Photographic Model Release Forms: When You Need Them, When You Don't

by Brenda Tharp

Cinco de Mayo Celebration
Cinco de Mayo Celebration
© Brenda Tharp
All Rights Reserved
Following industry standards, for any work that will appear in consumer or trade magazines, newspapers, or educational books, you generally do not need a model release. This is also true for photographic exhibits. These are considered educational/informational uses.

However, for photos that will be used in commercial applications - ads, brochures, posters, greeting cards, catalogs, postcards, kiosks, trade shows, Web sites, etc. - you will need a release from your subject in order to be "legal."

Some ask: "If you sell a photograph to a newspaper, is it now considered a commercial use since there was commercial gain?" or, "If you sell a print from an exhibit, is that commercial gain?" In theory, no. In practice, my photojournalist friends do not get releases; and my colleagues in the general editorial and fine art genres don't get releases very often, either.

In all these years, I don't know anyone personally who has had a legal issue regarding releases for these areas of photography. I have sold images for use in travel guides, and done many assignments for consumer magazines without needing to get releases. There are exceptions, however, such as corporate magazines.

Untitled, New Mexico
Untitled, New Mexico
© Brenda Tharp
All Rights Reserved

Photographic Model Release Forms: Play it Safe

These days, it's hard to know what to expect from people you may have photographed, but do not know. They could verbally say "sure" and then change their mind later. So I play it safe: I ask for releases on any photograph that I've made where the person is clearly the subject of the image, and that I think I might be able to use commercially. But these are mostly people with whom I've had a conversation, and a personal photography session.

For my candids on the streets, in parks, festivals, or in travel scenes, markets, etc., I usually don't worry about it. But if I think I've made an image that will surely sell commercially, then I'll try for a release.

If you think that your pictures might be commercially used, make the effort to get a release, and be prepared to give something for that permission. A thank-you print or prints, a small donation or payment, etc., is considered fair price for the permission to use their likeness "forever." It may not be required, but it's only fair if they ask for something in return.

Where to Get Photographic Model Release Forms

Here are a couple of model release forms - one for adults and one to use when photographing minors. These are Word docs; if you cannot download them, turn to the books mentioned below. Either way, use these forms as an example:

Where Else Can You Get Photographic Model Release Forms?

Additionally, there are books that have model releases printed in them. The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) also has a stock photography handbook that has standard forms in it. (For my own use, I have taken these forms and modified those to be user-friendly.)

Whichever form you use, keep your release in simple language, and spell out your intentions clearly. If your subject doesn't want to sign a release at that moment, then get their name/address and send a thank-you print with a release form asking again ... if you have something great!

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Article by Brenda Tharp. To learn more about photography, explore the many online photography and Photoshop classes offered here at