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iStockphoto Photography Standards: Model Releases

A model release is like a permission slip. It’s proof that the model is giving the photographer permission to use and sell the photos covered by the release, without compensation beyond what is agreed on, at the time of the shoot. The release is there to protect the photographer, the model, the agency and the end user alike. And even if you shoot yourself, you’ll need a release. With the proper paperwork, everyone knows what to expect from each other, and should any disagreements arise later on, this document can be the deciding factor.

You can download a pdf version of our standard model release from your We also offer translated versions of our model release in our 10 supported languages: Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese (simplified and traditional), English, European Portuguese, French (In France and Outside France versions), German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish, and Russian. You can also download a .zip file containing 12 different versions here.

This article covers the two major questions that come up about model releases:
•  When does a person in an image need to sign a release?
•  What's the proper way to fill out the release?

When do I need to get a signed release?

In the past, iStockphoto required a release for photos where the model was easily recognized. If the eyes were visible for instance, a release was needed, but close-ups of someone’s lips would not require one. However, in some cases the model might appear in a photo and be recognizable, even though no part of her face is shown at all. A scar or tattoo might give the identity away, or it may be the time, place and company kept, which makes the context unique enough to warrant a release.

We call these 'contextual releases' — model releases required when the context of the image makes the person(s) in the photo identifiable.

Just like you've always done, ask yourself: Could someone, other than the model himself/herself, recognize the person in this photo? If you’re leaning towards a yes, regardless of how much or little of that person is shown, you should get a model release.

To help illustrate some of the grey areas, our inspection team has contributed some specially-shot example images, just for this article. There are a few examples from the collection included as well.

Release required

Even though the model is covering her face, we can still see her well enough that she is recognizable. This shot requires a release.

Image: andipantz

Release required

Here the tattoo makes both people recognizable, because it lends context to the photo. Releases for both models are needed.

Image: diane555

Release required

Silhouettes can require a release as well. Again it boils down to, whether the person is recognizable and/or the main subject. This shot offers a well defined profile, so a release is in order.

Image: trigga

Release required

In this shot, the violin player is not easily recognizable. The shot shows no face, no location or unique outfit, and the main subject is arguable the violin itself. However it's appears to be a posed shot in studio and so a release is a requirement.

Image: canadian

One important reason for the introduction of contextuality, is to protect unwitting people from modelling in commercial photography, without their consent or knowledge. We’ll refer to these as grabshots. Taking pictures of anyone in public places is legal of course, but using those photos commercially as royalty free stock is a different story. Not only is it not legally permissible to make a profit off of someone’s likeness without their consent, but it’s also disrespectful to the people in the photos. At iStockphoto we have some of the highest standards in the industry, and we want to remain at the top, so everyone knows what we stand for. This includes being respectful to the people who appear in our collection. So with context in mind and regardless of how recognizable a person is, if he or she can be considered the main subject of a photo, you should submit a release along with it.

Release required

Went shooting with a friend? A shot like this requires a release because of the context, even though no face is visible.

Image: andipantz

No release required

The location in this shot is probably recognizable to anyone who has been there. Still, the person on the left is a small part of the image, not recognizable and also not the main subject - the architecture is. No release needed.

Image: mnieves

Release required

This child is not immediately recognizable. Neither the outfit, location or situation makes it need a release. But the kid is still the main subject here, so submitting a release is the right thing to do.

Image: aguru

Release required

Again, neither face is visible, but the combination of two people together plus location and context, makes this father and child combo need two releases.

Image: Caziopeia

There are exceptions to this, such as if no unique identifiers are visible. A person wearing a nurse’s uniform for instance, would not be considered recognizable from that alone, since most nurses wear similar clothes. Another example could be a guy in a white shirt and black dress pants, holding a briefcase. This could be anyone working in an office, so unless there are other factors involved, he would not be considered recognizable from that alone. Likewise, people moving through the background, who are blurred by movement or bokeh, usually will not require a release. Generally, if the person is in the background, wearing generic clothes and no other unique features are visible, you do not need a release.

No release required

Though this person is obviously the main subject, he is also reduced to little more than a silhouette (with no defining features). The fact that he is windsurfing is not unique enough to warrant a release.

Windsurfer by Caziopeia

Release required

The crowd in this photo is far enough away, to not require a release, but the knight is a different story. His unique uniform as well as the situation warrants a release.

Image: izusek

No release required

Here’s a whole crowd of people, and not a single release is required. Everything is generic enough, and there is nothing identifiable about the setting, so we can safely say 'this could be any group of people, anywhere'. No faces or tattoos either, so no release is needed.

Business Team by nikada

Release required

Here the face is in the bokeh, but the person is still recognizable, so a model release is required.

Image: canadian

All of this can sound confusing and it’s hard for many to understand where exactly the line is drawn. That’s why we’ve included a number of examples with this article, to help you understand when a release is needed. It’s always better to have a model release than not, of course, but obtaining one may not always be an option. In those cases, you can refer to these examples to help you decide, whether or not you should upload the photo in question.

Remember that the purpose of the release is to protect you as well as the person in your photos. Paperwork is never fun, but it is necessary. A good tip is to send your models a copy of the release ahead of the shoot, so they have plenty of time to read it and formulate any questions they might have. Since you’ll be the one answering those questions, make sure you are familiar with what rights the model is signing over to you, so you can explain it back to them. This includes the limitations of how the photos may be used. Often, when models are uncertain about releases, it’s because they’re afraid to show up on a billboard somewhere, advertising some product or service that goes against their personal beliefs, and though there is a pretty wide range of how stock images can be used, there are also limitations, such as no porn and nothing defamatory. Explain this to your models, if they seem confused or unsure about signing a model release. Another tip in that regard, is to show models the standard license image buyers have to agree to (which clearly states what the limitations of use are), when they purchase a photo from your portfolio.

Release required

This studio shot is also not a grabshot in the strictest sense, but there’s no question that the woman is the main subject here. Partial nudity also heightens the importance of a model release.

Image: dphotographer

Release required

Neither model is showing his face and the situation is obviously staged for the camera. It’s not a grabshot per se, but model releases are still needed to show that the models are okay with the image being used commercially.

Neighborhood by Alija

Release required

Double-whammy here: Partial nudity (sensitive subject-matter) as well as a visible tattoo. This shot requires a release.

Image: carolegomez

If you shoot a lot of photos with people in them, you should make the release part of your day-to-day workflow. Consider the model release as part of your preparations, the same way formatting your CF cards is, and get a new release for every shoot, even if you are using the same models over and over. Once you get into the habit of filling out the paperwork, it only takes a few minutes to do, and you can rest easy.

When is a model release always required?
  1. When the model’s face is visible.
  2. When unique features are visible (tatoos, scars, custom clothes etc).
  3. When the photo is suggestive or has nudity.
  4. When the overall situation in the photo (location, events etc.) would make the subject recognize herself with little difficulty.
  5. When the model is participating in a professional or semi-professional sport or activity (motor cross, rodeo, basketball etc).
Release required

A studio shot with an obscured face doesn’t need a release, right? Wrong. Not only would the model recognize the situation because of the mask, but in this case there’s even a tattoo and a piercing.

Image: phfft

When might a model release be needed?
  1. If the person is the main subject of the photo.
  2. If the person is a secondary subject, that is still essential to the overall photo.
  3. If the person in the photo is doing something, most people would rather not see pictures of themselves doing (scratching their privates, slipping on a banana peel etc.).
Release required

This is just a dude in jeans and a white T-shirt. Surely he is not recognizable? Ah, but what about the location? And the fact that he is the main subject? A release is required.

Image: knape

A couple of general rules
  1. Always submit a release. If the image contains more than one model, make sure that a release is provided for each recognizable person seen in that image.
  2. In the end it makes everything better for everyone involved.
  3. Don’t be a jerk. If you think the person in your viewfinder wouldn’t sign a release, don’t take their picture with a “creative crop” and sell it as stock.
  4. Before uploading, in order to avoid receiving new model release requests during the inspection process, verify carefully that all fields are present and accurate.
Release required

Taking people’s picture from behind can still leave them recognizable. Father and son need a release because of the location, clothes and each other’s company.

Image: kangah

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