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Can You Sell People Pictures Without a Model Release?

By Lori Allen

I didn’t bother to bring model releases with me on our trip around the world — and it won’t make a lick of difference when it comes to selling my photos. I’ll explain why here below.

But first, I want to back up and catalog a few things we know.

1.) We know that pictures with people in them sell better than those without. And how do we know this?

For starters, look at the portfolios that sell best on istockphoto.com (or any other online stock agency) and you’ll see that it’s those with people that buyers want. Open up any travel magazine, newspaper, or text book and you’ll find more evidence there — the majority of photos include people.

2.) But here’s what else we know: Sometimes, you don’t need the full person in the photograph to make it a saleable people shot. Adding just a simple human element — an arm, a shadow, someone’s foot — can make the photograph more saleable too.

Let’s take a look at some of the photos professional photographer, Shelly Perry, shot at my wedding. They include people (or at least parts of people)…

All three of these photos say, “wedding.” All three include a human element. But none requires a model release. They could have easily been taken by a bystander and sold without my signature.

Why are pictures like this an attractive option for photographers?

Well, I’ll tell you why I think so and why I took so many of these kinds of shots during my recent honeymoon travels: First, I was traveling to destinations where I didn’t speak the language. Ordering a cup of coffee was a challenge… getting someone to sign a model release would have been nearly impossible.

Not only that, but I just don’t like asking folks to sign a release. If I were going to ask people to model for me in some sort of formal shoot (like we do at some of our live photo workshops) that would be one thing.

But to stop somebody on the street and ask her to sign a model release — somebody whose picture I’d just snapped — just feels too invasive to me.

Does that mean that I only snap pictures where you can’t identify the people?

No, of course not. I take both.

Here’s the rule of thumb: For editorial or fine art use (that’s magazines, newspapers, textbooks) – you don’t need a model release. For stock agency or other commercial use – you do (and that’s where the human element pictures come in).

If the person in your shot is unidentifiable (as I am in Shelly’s photos, above) then you don’t need a model release — even if you are selling your shot for stock or commercial use.

What distinguishes “identifiable” from “not identifiable”? If a stranger could identify the person in your photograph (which is to say the person in your photo has a unique tattoo or scar or is clearly visible and anyone could pick him or her out of a lineup) then you do need a release. Short of that, you don’t.

I know (and now you know) that those wedding pictures Shelly took are of me and my husband.

But even if I could prove in a court of law that I was in that exact location, wearing that exact dress and jewelry, holding those exact flowers, at the exact time that those pictures were taken, I still wouldn’t have a case. A judge would still say that, in those photos, I am unidentifiable. And, so, Shelly could continue to sell them for stock and commercial use without a model release from me.

What does this mean for you?

It means that you can easily follow Shelly’s lead and turn any special event into a money-making opportunity.

The next time you attend a wedding, a birthday party, a high school graduation — don’t try so hard to capture the front of the subject’s face or her entire body in your picture. Look, instead, for “unidentifiable” people photos you could sell for stock use.

Look down at your subject’s feet. Focus on her hands. Shoot from behind her head. You’ll discover all sorts of ways to include a human element in your photos — without including an identifiable human.
Coming soon! Watch for new articles from this expert.

Get More Tips, Strategies And Articles About Travel For Women HERE

Author site: Lori Allen | View all articles by

Topics: Lifestyle, Travel Writing | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Can You Sell People Pictures Without a Model Release?”

  1. wendy carey Says:
    February 4th, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Thanks so much this information was very helpful as I am wanting to break out into stock photography and thought it was a bit of a grey area. Keep up the good work! Wendy Carey Badger Castle Publishing

  2. Denise Noble Says:
    May 7th, 2010 at 11:59 am

    I have been needing to find this information in writing. Thank you so much for writing this article.

  3. Ann Atherton Says:
    May 26th, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    On a recent holiday to Mexico I attended the welcome meeting as I wanted to book some trips. I was amazed when the pictures of the swimming with dolphins were shown to our group and there on the stage was a large photograph of myself with a dolphin! The rep asked if the travel company told me they were using my picture. I told them this was the first I knew about it. I purchased the same photograph in 2005 and still have it. This is a very well known travel company, can they use my image without my consent?

  4. deirdre Says:
    May 26th, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    If you are clearly identifiable, they can’t publish it without your consent.
    An issue might be that you have that picture since 2005, so a judge might wonder (or not) why you waited so long to come forward with a demand.
    And I do not know if a company is obliged to prove they obtained a consent after so many years.
    It doesn’t hurt to call a lawyer before you decide to take any steps.

  5. Syrinda Sharpe Says:
    June 12th, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    I took some pictures of children in India and they are awesome- I did not have or get releases – not sure I could have explained it to them or their parents. Can I sell these or at least “show” them in an exhibition?

  6. Jennifer billado Says:
    April 12th, 2011 at 9:23 am

    I took some shots of an event .. a pow wow with native dancers and was wondering if I could sell or show the shots without the consent of the subject since it was a public event and they put themselves on display for the city?

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