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Recently, worldwide music fans were shocked to hear that the baby featured on Nirvana's famous Nevermind album was suing the band. According to the claimant, his parents never signed a model release form, which means the photographer did not have the right to use the image for commercial or promotional purposes. 

While your subjects may never make the cover of a best-selling album (hopefully they do, though), it is essential to always have a signed agreement in place with your models, even if you are a street photographer.

This article will detail model and photo release forms, what they should say, and how to create them. 

What Is a Model Release Form?

If you are a photographer working with human subjects for commercial purposes, you have to protect yourself and your body of work with the appropriate release forms. A model release is a written document outlining the conditions granting an individual's image for commercial use, signed by the subject. 

That protects both parties. The model is protected by providing agreed upon, defined terms of the photography session. The photographer is granted legal permission to use the models' image and license the commercially created content. Minors (i.e., under eighteen) cannot sign release forms and require a parent or guardian to sign on their behalf. 

model release form


A model release form is a legal document and must contain the proper phrasing and content to avoid its legality being questioned. Suppose an industry-standard model release form isn't in place. The model can demand its removal, appeal for financial compensation for damages through the court, or even press criminal charges against the photographer. Something to keep in the back of the mind. 

Why Are Model Releases So Important?

Legally, every individual has a right to privacy (and publicity). That means everyone has control over the circulation of their personal information and likeness. That could include an image or video in which they appear and can be identified. If an image is circulated without permission for commercial use, it's considered a violation of their right to privacy.

Experts may differ on what constitutes commercial use. For example, photographs published in a newspaper, educational, or trade magazine are considered editorial (also known as fair usage). However, they become commercial if the same photos are used in a company newsletter or a business website. 

Laws also vary from state to state. That said, there is a handy online guide you can consult to ensure you are compliant with the regulations in your state. 

You may also use photos taken in a public space without a model release, provided that the people featured in the image aren't identifiable. If you focus on someone's face as the image's main subject, you will require a release. What makes someone identifiable is also up for debate. Tattoos, silhouettes, uniforms, or even someone's location can make them identified. 

In every case, by asking your subjects to sign a simple release you eliminate all confusion. 

What Should Your Release Form Say? 

Your model release should make it clear that (as the photographer) or a third party (if you are shooting for a client), you have legal rights over the images taken. The subject relinquishes their right over how, where, and when these images can be used. 

For a commercial or commissioned shoot, the model release must detail where the photographs can be used, like on a website, social media, print advertising, and billboards, and in which ways (e.g., promotional purposes, endorsement, etc.).  

The model release should also outline exactly how the featured model will be compensated for waiving their rights over their images. 

In short, it should be clear to all parties what they agree to when they sign. Just be cautious: Some states might have additional disclaimers and requirements. 

Aim to keep your release form short. It just needs to contain the model's full name, address, phone number, and a witness to sign. 

You can download a basic photography template online and make additions to it to ensure you are covered. Your release form looks after the interests of all parties, and the ideal release will make everyone involved feel at ease and secure. 

What Is the Difference Between a Photo and a Model Release Form?

As a professional photographer, you will need more than just a model release form to conduct your business, including photo releases. 

In fact, the two are very different. For example, the model signed a model release granting permission for the photographer to license or use the image commercially. 

model release form

On the other hand, when it comes to the photo release document, the photographer signs it and gives it to the client to print copies of the work. The photo release form concerns personal portraits, wedding photos, corporate headshots, and similar work the client may wish to use or duplicate. 

What Street Photography Release Forms Do I Need?

As photo blogs like Humans of New York become more popular, a slew of photographers hit the streets and took shots of ordinary people in public places. The good news is that taking photos of people in public is much regulated since privacy cannot be guaranteed to anyone in a public space. 

If you took a fantastic street photo and believed you can potentially make money from it, get a release signed. However, the photographer cannot sell a picture for commercial purposes without a model release. 

If you photographed a group of people in a public setting, this form needs to be signed by the individuals who are identifiable in the picture. Said individuals can be identifiable due to their appearance, dress, tattoos, or other distinguishing features. 

Remember: Using the picture for anything that can be considered defamatory, scandalous, harmful, or in any way that could be regarded as a false portrayal, can turn you into a subject of a lawsuit if you don't have a proper release form in place. 

Moreover, private events happening in public view (e.g., weddings, funerals, birthday parties) have an implied right to privacy, so you may not take photographs without permission. 

How to Administer Your Releases

Now you have a better understanding of how to draft the various contracts between you and your subjects, we can look at the admin required: 

Have Your Paperwork Ready From The Start

If you plan a big shoot in your studio, ensure your models sign the release forms before they even go into make-up. If a model refuses to sign after a shoot, you've lost all of your work. You will have to present a signed form when you want to use or sell the images, so there is no way of working around it. Some individuals may not be comfortable signing a release. 

Often, models are unsure of how and where photos will be used. In that case, your form needs to state you can use it anywhere, at any time, for any purpose. Understandably, some models will be hesitant to sign. Make sure they understand precisely what you are asking of them to avoid release from disputes on the day of the shoot. 

It's also a good idea to have a few copies on hand at all times in case someone needs to start over or if you run into an impromptu opportunity for a shoot. 

Have Model Releases Ready For Each Shoot

Every new photoshoot requires a new release form, even if you are photographing the same models repeatedly. It's common to reshoot the same subjects, but each project requires new paperwork. 

Ensure Documents Are Accurate and Readable

The legal wording is important, but so is the way that information is captured. Ensure your physical paperwork is legible in font size and print quality and the models' details are correct and accurate. Check that your models have signed each required field. Capture as many contact details as possible, since phone numbers and emails change at any time with prior notice. 

Create An Electronic Record 

Don't leave model release forms in a briefcase or filing cabinet indefinitely. Use a scanner or smartphone to scan your completed release forms and back them up in the cloud. Your release forms should be labeled clearly and stored securely. Retain all copies indefinitely and preferably save your documents alongside your proofs to find them easily in case of a dispute. 

Use Email To Create Electronic Proof of the Agreement

When your model has signed the release form, countersign, scan, and email the copy to the model and the client. That creates a legal record and email trail that will provide necessary proof (as well as an additional backup) in the event of a dispute or hardware failure. 

Storing Your Forms 

​​We've already mentioned cloud storage as a solution. In general, it's a good idea to store all associated paperwork in the same place. Multiple dropboxes, hard drives, and other storage platforms can be confusing, especially if you have to find a release form for a shoot you completed years ago. Small business project management platform Indy has online file storage capabilities, enabling you to store documents, share proposals and files, and create task lists easily. 

Summary 

You probably don't want to spend too much time or energy worrying about legalities and paperwork as a creative. But the consequences of violating copyright can include expensive lawsuits and reputational damage. To avoid this, make sure you cover all your bases by using correct release forms. 

In fact, release forms should become a part of your routine so you can focus on what matters most: Growing your portfolio and business. 

Indy is the project management tool of choice for thousands of photographers. Create and send invoices, set up tasks, and find templates for your all-important releases and other contracts in a single platform. Create your own template or use one of the pre-made Indy templates to protect your brand. 

Sign up for our free trial and take your photography business to the next level. 

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