Model releases: When you should sign one and what it should include

Questions about model releases are some of the most common we get from aspiring talent. Over time we’ve come to learn that even some of the more seasoned independent models know less than they should about these documents, and how surprised they are when they learn what rights they have really given the person at the other end of the contract.

Model releases are contracts and before going further it’s important to note that I am not a lawyer. Even if I was, the law changes for each country, and from state to state. Therefore, I’m not going to get into legal issues, just practical ones.

There are three issues that seem to be the most misunderstood. First, most model releases don’t give a model any rights. They are for the benefit and protection of the party that owns or licenses the rights to the image the model is the subject of. Second, while there are many boiler plate releases, and from scanning the forums here I also see many references to “standard model releases”, model releases are not all the same, and shouldn’t be. Lastly, there’s the issue of when exactly you should even sign a model release.

What the model release is

If a model release doesn’t give you any rights, why should you sign one? The answer is simple: Without a release, in many cases the owner or licensee of the image may not be able to use it as he/she wants, or intends to. Therefore, if you are doing a commercial job it will be required. However, if you are doing a trade shoot for each other’s books, in my opinion only a very limited release should ever be signed. More on that later.

Your right to use the image comes from either a usage or license agreement, or some other form of consent. Sometimes this consent may be implied, but I’m not going to get into that here. There are also fair use issues, as well as Standard Industry Practices (SIP) that may govern certain things you can or cannot do with any images you may get back from the shoot. But a model release by itself is of no direct value to the model, only the consideration that’s usually part of a separate agreement or understanding is.

What the model release should say

When you do sign a release, again in my opinion, it should never be an open ended or a “standard model release”. A proper release should spell out exactly what use is permitted, and perhaps even more importantly, what use is expressly prohibited! Why? Let me explain that in a story:

Surely, as a lovely young lady you’ve probably never been in an adult bookstore:), but if you happen to have ever passed through one you probably noticed the rows of adult toys for sale. Some are beautifully packaged and well presented on shelves. If you stop and look at the packaging you will often see a well posed, beautiful young model, perhaps in lingerie off to the side of a box with an exotic toy inside.  Well, I know one of these young ladies and she quit modeling over it. She did a shoot where she signed a “standard model release”, and was paid a couple hundred bucks. She never agreed to be on a sex toy box, or did she? According to the model release she signed, it was probably completely legal.

While some of you may not mind being on a sex toy box, keep in mind that this scenario can apply to almost any product, and even magazine articles (including those in adult publications or websites). It’s also important to note that while this particular model did get paid, you do not need to get financially compensated for the release to be effective.

In situations where you do sign a model release, have the use spelled out. If it’s for stock photography, be sure to exclude uses you don’t want to see yourself be a part of. For example: “Not valid for use in adult publications or for the promotion or advertising of adult oriented products.” Note: This may preclude certain stock photography services from accepting the image so be sure to read on.

Of course you may not care where your image shows up, some models do not. But there may still be some fair compensation issues to deal with. Many major ad campaigns pay residuals based on how often the image runs and how large the audience is. You obviously aren’t going to be able to identify all potential uses, and even if you could, you’re not going to draft all that into your own release. However, when the release is specific and there is opportunity or desire for the image owner (or licensee) to increase or change the scope of use of that image, they will have to come to you and give you an opportunity to negotiate fair compensation, or decline further use.

When to sign and negotiate a release

Now, armed with all this information you get booked for a shoot and wisely, you ask the photographer or company for a copy of the release beforehand. Low and behold it’s that boiler plate with no conditions wherein you give the rights to your image and likeness for use, anywhere, with any and all modifications, permitted for eternity. So you politely start to negotiate, or provide your own release. Then the other party tells you to go pound sand. What do you do? Well that’s up to you. If I was a model, I wouldn’t sign a release that wasn’t very exacting, and also protective of certain things. But I’m not you. So to make that decision you will need to consider the source and your own potential liabilities.

The source (or other party) can have a substantial bearing on your decision. If it’s an individual, especially one you do not know much about, you will need to be extra cautious. On the other hand, you may also be dealing with a known and reputable entity that has a track record. I happen to have been part of a team that drafts model releases for a very large and well respected publisher. The release we required was even more one sided than the boiler plates I’ve seen and advise against. They allow for any and all use, anywhere, with any type of modifications. Your image can be used in whole or in part. It can be assigned to someone else, and the release is in perpetuity (meaning it lasts forever).  You basically have no say in anything. Why was this release so one sided? What intentions could this publisher have to demand such broad rights and strict terms? The publishers intentions were in fact honorable and there were no ulterior motives. From the publisher’s point of view the goal of the release was simply to protect the corporation as fully as possible, including any potential mistakes that may be made. So should you sign it? Again, that’s up to you but in my opinion yes. Why? Because you considered the source, it was reputable, and its practices were not such that you would have a cause for concern.

So when do you sign a release? Are the rules different if you are being paid, paying, or doing TFP? Not really. Again, almost every release should state what its exact use is. If you are working under a trade arrangement, it’s either for practice, or for your mutual books. Therefore, the release should state that. If you are being paid, it’s either because the pictures are for commercial use which should be exactly stated, or if booked on Model Mayhem it may be for an aspiring photographer willing to pay you to have your gorgeous self in his/her own book which in that case, should be exactly what’s specified. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s standard practice to sign an open ended release just because you are receiving some cash compensation.

There’s an exception to a lot of this and that’s for stock photography. Shooting stock is a business for some photographers and you should do your own due diligence when working in that field. Where do the images get marketed? Through which services? What success has the photographer had? Again, consider the source.

Something else to consider

While uncommon in the commercial world, something else you may want to consider as part of a release is to have some level  of approval of the image. Common law may protect you from some things but it’s always better if you can at least spell out certain types of images or situations that are expressly not to be part of the release. Most notable are out-takes. Or if you shoot in sheer garments with the expectation of things being well removed in retouching, it can state that. Also, you may want to protect yourself if something pops out that’s not for everyone to see. Better yet: For trade shoots, or shoots that only pay a few hundred dollars insist upon approving the final image as it will be released unless it’s from the most reputable of companies and photographers.


This article is written by a member of our community. It expresses that member’s views only. We welcome other perspectives. Here’s how to contribute to MM EDU.

Legal information is not the same as legal advice. Information of a legal nature posted or made available on this website is not intended as legal advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only and you should not rely on it.  It is not a substitute for consultation with an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

LaurensAntoine 4 FHM

LaurensAntoine 4 FHM

Laurens Antoine started his career in fashion 25 years ago. He is now one of the nation’s top celebrity editorial photographers and continues to shoot fashion advertising along with offering limited shoots to qualified talent. Laurens’ contributions to MM Edu are personal and not meant as an opinion of FHM, its publisher(s), or any other third party.

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29 Responses to “Model releases: When you should sign one and what it should include”

  1. November 18, 2018 at 3:08 am, Maksim said:

    If I paid a model for the photoshoot, do I still need her approval for which of the photos to use? Or does the fact that I (the photographer) paid the model allow me to use the photos as I see fit? Thanks.


  2. December 04, 2016 at 8:48 am, Mistress Didi* Blackthorn said:

    GREAT advice for THE MODEL to consider as there are too many photographers who lack scruples; think their work is far better than it will ever be; are predatory; and whose condescending attitudes ruin the joy of modelling. Fortunately for models, there are a LOT of photographers whose egos don’t make them pray to their gods-of-money-and-ego, and who are interested in working WITH you for the benefits of both parties and Art. If you are posing for your own purposes and not for commercial reasons, provide your own model’s release and let the photographer sign yours. I stand by this practice, as it works for Me.


  3. November 30, 2016 at 9:21 am, PH said:

    Love the article, very helpful and direct. I appreciate that you were able to share your advice, but not force the decision on anyone. Models SHOULD be cautious about signing releases. Im not sad for photographers out there that disagree and probably do not have the models best interest in mind.


  4. May 11, 2016 at 1:54 pm, Dan Spector said:

    Serious contracts (a release is a semi-serious permission slip) get into intended use and one-time usage vs. stock photography


  5. January 13, 2016 at 9:13 pm, Bob Johnson said:

    I work for Bauer-Media as a freelance photographer, they own FHM and about 600 glossy mags world wide [western world not usa]
    They have releases for each magazine all differently worded. I sell first release Australian Rights Australia.
    If someone wants to purchase images outside this I negotiate a price and usage. I then consult with the model and if she is agreeable split the fee 50-50
    I could legally just sell the images as I have a release. I don’t, I work with the model and if it involves the use of the model for an assignment quite often I pick up the extra photo job. Its a Win Win situation for us both.
    I know other photographers work differently but that’s their problem, I sleep well at night.


  6. January 10, 2012 at 11:32 pm, corey said:

    I’m not sure why everyone is being so ratchetness in the comment section… THANK YOU for this article, I’m an actor just looking for some basic shots to go with my resume, I’ve encountered my first photographer requesting me to release rights to him, and I had absolutely no idea what that meant or included. This article was exactly what I was looking for. Based on this information… I”m thinking I”m going to have to tell him no I will not release him the rights to the photos…


    • January 13, 2016 at 5:57 pm, KG said:

      And that would be a mistake, assuming that the photographer is a decent photographer that you would want images made by. If you are paying him money to create pictures for you, then certainly make that clear. Most photographers get releases since they want to be able to publish their work for promotional use as wells as write a book later.

      If it was a trade shoot, then most photographers wouldn’t even shoot at all, without a release.

      Certainly, NEVER pose for pictures you don’t want “out there”, release or not. Once on the net, it is impossible to control them.


    • January 19, 2018 at 11:43 am, Oscar Hanzély said:

      Photographer has always the rights to a photo, you are not releasing the rights to him, you just grant the usage. Owner of photograph is the photographer after all by many laws. If you are doing TFP shoot no photographer will do it without a release and if you are doing paid shoot typically the tighter the contract in your favor the higher the price is charged as photographer is getting nothing in return just monetary evaluation. Be prepared for that.


  7. December 13, 2011 at 5:37 pm, Luxe said:

    This was an excellent article. Very succintly written, and should clear up alot of the inquiries that are often seen in the forums. I’ll be honest, I was very distracted by your images while reading the article. I Love the skin tones and the ‘sheen’ that you give the skin. It is very complimentary to the model’s complexions.


  8. December 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm, Schproda said:

    Please do more research on the differences between a release and a contract.

    “Model releases are contracts and before going further it’s important to note that I am not a lawyer.”

    That’s obvious. For those of us who separate contractual terms from a “standard model release”, we know the differences between the two.

    Then you say this:

    “Low and behold it’s that boiler plate with no conditions wherein you give the rights to your image and likeness for use, anywhere, with any and all modifications, permitted for eternity.”

    You contradict yourself by saying it has no conditions, where a contract between two individuals would.

    Your article comes across in a manner as if you’re attempting to save the upcoming models from people like those of us who require a standard contract.

    You can continue putting contractual terms and conditions in a model release if you want. I’ll use a contract for that.

    Do yourself a favor and remove this article.


  9. December 13, 2011 at 1:01 pm, John said:

    If models worry that much about use of their pictures, I recommend choosing another carreer or hobby. This was scary reading… And I’m on the diopter side of the camera…


  10. December 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm, Vito Michael Serini said:

    Reread this since it’s popping up on the main page.

    For a model getting paid, putting in limiting language makes the photos narrowly useless. If the photographer wants to submit them to a stock agency (let’s even assume it’s an agency that doesn’t deal with adult end-clients), how can the photographer at the time of shooting know where the photos may wind up?

    As far as approval? I’ve never seen a professional MODEL demand approval rights to the final image. That would be a logistics nightmare for photographers (and publishers) if that started spreading.


  11. December 13, 2011 at 6:02 am, Anonymous said:

    Thank you for writing this article LaurensAntoine. I would like to point out that it is not easy to write about this stuff and LaurensAntoine did it anyway. Also, there should not be such a giant pressure on being an “expert” or not on MM Edu. We try to learn from each other and share our own experiences with others here on this forum/MM Edu.


    • December 13, 2011 at 7:00 am, Marketa Fei said:

      If you claim to be an expert and post in an educational forum, you ought to be an expert writing something truthful and educational.


    • December 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm, Schproda said:

      Someone should at least have a clue as to what they’re writing about. I hope you don’t put a lot of faith into what is written here.


  12. December 13, 2011 at 4:56 am, Mearle said:

    “For trade shoots, or shoots that only pay a few hundred dollars insist upon approving the final image as it will be released unless it’s from the most reputable of companies and photographers.”

    Utter Nonsense! A good way to lose a modeling job in a heartbeat.
    Doesn’t anyone screen these articles for some semblance of truth and reality?


  13. December 13, 2011 at 3:28 am, StudioCMC said:

    Well, that was a fantastic read of how life must be in the LA basin… Now we all know why when the San Andreas Fault, finally gives way, and LA slips into the ocean, the rest of the “Free World” will begin to function normally. Because California, and its whacked LAWS are not running the art medium universe because they seem to print magazines out that way.

    The “Contract/ Model Release” and the use of materials that was shot becomes the sole property of the photographer, the model decided if he or she wants to be used, or appear in that manner. Money or Trade is discussed before the release is shot.

    Yes, you SHOULD read the model release and ask questions about the images. You really dont get to negotiate anything, you can ask for something, but chances are you will have no influence over the shoot, or the images.

    I absolutely love this part the best: “If you are working under a trade arrangement, it’s either for practice, or for your mutual books.”


    Just who are you to decide what/how someone’s business model basis is? Just because you shoot for a Magazine FMH.. does not mean that California or the LA basin somehow sets the rules for the other 50 states, or the rest of the free world??

    Magazines are history, and new contracts and terms are being changed with out the approval of California law.. Stop living in 1980, and please understand that in time FMH will slide into the ocean, and your ideology of how the “Industry works” will also slip into the water.

    This is the world WORST advice..


  14. December 13, 2011 at 2:58 am, Thedefinitearticle said:

    Putting aside the patronising attitude of this writer towards the pretty little fluff headed young ladies this is obviously aimed at, it is nothing more than a hotch potch of internet rumour and fearmongering that has done the circulation of forums for donkey’s years.
    Any real or useful information it contains has been gleaned (almost surely without the writer realising) from his rehashing of forum posts.

    PLEASE, OH PLEASE will the moderators STOP claiming that this edu nonsense is
    “written by a member of our expert community ” …because this, and all the others I have bothered to read, are nothing but forum posts, complete with all the misinformation, nonsense and downright wrong opinions, by writers trying to get credibility by posting in the “Education” section.(a great misnomer if there ever was one)

    (I am sure that at least the Australian trade descriptions act deals with this kind of stuff, but I suppose this is internet after all)


  15. December 13, 2011 at 2:00 am, semi234 said:

    1.You write…

    “She did a shoot where she signed a “standard model release”, and was paid a couple hundred bucks. She never agreed to be on a sex toy box, or did she? According to the model release she signed, it was probably completely legal.”

    Why are you making this statement? How you write it, it doesn’t read like either of you really have a clue as to how the release is written. So why bring it up if all it is is to blur the issue?

    2. You speak a lot about when a model should & shouldn’t sign a release & what things to consider yet this is entirely one sided.

    It gives no mention of the flip-side to why photographers often want that release, namely to protect themselves from a model who for whatever reasons changes their mind down the road. How than shall we the photographers protect ourselves?


  16. December 13, 2011 at 1:54 am, Star said:

    I should have mentioned the the author seems to have the heart in the right place, and if the article was shortened only to include what a model release is, and the types of releases a model might encounter in his/her career it would be more effective as a teaching aid.


  17. December 13, 2011 at 1:46 am, Natlight said:

    This is an old article, and among the worst of the new MM “edu library”. The author is admits his lack of qualifications, but expounds at length about how models shouldn’t sign this or that kind of release. Then, in a remarkable about-face, he advises that, if you’re working with his company, you should sign a release broader and more one-sided than any of those he just said a model shouldn’t sign. Why? Because it protects his company. Gosh, no one else should obtain similar protection, just this guy’s company.

    Double-speak seems to have found a new master.

    The entire article is best ignored.

    While MM asserts that the articles published in the edu library are written by members of the “expert community”, in fact most are either written by total amateurs, or, like this one, by someone pontificating well outside their area of expertise. That is a disservice to all MM members. MM should impose some requirement on who can write articles for the “edu library” and then weed out junk like the above article.


  18. December 13, 2011 at 1:12 am, Star said:

    This has some of the worst advise I have seen yet on MM. As an example

    “If you are working under a trade arrangement, it’s either for practice, or for your mutual books. Therefore, the release should state that.”

    No, if you are working for trade it is exactly that working for trade. I ALWAYS have model sign a release. I have no use for images in my book that couldn’t be used for a cover of a publication, in a gallery show, or as a mailer for my company. Right of publicity laws make releases necessary for practically any use, including portfolio use. Models, in return, get my very valuable services at no charge.

    I am also very uncomfortable about the information in this article as it pertains to amending model releases. I live in CA, and in CA it is very easy to void a contract by placing clauses into it that conflict with one or more CA state laws. The best practice in CA is to use a vetted model release, like the one i have on my ipad, that protects me from frivolous lawsuits.

    Lastly most standard model releases to do not cover a photographer should the usage be deemed “embarrassing” to the model. So no hemorrhoid creams, no std’s, and definitely no adult material.

    Saying that this could happen, and not be legally actionable, is fearmongering. I really hope MM does not allow this article to remain as written. It is one thing to write an article on what are model releases, but something entirely different to set down rules for when they should and should not be signed.


    • May 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm, Mark Engler said:

       You are on the money…could I get a copy of your vetted model release…and a release to use the release HA


    • January 13, 2016 at 3:18 pm, MeMyself1 said:

      I am an amateur photographer who shoots fine art style nudes. I use a standard release I got out of a book, but to satisfy the concerns of many models, I added a line saying the model is signing with the assumption that no photo will be used to intentionally embarrass her. Technically this is not really required because the law assumes good faith in signing a contract, including signing a release which is a contractual agreement. If I intentionally show bad faith, I am liable. I was advised on this by attorneys back when I first started shooting.

      The only problem I ever had was from a model who demanded assurance that no third party would use the photo illegally. Exactly how do I do that? She was three hours late for a shoot anyway, so I told her to take a hike.

      Another model said on the phone she wanted all negatives and all prints. I hung up.


  19. December 13, 2011 at 12:58 am, Kristian said:

    If I understand the laws in Utah correctly I ALWAYS have to get a model release just to put the images in my portfolio or website. I can’t even put them in a portfolio book for clients to review my work without a model release. It’s pretty strict in Utah.


    • December 13, 2011 at 9:42 am, Scott said:

      Just to advise those in the UK that a model release is NOT required for publishing. Paying your model(s) a fee would create a contract between the parties involved, and copyright of the images belongs to the photographer so the photographer can sell to whoever he or she wants.

      I do realise of course that if you are selling images outside the UK you probably would be asked for a copy of the Model Release but as far as I know, that is limited to North America.


  20. September 29, 2011 at 3:06 am, Vito said:

    Model releases are NOT contracts.
    They are just what they claim to be, a release of rights to privacy/publicity.


    • October 12, 2011 at 9:10 pm, Aaron Nicholas said:

      Although a release doesn’t have to be written as a contract to be effective, most releases are written as contracts. A contract is just an agreement between two parties where there is a promise to do something in exchange for a benefit (e.g. paying the model).

      I recommend: Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images By Bert P. Krages


    • January 13, 2016 at 11:56 am, Tim Dolan said:

      I will add that it depends on the state, my understanding of my own state is by having a compensation line that states the compensation for the model shoot, it becomes a contract, but in other states the release and the contract must be separate documents.


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