Street Photography: The Dos and Do Nots of Model Releases
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A regular reader of my blog asked the question you’ll read below… and so I called on my friend Rachel Benke who is a photographer and lawyer to answer.  I love to provide advice, but would hate to get share legal advice that might not be 100% accurate.  So in this article you’re going to hear from Rachel as she talks about model releases for street photography.

Before Rachel gets started I want to mention a couple of things.  First, I used to keep pocket model releases in my bag whenever out with my camera.  I now use my iPhone and Easy Releases which syncs via iCloud to my iPad as well.  Easy Releases is also available for Android devices.

When you’re finished reading Rachel’s article please read Model Releases: What You Need to Know (With Samples).

Thank you for reading and on to you, Rachel.

So if I’m doing Street Photography – I understand that I don’t need model release forms if I’m just posting the photos online (like to my blog and Facebook). But what if I:

– Offer the prints for sale where 100% of the profit goes to charity?
– Use the image as part of a book which I sell for my own profit?

Would love to know this one.



If you’re interested in this subject, you might be interested in my street photography eBook.

Do I need a model release in street photography?

The general answer is no you don’t need a release when photographing a public location, however, it is always best to error on side of caution and obtain a model release.  This may not always be feasible and is appropriate to photograph even without a release in the case of street photography.  An individual who is knowingly exposing themselves to the public does not have what is called a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. In this situation, for their face and body.

In case you don’t know…

A model release is signed by the subject (or in the case of a minor, the parent or legal guardian) giving the photographer permission to publish eh photograph as defined by the release.


Are there exceptions to a model release?

The no-model-release-situation only covers photographing a public location, not standing in a public location, and photographing into someone’s home. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy for individuals walking down the street, but there is for individuals in their own homes – even if they leave their curtains open for the world to see.  Not only is it unlawful, but it is also creepy to be photographing into private homes.

Note: Just because an area is open to the public does not mean it is public property, therefore, a model release and permission to shoot may be required.  An example of this would be a private establishment, such as a store or restaurant.

What if my public subjects decline to be photographed?

Assuming you’re in a public area and the individual attempts to decline, the photographer still has a right to photograph even without their permission.  Remember the “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard we discussed above? There is none in a fully public place.

What if I want to offer prints for sale? Or include in a book I want to sell? Or what about for charity?

For all images taken in a fully public area, the photographer has the right to use these photographs in their portfolio and for sale.  This would include the sale of prints, inclusion in a book or video product for sale, and selling prints for charity.  In the event that the photographer wishes to include these photographs in a wide-scale commercial activity, such as book sales, a commercial release should be obtained.

Are there dangers in street photography?

There is danger everywhere, even if you’re photographing lawfully.  There have been numerous cases of photographers being assaulted.  Use your common sense in photographing those who decline, even if you have a right to do it it may not always be what is best.

Rachel Brenke

Rachel Brenke is a business consultant with many hats including author, photographer, lawyer, business consultant, social media marketing strategist, just to name a few. She is currently helping creative industry professionals all over the world initiate, strategize, and implement strategic business and marketing plans through various mediums of consulting resources.

This Post Has 35 Comments

  1. So I’m sitting here in the studio with another photographer and he brought up a point that we are in disagreement about. I’m hoping Rachel wouldn’t mind clarifying.

    He said if someone is sunbathing on a private beach, but the photo is taken from a public area, the photo can still be sold. It is my understanding that this is incorrect, but he points out that you see photos like that in magazines and newspapers all the time.

    So if I’m outside, standing on a sidewalk, can I take a picture of a person (or object) that’s on private property then sell it? (Not that I intend to, but it certainly made for an interesting discussion here in the office this morning!)

    1. The way I understand it is that is depends if it’s private or public property. For example, many beaches in New Jersey are private and require you to pay to get onto the beach. Although they’re still owned by the state or town, they’re still private. So on a beach that would not be legal. But then again, I could be wrong.

      If you’re standing outside and the person you are photographing is outside the private property then you can legally photograph them. If they are inside the private property you are not legally supposed to.

