As a professional photographer, having a signed contract with your clients is a must – but there’s an even more important legal document to protect you and your work. If you’re a photographer working with human subjects for commercial use, whether in studio or in street photography, you need to protect yourself and your work with a model release.

If you’re a photographer working with human subjects, you need to protect yourself and your work with a model release

What is a model release?

A model release is a written and signed document that outlines the conditions for granting an individual’s image for commercial use. It protects the model by providing an agreed upon and defined photography session, and also protects the photographer by showing that he or she has permission to use the model’s image and the right to commercially license the content. (Minors, that is people under the age of 18, do not have the legal capacity to sign their own contracts, and require their parent or guardian to do so on their behalf.)

As an important legal document, it’s best to use an industry-standard model release form like the one available for download below. Without it, the legality of the photographer’s finished work can be challenged – and the model can demand its removal, financial compensation for damages, and even press criminal charges.

READ MORE: Creating Your Modeling Portfolio

Rights to Privacy & Publicity

Everyone has the fundamental human right to privacy and publicity, and this is codified in law in almost every country in the world. With the twin rights to privacy and publicity, people can control the use, reproduction and publication of their image and likeness

The right to privacy gives individuals control over the circulation of their personal information and likeness, including any image or video in which they appear and are identifiable. Any such circulation could be considered a violation of an individual’s right to privacy, and could require removal of the media, compensation for damages, or possibly even prosecution.

The individual’s right of publicity allows control of his or her image and likeness for commercial purposes, and any third party wishing to use such must first obtain permission from the individual in the form of a model release.

When do I need to use a model release?

What constitutes commercial use is a complicated issue. Photos published in newspapers and educational or trade publications are considered editorial or fair use – but if those same photos are used in a company newsletter, it’s commercial. Online usage is even more of a grey area.

Photos taken in public spaces can be used without a model release – provided the people are not identifiable or recognizable. If the image is retouched, however, such as to highlight or focus on one person, face or couple as the main subject, a release is required. Additionally, what is considered ‘recognizable’ is a grey area – people can be identified by tattoos or marks, silhouettes, uniforms, even their location.

With this in mind, to protect your work and its potential usage, always use a model release.

Download DLPHOTO’s Model Release Form template. And here’s one for minors.