, unlike federal copyright laws, so be sure to check your state laws for the specifics. So, just because a photographer takes a picture of a person, it does not mean that the photographer can use that picture for any purpose just because they own the copyright to that photo. The privacy laws usually deal with the commercial use of a photo. For example, if you took a picture of Tom Cruise, you couldn’t use that picture in an ad just because you own the copyright.

Broadly speaking, a release is a document that you sign “releasing” your rights to something. A model release is where a model gives up his or her privacy rights and allows pictures of them to be used by other people. What rights specifically the model gives up and whether the photographer needs the model to release any rights is where it gets murky.

Typical Model Release Language: What the Model Is Giving Up

A standard model release will usually be between two paragraphs and two pages depending on how verbose it is, but still will only have two general categories of rights that the model is giving up:

  1. The right to be paid from the use of any pictures.
  2. The right to object to the use of any pictures.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Let me come up with a complicated hypothetical scenario to illustrate some of the common issues that arise in this area.

Photographer Phillip is setting up a shoot of model Melissa. It is a fashion shoot in some designer dresses. Melissa is a raw vegan and loves telling people about it. She is also a school teacher and works with small children. During the shoot, the designer dress has a button pop off and Melissa has a significant amount of breast showing. Phillip sends some previews to Melissa, and Melissa says that there were three pictures she did not like, but the rest are great. After the shoot, Melissa finds out that there is a picture used on a billboard across from her work where she is smiling next to a juicy grilled rib eye and she is horrified. The picture that is used is one that she was not sent, and it is more risque than she expected, and now, her job is in jeopardy. To make matters worse, whoever edited the photo did a really bad job at frequency separation and took all the texture out of Melissa’s skin and changed the shape of her forehead. She calls Phillip to complain, but Phillip said he can’t hear her from the helicopter he’s in that he bought with the money he made from that shoot. She asks for a cut of the money, and he says no. A week later, Melissa changes her Instagram profile picture to one that Phillip sent her. Phillip files a copyright claim on the photo, and it’s removed. Melissa is mad for a lot of reasons. What can she do?

If she signed a standard model release, there’s not a whole lot she can do. Be aware that it is fairly standard for model releases to have the model giving up all rights to be paid and all rights to object to their picture being used. The reason is that in commercial work, the model is typically paid a modeling fee, and there are professionals who are in charge of making sure the best picture is used for the branding of the company. You have an established photographer and an established modeling agency working for an established brand, so things would just be needlessly complicated if the model had say over the creative director on which photos are used.

Getty has a model release with some standard language here. I made a pretty long YouTube video discussing some of those terms and going into some of these issues here.

"Yes, I authorize you to post all of my pictures from our shoot and use them in ads and tag me and there's nothing I can do about it."

Common Issues in Model Releases for Amateur Shoots

Most of the problems come up in TFP or semi-professional/amateur shoots where the parties involved are not established and the shoot is for portfolio-building purposes. If you fall under this category and are working with non-established people, make sure you understand what rights you are giving up.

Because the laws governing these issues vary from state to state and country to country, I’m not going to go into the specific legal advice of what language to use. Instead, I’m going to just highlight topics that need to be discussed and possibly incorporated into a model release so that both sides can be happy and free to create with less fear.

  1. Is the model consenting to the use of all photos including photos that might be unflattering or inappropriate? Is there a category of photos that the model is specifically not consenting to their use, such as wardrobe malfunctions? A model friend of mine was at a fashion runway show and the material she wore seemed very conservative, but when hit with a flash, it became pretty sheer, and she was surprised to have pictures posted online where you could pretty clearly see nipples. So, is the model agreeing to absolutely every picture the photographer could possibly take being used or just certain photographs? What about the editing? What if the photographer or someone in the chain changes the model’s eye color or skin color or hair or waistline? Does the model get any say in the edited versions?
  2. Can the pictures be used in any ad? What if it’s an ad for adult diapers or for a cult?
  3. Does the model get any money? What if the photographer tells the model he just wants to use the pictures in his portfolio, but later decides he’s going to sell them as stock photos? What if it is a TFP shoot? Can the photographer still sell the pictures? Generally, in that situation, it only matters what the model release says, not what was promised in messages or in person.
  4. Does the model or photographer need to be credited wherever the pictures are used? What if the model wants to remain anonymous and the photographer wants to use the model’s name?
  5. Does the model release ever expire? What if you take sexy bikini photos when you are 19, and then, the photographer decides to use them in a book much later in life where you wouldn’t want those pictures out there?

Do You Need a Signed Model Release?

This is even more complicated. Obviously, if you are planning on using the pictures for a commercial project, you will save a lot of heartache by getting one signed, even if you just want to preserve your right to maybe use the pictures in the future. Always err on the side of caution and just get one signed. But what about at a less formal TFP amateur model and photographer shoot? Do you really need a model release? If you are using the pictures in your portfolio on Instagram and your bio says “DM for rates,” then is the picture part of an ad for your services? Do you want to be sued and find out the hard way what the law is in your area?

If you are a model and a photographer is using a picture of you and you don’t like it and there is no model release, there are not a lot of options to have the photo removed without litigation. If you ask the photographer to take the picture down and he or she refuses, usually, your next step would be to get a lawyer and begin the long and expensive journey of justice. Very few sites give you an option to report an image because it violates your right to privacy.

Here are the categories that pop up when you hit the report button on Instagram. There is no category for when a model doesn't want his or her photo used.

When you decide to sue, it’s rarely just an issue of whether there was a signed model release or not, but rather, it falls on the model to prove that he or she did not consent to the use of the pictures. So, if you don’t like the pictures being used and never signed a release, but you have a DM from the photographer saying, “Hey, is it cool if I use some of these pictures in an ad I’m going to run?” and you agree, then how are you going to prove that you did not consent? So, sometimes, you don’t need a release if the consent is clear from the communication string.

The advantage of a signed model release is that you don’t have to hunt through your DMs looking for language that might be interpreted as consent of use. Having a signed model release might also help someone understand why a lawsuit would be fruitless and avoid you being dragged down into litigation.

If you have any questions about model releases, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to get to them.

Note: this article does not constitute legal advice. Speak to a lawyer for any legal matters.

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5 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

I appreciate that you wrote this yourself, instead of just linking to a YouTube video that somebody else made. Thank you for that.

I am a little confused ... not about what you are saying in the article, but rather about who you are writing the article to.

Because you wrote it for Fstoppers, I would think that this article is written to photographers - people who photograph models and use the photographs. Yet a lot of the sentences and paragraphs seem as though they are being written to the models, rather than to the photographers. This is what confuses me. If it is written to photographers, who constitute the vast vast vast majority of Fstoppers readership, then why would so much of the content seem to be addressed to models?

Any explanation or clarification would help me to get a better understanding of who your target audience was when you wrote and published this.

Jeff Bennion's picture

It's important information for both. Both photographers and models need to understand what rights are given up and what those rights are. My purpose in writing this is to ensure that people have a smooth photography experience. That means expectations of both the photographer and the model are met and understood before the shoot. So if a photographer plans on using the pictures in a certain way, he or she might need to know what the default rights are and what would be required to navigate around that. Likewise, it's important that a model also understand those rights before a shoot. I don't see an issue with writing something that provides information that is helpful to both sides if it results in a smoother experience for both sides.

Andrew Eaton's picture

For context i think you should have given an illustration of editorial use and why you don't need a model release for it.. other than that great article :-)

Jeff Bennion's picture

Thank you!

Mark Warren's picture

Nice article, balanced more in the favor of photographers, I think. As an aspiring photographer, i would like to see more equitable treatment of models by photographers....as I used to counter in Corporate America when they said things like "Charge the price the market can bear" with "Charge the price that is fair to both you and the client."

Models are the life's blood for photographers in People-centric genres of Photography. They are a resource that can be shamed, blamed, criticized, etc in the marketplace (whether on an IG-type platform or for clients). I feel strongly that more rights are deserving for models -- why are there no royalty-type formulas in contracts, for example.

Disrespecting or refusing to even listen to rationales for contract amendments after the shoot will eventually come back to bite the photographer -- not least in his (mostly but her, too) reputation in the modeling world.

Thanks.