Why You Need a Model Release for Stock Photography

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Having a model release is so important, especially if you want to sell or license your fine art photography!

Before I became a photographer, I had no idea how much legal documentation and how many photography contracts I would have to have!

But I quickly learned that whenever you are photographing a model or private property, and you want to use these photographs in any way that might bring you profit, you need legal documents giving you permission!

Model and Property Releases are legal documents, essentially contracts, granting you the use of a likeness in your photos.

In any form of commercial photography, having a contract between yourself and your client is of the utmost importance.

A contract will usually dictate the nature of the photoshoot and what the value exchange between the photography and the client will be. 

Many contracts in commercial photography will also have a model release built into them.

However, with stock photography, things are a little bit different.

When you're photographing your model, you often won't have the same kind of contract that you would with a commercial or wedding client.

Yet, having a model release for stock photography is incredibly important in most situations!

In fact, my recommendation is that you build having a model release into your workflow for any kind of photo session that you do.

What is a Model Release?

At its core, a model release is a contract that allows a photographer to use a photograph of a person and it outlines the ways in which a photographer can use the model's likeness from the photoshoot.

These contracts are absolutely necessary if you are interested in using the images for a commercial purpose at any time down the road, and licensing stock photography is absolutely a commercial use!

However, even if you never intend to license an image, if you are hoping to help further your business with it in any way you should make sure to get a release!

This contract is intended to protect you from any kind of potential liability so that a model cannot sue you down the road for something like defamation or invasion of privacy.

When Do I Need a Model Release?

Anytime you want to use a photograph commercially and the model is recognizable, then you need a release.

The key term here is recognizable.

So anything that could be an identifier in a photograph, whether it's a scar or a tattoo, means that you should be on the safe side and get a release.

In his article on model releases on the Digital Photography School website, Jeff Guyer makes a fantastic point that just because a face is not seen even an artist painting with her back to the camera could be recognized by her work.

Even if the general public would not recognize someone, in order for you to be protected legally, it is important to understand that recognizable means recognizable to anyone.

So even a photograph of someone's hands could potentially be recognized if, for example, there was anything individually identifying about those hands, like a scar or tattoo.

Therefore, having a model release on hand for all of your photoshoots is a great idea as it affords you the greatest amount of protection.

What Should a Model Release Say?

Because I'm not a lawyer, and laws are different in every state, that becomes a difficult question to answer.

However, as a standard, the release should state that the photographer has the right to take the photographs and what the photographer can do with the photograph, and what the compensation was.

Compensation can be the fee you pay your model, or the prints that you trade the model for their time.

The model release that I tend to use the most begins with:

For Consideration herein acknowledged as received, and by signing this release I hereby give the Photographer / Filmmaker and Assigns my permission to license the Content and to use the Content in any Media for any purpose (except pornographic or defamatory) which may include, among others, advertising, promotion, marketing and packaging for any product or service.

The term "consideration" refers to the payment you and your model have agreed to.

Now that payment could be money, or it could be prints.

However there ought to be some form of exchange present in order for the phrase "for consideration herein acknowledged as received" to be relevant. 

In plain English it means, the model is acknowledging that they were compensated in some form for their participation in the shoot, and are giving you permission to utilize the photographs from the session.

The release I use further states:

I agree that I have no rights to the Content, and all rights to the Content belong to the Photographer / Filmmaker and Assigns. I acknowledge and agree that I have no further right to additional consideration or accounting, and that I will make no further claim for any reason to Photographer / Filmmaker and / or Assigns.

This is legalese for the model acknowledging that at the time of your agreement, the payment agreed upon was considered sufficient.

Let's think about an example:

Your friend Anna decided to model for you, and agreed that a fee of $50 for an hour of her time was fair compensation for the shoot.

A year later, a large brand decided to license your photograph and paid you several thousand dollars for the use of your image in an international campaign.

Your friend Anna legally cannot demand that you compensate her more, now that her image is being used in to sell products all over the world.

Yes, Anna might feel understandably upset that she only made $50. 

But from a legal standpoint, this compensation should be deemed sufficient.

Where do I Find a Good Model Release?

Some places, like the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), have excellent templates that you can use.

ASMP has a standard model release, which should suffice in most cases.

They also have a Sensitive Issues clause, which is a great idea to have your model sign if you are thinking of submitting the work to a stock agency and cannot control where the image ends up being used.

Think, for example, of an image being used for a memoir about abuse. If you model might object to such use, you may want to make a Sensitive Issues clause a standard part of the release you use.

Many stock agencies, such as Getty and Shutterstock have their own templates that you can use as well.

However, if you are concerned about the content of a release, or have special circumstances, I would recommend consulting with an attorney instead of writing your own.

Do I Need a Model Release for Every Shoot I Do with the Same Model?

Yes, absolutely!

Just because you got a signed released for a shoot that you a model did in 2016, it does not mean that they have released their likeness to you in photographic form forever.

Let's think about another example:

Your model Anna agreed to do a photoshoot with you several years ago where she was dressed in a historic-style gown.

She agreed to sign a model release on that date, which allowed you to license some of those photographs for book covers about Regency-era romances.

Because of your great working relationship, in 2018 she decides to pose for some fine art nude photographs as well.

The model release from 2016 when you did the Regency-era gown photoshoot does not cover the fine art nude shoot.

You would need to have a separate model release that details this new photoshoot in order to use images from it in a commercial fashion.

That's why some Model Releases even give you a section to give details about the photoshoot.

[sample release details image here]

That way, if a few years down the line, a conflict could arise you will know exactly which model release was signed for the Regency-era gown shoot, and which was signed for the fine art nude shoot.

For this reason, it is also very important to keep your releases on file forever!

Great Apps for Model Releases

In the past, I used to have a stack of model releases printed in my studio.

Other photographers I know have gotten them printed on small cardstock to keep in their photography bags.

These days, my preferred way to get a signed model release is via my phone.

There are a lot of apps out there that offer standard model releases that should suffice for most of your needs.

Two of my favorite apps for the iPhone are Releases by Snapwire and ASMP Releases by ASMP, both of which are free.

The Releases app has model releases templates from Snapwire, Getty Images, Shutterstock and ASMP already built in.

This app also has Property releases built in, which are important to have if there is any kind of private property depicted in your images.

In this case, private property  can refer to buildings wares, artwork, pets, etc.

The ASMP Release app lets users customize their templates for both Model and Property releases, and then save those templates.

For both the Android and iPhone user, the Easy Release app utilizes releases approved by Getty ImagesShutterstockBigStockDreamstimeDissolveAdobe Stock and Alamy.

The Easy Release app costs $9.99 to download.

Currently Easy Release is the only app that Getty states that they will accept a release from, however the Releases app from Snapwire does contain a the Getty template.

Other stock libraries will also list the list of apps that their legal teams have approved, so make sure to do your homework before your photoshoot!

All apps listed above allow you to email the release as a pdf both to yourself and your model.

Stock Library Specific Model Releases

As we discussed, many stock agencies have strict guidelines about which releases they will accept and which they won't.

Other stock photography libraries will also have preferred releases that they recommend you use when submitting to their platform. 

For example Arcangel Images requests a great deal of personal detail about your model in their preferred release.

Getty Images has a release that is written with minimal legalese and makes it easy for both photographer and model to understand their agreement.

Shutterstock also has a release that they prefer, but they have a list of other releases that they will accept here.

Again, it is important to do your research on the agencies or libraries that you would like to submit to before your photoshoot.

If you are unsure whether a library will accept a model release, it is better to contact them ahead of time instead of having a signed release that they will not accept.

In Conclusion

Researching the right model (or property) release, and then gathering and filing the correct paperwork, can seem like a a lot of work.

However, having both the paperwork and the conversation with your model ahead of time can help prevent misunderstandings down the line and can save you huge headaches in case there is ever threatened legal action.

Getting used to having a model release as a part of your workflow will let your mind rest at ease that you can earn an income by licensing your photography without creating any kind of legal conflicts with your models!


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  • Licensing Models Video Training
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We both know your art deserves a life beyond the computer screen as well, so it's time to stop wasting time trying to figure out how to license your art.

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If you're not ready for a full on mentorship, that's totally ok too.

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Happy licensing!