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There’s more to being a photographer than taking beautiful photographs. The world of permissions can get complicated. Failing to use the right photo release form could lead to costly and stressful legal proceedings.
To protect yourself from future headaches, it’s vital to get the right permission for the pictures that you take, as well as photographers’ insurance to cover you in case of mishaps.
Photo release forms make sure there’s no confusion about photo usage. They usually cover who can publish or print images, where they can use the images, for what purposes, and for how long.
What is a photo release form?
A release form is a written agreement that describes how a photograph or set of photographs can be used.
Release forms are how you get and give permission. They define who has the right to publish photographs, whether on social media, at a public exhibition, online, in print or on television.
What does a photo release form do?
A photo release form is the agreement between a photographer and a client, or the subject of their photo. People, buildings, animals and landmarks are just some of the subjects that usually need a release form.
There are several kinds of photo release forms:
Model release forms
A model release form covers the agreement between a photographer and the model or person in the photo. It gives permission for the photographer to use images taken during a photoshoot, for commercial purposes. There are some exceptions. For example, if an unrecognisable part of somebody’s body is in a photo, you don’t need them to sign a release form.
If the model is under 18 years of age then the form must be signed by a parent or legal guardian. Child models need their parent’s consent.
Print release forms
A print release form gives permission for somebody to print your photos. For example, a wedding photographer may send over digital files from a wedding, along with a print release form that allows the couple to print their own images. Photo labs are increasingly refusing to print images without a print release form from the original photographer.
Property release forms
A property release form gives permission for you to publish images of buildings, private property, and public places that aren’t owned by the state.
In the UK, freedom of panorama allows you to take photographs of any building, skyline or fixed structure in public without needing special permission.
Many famous buildings and places require a property release form. For example, the Louvre, Sydney Opera House, the Hollywood sign and the Eiffel tower (but only at night – no form required for daytime photos!)
Browse Getty’s intellectual property wiki for more information about landmarks, buildings and institutions that can’t be photographed for commercial purposes without permission.
When do I need a photo release form?
You can take a photo of most subjects without needing permission, but you need a release form as soon as you plan to publish the images. This applies whether you’re publishing the images to your own social media, in a book of images or on a website.
If you’re using an image for commercial purposes, you need a release form. Not sure if your usage is commercial? Ask yourself if the image will generate money, promote your brand or products or create sales. If so, you need a release form.
To sell your images through a stock photography website, you will need to show the relevant release forms for all images.
If an image is being used for editorial purposes, like accompanying a news piece or a feature in a news outlet, you’re very unlikely to need a release form.
Street photography and images taken in public
Images taken in public often don’t need a photo release form, no matter what use you plan for them. Most street photography is therefore exempt.
Some events may look public, but you could land yourself in trouble if you attempt to publish photos of them. A good rule of thumb is that if people can reasonably expect privacy, you will need a release form. For example, a wedding party leaving a church at an invite-only wedding, or somebody in their own home, accidentally visible through an open window.
Fine art exemption
Fine art photography is considered distinct from photography for commercial purposes. You could take a photograph of a woman walking down the street, then exhibit it at a gallery or even publish it in a fine art book, without her explicit permission. But using the same photo to advertise your professional services or gain future work would land you in hot water.
Images that are considered ‘newsworthy’ are usually exempt, like a photo of a protest or a riot. An image of a protest outside a building can almost always be used in an editorial setting, like a newspaper, without a release form. But you would need a release form to use that same photo for commercial purposes, for example, to promote an event happening at that venue.
Where do I find a template photo release form?
Try this template model release form from the Royal Photographic Society.
Can I use a generic photo release form?
Get legal advice before you use a release form template. It may need adapting to fit your particular needs. If you want to use images for a purpose beyond the original agreement, you must get new, signed consent.
Photographers’ insurance is well worth investing in. Not only will it cover you for loss or damage to your equipment, it can protect you if you fail to get the right permissions and accidentally end up with a complex and costly lawsuit on your hands.
Disclaimer: this article is for information purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice.