Many aspiring and new models assume that all they need to do is be good at posing in front of a camera and walking a runway. But the reality is that there’s a huge business side of things that you also need to be aware and educated about.
One of the biggest things models should know about and use but often don’t, is the Model Release form. This little form is very important but is often underutilized by both models & photographers, especially when doing trade work.
In this post I will go over what a Model Release form is and how they are often used to help you get a general understanding of them. But before I go any further, it’s important to note that I am not a lawyer. Model Releases are legal documents, and as the law is different from state to state, it is important that you have a general understanding on what your legal rights are as a model. If you have any questions about a Model Release that you’ve been asked to sign, it’s best to seek the legal advice of an actual lawyer and not the internet.
SO, now that I have that out of the way, what is a Model Release form? A simple Model Release, at its most basic level, is a contract between the model and the photographer that essentially spells out how the photos will be used post-shoot, releases the rights of the images over to a client or company, and grants permission for them to be published and/or sold.
It is also important to note that a model release is not the same thing as a photo release. A Model Release is signed by the talent (you, the model) so the photographer can license and use the image as they please. A Photo Release form is a document signed by the photographer and given to the client/model so they can print/use images from the shoot (i.e. portraits, headshots, composite card images, book prints, etc.). For most photoshoots, both agreements should be signed.
*If the model is a minor (under the age of 18 in most states), then the release form must be signed by a parent or guardian.
Many models are surprised to find out that most Model Releases don’t actually give a model any rights to their images. 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 (usually the photographer, or the client the photographer is shooting for). As the model, you are actually signing away your rights to the images unless otherwise stated in the release form. Most photographers have their own general model releases prepared that cover their side of things (basically making sure that the model signs over full rights to the images), so as a model you need to be sure to review them thoroughly and to also have your own version of a Model Release that covers your side of things (to make sure your images can’t be sold and/or used anywhere & everywhere without your approval).
The forms often (and should) vary in terms of content depending on the given situation or project, but you can typically expect basic information like:
> The client (if any), the photographers name, the model’s name, and the date of the shoot.
> Who the rights are released to. It is usually the client, photographer, ad agency, the model, and/or another company who will own the photos. For commercial shoots it is almost always the client, and a model is required to sign the release form or won’t be allowed to participate in the shoot.
> How & where the images will be used. This can be as vague as “any and all media” or can specify certain types of media, such as print advertisements, digital advertisements, billboards, greeting cards, etc. It’s best when the release form specifies exactly where your image will be used (i.e. “magazine print ads only”). That way, you know where your images are going to be displayed. By agreeing to the terms, you are giving permission for the photos to be digitally altered and waive any right to inspect/approve the final photo and associated ad copy. Again, this is standard for commercial shoots.
If booking the commercial job through your agent, you will rarely have to sign a release form since negations will go directly through your agency. If you accept the booking, it’s a given that you accept the terms of photo usage, which is always laid out in the job offer sent to you by your agent. If you have any issues or questions about image usage, it’s best to discuss them with your agent it before accepting the job.
> The duration of the agreement (how long the rights are in effect for). It is typically one or two years, but can legally be any length of time, including limitless.
> Details on the fees paid to the model- if any.
* If you are doing a TFP shoot, it is important that it states somewhere in the release form that your images can’t be sold to anyone unless you receive part of the profit and/or approve of the sale. I once did a personal project for a photographer and years later, he messaged me asking for an address to send a check because someone bought one of the images from that set to use in their advertisements. Although I wasn’t asked about approval of the sale (I honestly don’t even remember if that was part of the Release agreement), I was compensated a portion of the profit the photographer received for the image, even though it had been years since we did that shoot!
So when should you sign a release? Are the rules different if you are being paid, paying, or doing TFP? Short answer is every time you shoot, and no, not really. Again, a release form should state what the exact use of the photos resulting from your shoot is. If you are working under a trade arrangement, it’s either for fun/practice or for your mutual portfolios, so your release should state that. If you are paying a photographer to build your book or to even do family photos, you should still sign a release.
I once had a photographer brag that he shot with a model & her family who didn’t sign any release, and he sold a few of the images from their session to an ad company for quite a bit of money. Since there was no release signed, he was allowed to do this, and the model doesn’t get any of the money and can’t do much about it if they ever found out. Why he was bragging about this to me, a model, I have no idea. Needless to say, I haven’t worked with him again, release or no release! I’ve had another instance where I paid for a personal shoot, and ended up coming across one of my images from that session in a magazine ad. Luckily, I had signed a release, and immediately messaged the photographer to remove all my images from any of their branding and threatened legal action if I was not compensated for the ad that was already published.
This is why releases are important! Your image is your business, and you have to protect that.
All release forms should be agreed upon and signed before you start shooting. If you’re setting up shoots outside your agent (TFP or if you’re paying for services), it’s best practice to discuss photo usage and send your release to the photographer ahead of time so that it’s clear from the start what the parameters are. It’s one thing to let them use your photos for their website/social media/ads, but a totally different ballgame for them to be able to sell your images without you also receiving compensation.
Some photographers will present you with their own release. If they do this when you arrive on set with no prior warning, don’t feel pressured into signing it on the spot! Be sure to read through it carefully and make sure you agree to the terms laid out in the contract. If it is open-ended, vague, or not something you’re comfortable with, speak up!
If it’s for a TFP shoot, you can try to negotiate with the photographer to make sure you also get what you need out of the agreement. If it was a client that was booked through your agent and you have any questions about the release form or are unsure if the terms match what you and your agent originally agreed upon, then call your agent immediately for clarification. As with all legal documents, you should never sign anything you’re unsure about!
Being a model is being in charge of a business. Make sure you are taking the right steps in protecting yourself and your image, and getting the compensation you deserve for your time and talents!