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The primary purpose of a model release is to protect the photographer/videographer. It shows that the model has given the photographer/videographer permission to shoot and licence the photos covered by the release. It also shows that model has already been fairly compensated for the shoot.

A signed release also helps to protect the model, the agency and the end users too. Having such a document, which specifies the details of the shoot, means that everyone should better understand what is being agreed upon and, should there be any future legal disputes over what was agreed, a model release can be an important deciding factor.

For the sake of clarity, this article is only concerned with creative files, that is, files that are licensed for commercial usage as opposed to files that are specifically licensed for editorial use.

Editorial Use Only files cannot be model released. If you have a release signed, they should go under the creative license.

When are model releases usually required?

  • When the model’s face is visible.
  • When unique features are visible e.g. tattoos or distinctive clothing etc.
  • When the photo is suggestive or contains nudity.
  • When the context would make the subject easily recognize themselves, even if their face is not visible.
  • When the model is partaking in a professional or semi-professional sport or activity.

These conditions will almost always result in a release being required. We will cover some exceptions later in the article.

Do I need a model release for self portraits?

Yes. You need to provide a model release to accompany any self portraits that you upload. Unlike other releases, however, self portraits are allowed a "catch all" shoot date spanning multiple shoots, so you do not need to create a new one every time you upload a selfie. You can create one model release for your self portraits and simply reuse it as often as you wish. Please write ‘Self Portrait – Catch All Release’ across the top of the release.

Which photos require a model release?

Any time that you upload a file where a person is a significant subject within it, then the chances are that you will be asked to provide a model release for them. Please remember that you will need a release for each recognizable person within your photos, and all pertinent releases must be uploaded along with every image.

A good rule of thumb is that if you would be likely to mention a person's presence in the keywords of a file, then it's probably a good idea to provide a release for them. If you look at your photo and think that someone could possibly recognize a person in it, then you should probably supply a model release for them, regardless of how much of them is shown.

Generally speaking, a person in the background of a photo who is wearing generic clothes and with no unique features will not usually need a release. People who are blurred by movement or focus, will also not usually require a release, but each image and person's recognizability must be judged on a file-by-file basis. In some cases, the location, attire, and/or circumstances may cause a person to be deemed recognizable even though their face is not visible.

What makes someone recognizable?

A person can be judged to be recognizable if their face is obscured or even if their whole head is cropped off. People are not only identifiable by their features or their distinguishing marks, scars and tattoos, it's often more subtle and complex than that.

The clothing that someone wears, the activity they are doing, who they are with, the location they are in and even the time of day or year can all be identifying factors that may add up to someone being recognizable and the photographer will therefore need to supply a model release for them.

Examine your photos very carefully before uploading them and ask yourself if anyone in it is a significant enough part of the composition to potentially cause an inspector to request a release.

Context is king

Context is not only an important factor in identifying someone. The context in which someone appears in a photo also affects the potential legal risk that the image poses. It is important to consider if the context in which that person is depicted is potentially problematic. If so, the issue could be significant enough for us to decide not to include the image as part of the iStock collection without a release.

As an example, a shadowy figure in an alleyway may not be instantly recognisable and the inspector may decide that a model release is not necessary however, if the figure is stood in a similar dark alleyway outside a strip club though, then there's a much stronger chance that a release will be required, due to the sensitivity of the subject matter. Our inspectors will always tend to err on the side of caution where model releases are concerned, especially where culturally sensitive issues or minors are depicted.

Grab Shots

It is legal in most countries to take photos of people in a public place, but there is a difference between taking photos and licensing them as royalty-free stock images for commercial use. It’s always better to have a model release than not, but obtaining one may not always be an option. For this reason, photographers sometimes upload what we term grab shots.

A grab shot is a photo where a person forms a prominent part of it but they have not consented to having the photo taken. Typically, these photos are taken from behind, or just generally show strangers who are somehow obscured, yet they may still be recognizable.

iStock does not accept grab shots. If you wish to feature someone prominently in a commercially licensed photo, please ask them to sign a model release to show their consent. Alternatively, you may have to be more creative in genuinely rendering them unrecognizable, perhaps through use of depth of field, differential focus or exposure time etc.

If it's not possible to get a signed model release, you may still be able to upload the photo as an Editorial Use Only file. You can find out more about editorial files here:

iStock Editorial Photography Training Manual

Uniforms and generic clothing

There are a few exceptions to when a model release may be required, such as if no unique identifying features are visible. For example, if someone is wearing a nurse's uniform, they would not be considered recognizable from that alone. Another example would be a man wearing a plain shirt and a dark suit. This could potentially be anyone working in an office, so unless there are other factors involved, he would not necessarily be considered recognizable from that alone.


Another exception to the rule of recognizable people requiring a model release is when they form part of a crowd. We have an in-depth article devoted to our policy on crowds at the link below. Please read through it very carefully before uploading any crowd shots:

Content Guidelines: Multiple Logos and Crowds

Briefly though, iStock defines a crowd as “A naturally occurring group of people where no one individual or number of individuals appears as the focus or subject of the image”. If you have a photo that contains a crowd, then model releases may not be required for the people within it.

The more people that make up a crowd and the less that any individual stands out within it, then the greater its chance of being acceptable without model releases. It really must be a genuine crowd of people though, not a small tour group or a family standing in the foreground with a crowd behind them. Such shots that focus on just a few people, or where one or a few people can arguably be considered the focal point of the image (e.g. standing still while everyone else is moving, eye contact with the camera, etc.) will still require a release, whether they are facing the camera or not.

All arranged or planned shoots of crowds are not considered “naturally occurring” and therefore must be model released by all participants. Also, an image containing a celebrity or famous person would not be considered a crowd shot. Please note that this article provides only a rough guide; every image is unique and will be judged on its own merits and potential risks.

Each country has its own laws on what is acceptable and what isn't. Please ensure you are fully aware of the laws in your own country and any country you shoot in. Legally, they are your photos and you are still responsible for them. Please be sure to read through the linked article on crowds before uploading such photos to iStock.


Every upload to iStock is unique and is judged on its own merits, but below we've provided a few examples of when a model release would or would not be required in order to be acceptable here, to illustrate a few common issues.

Release required 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

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

Image: diane555

Release required 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

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

Release required Release required 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

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

Image: andipantz

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

Release required Release required

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

Image: canadian

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 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.

Image: nikada

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.

Image: Alija

Release required 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

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

Image: carolegomez

On page 2 we are going to introduce you to the Model Release document itself.

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