    2. I need advice. A guy makes a living. Going up to strangers video recording. He and his friends block all avenues of escape. Then he starts doing and saying anything to get a reaction. He rushes home. With careful editing. He has an interview of him saying, good morning. Then his victim is screaming for no reason. He includes music and onscreen notes to hide the splices. Then he posts it on YouTube. YouTube gives him a percentage of the advertising Money.
      I was a victim of this. I was walking my dog. When my dog stopped. She was signaling confusion and fear. I reached out in front of me and felt a man blocking my path. I apologized And asked him to move. He started screaming that a assaulted him and about his 2nd amendment rights. He said he is calling 911. He started having a 1 way conversation. The highlights were he was filming a squirrel when I rushed up to him and knocked him down. I tried to get my dog (a guide dog for the blind,?in harness, I am blind in one eye. Best corrected vision in other eye. Greater than 20/500. My dog was specially breed and graduated from a 2 year education. She is guaranteed 100% non violent. She hasn’t ever barked in the 4 years we have been partners) to attack him. My dog was barking and lunging at him. The only reason he is alive was I held her inches away from him. He then started calling me nasty names then he started insulting my guide dog. Saying she is going to be destroyed. Then he and his friends said it is there word against mine. I put her behind me and walked thru to safety.
      The next day I get a call saying I am on YouTube. Where my guide dog knocked a man down just for saying, what a beautiful day.
      That afternoon the police and animal control came to my house. To take her in to be tested for aggression and to arrest me for assault. They said the man was on the sidewalk filming. I gave animal control her ID from the school and I gave the officer my state ID for 100% combat disabled, my Purple Heart ID and my ID card for my Navy cross with 2 stars from a little police action in a jungle around the world 50 years ago. They both apologized and left. I heard the man screaming for justice and that he has everything on tape and he would get them fired. The officer said shut up or you are going to jail. Then left. My neighbor called saying a manc as walking on the sidewalk taking pictures of my house and talking to himself.
      My question is. That doctored video is on YouTube and making him money. He claims to be a reporter. Can we claim to be a model. That he videotaped me without permission. Is making money from my image. Didn’t get a model release. Can I sue him in small claims court for compensation (max is small claims is $10,000) for use of my professional image without permission and to require him to remove all posts to YouTube without a model’s release. Will this work. Will taking his money get him to leave me alone? Thank You?

  2. Thanks Scott! This is a question that can certainly get photographers talking—often all with different answers! It’s great to hear a definitive answer of where the law stands since many of us find ourselves in this situation repeatedly.

    1. Totally! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  3. The ASMP book “Professional Business Practices in Photography” does a great job at breaking down the laws around releases. The laws for model and/or property releases for editorial use of a photograph vs. commercial use of a photograph differ. That’s why “…you see photos like that in magazines and newspapers all the time.” as Daryl said, but why showing a street photograph in a Pepsi ad could cause big problems w/out releases.

    There are tons of used copies of this book floating around. It’s easy to get. It’s a dry read, but on this topic in particular, it’s really helpful.

  4. What about photographs taken at an event where everybody normally pays an admission fee. Plus these photos would have been taken mostly in the 1975 to 1980 time period. If this makes any difference, I am referring to custom van events where there are a lot of show vans and the people that own them.

  5. Surely if someone in a public place asks you not to take their photo, and you do so, then you could be guilty of harassment – nothing to do with photography.

    1. That’s a very different situation.

  6. Could you use the image for a personal Christmas Card?

    1. I have an image that I took of a guy with a white beard passed out in his walker in South Beach a number of years ago. His face is borderline as far as being recognizable.

    2. In the US, legally you can use the photo for whatever you want as long as the photo was captured in a public space. But the better question is, is that ethical? :-)

  7. Am I missing the point in the below paragraph? It seems that she says the images can be used in a book without a release, and in the next sentence, she says then in a book a commercial release is necessary.

    “For all images taken in a fully public area, the photographer has the right to use these photographs in their portfolio and for sale. This would include sale of prints, inclusion in a book or video product for sale and selling prints for charity. In the event that the photographer wishes to include these photographs in a wide scale commercial activity, such as book sales, a commercial release should be obtained.”

    1. She’s saying that you as the photographer have the right to use and sell the photos, if they were made in public. However, if the photos are being used in a book for sale nationally or internationally then she recommends obtaining releases.

      1. I have the same question as Inca, where the author says that you can publish your publicly taken photos in a book, and then says that you cannot publish your photo in a book if part of a “wide scale commercial activity.” What is a “wide scale commercial activity?” Your answer seems to say that this means selling a book nationally or internationally, but the author is not clear about this at all, so I am not too sure.

  8. Hey Scott, I’m trying to find answers on matter similar – what if the images are taken in refugee camps of children and used in an exhibition for raising awareness and fundraising, not selling!
    Two types of photos – painting like creative portraits, half the face is covered so the girls are anonymous + documentary style photos of children. I do not have any release from the parents although the ngo I collaborated with initially supported and allowed me take the photos but later due to personal matters told me I’m not allowed to use contracts were signed between us..

  9. Reading this article made me even more confused. I like taking portraits of people I came across and send them the pictures. I generally don’t discuss about sharing their portrait online because the majority will say no and I don’t want to miss a great opportunity.

    For now I don’t share my work online and I would like very much to do so.

    So should I ask them to sign a model release ?

    1. You’d have to check your country’s laws, but in the USA, if the person is in public then no model release is required. However, if you plan on selling the photo, it might be worth trying to get one anyway.

  10. Thanks for the really informative article. Would uploading images on stock photography sites considered as “wide commercial activity” in US? To me, it seems like another way of selling prints.

  11. Scott,

    Great article! Thanks for that. I have a question concerning the use of street portraits for reproduction in a different medium, ie charcoal drawings. For several years my street photography has included making portraits of homeless individuals that I meet on public streets. The way this works is they are usually panhandling. I ask if I can help them out with either some food/water or a cash contribution in exchange I’d like to make a photograph for inclusion in my website project, The Invisible Ones. They will usually agree. If not I just move on. Recently, an artist who works in charcoal saw my website and was quite taken with the photos to the point where he would like to use some of them for drawings. His work is for sale and shown in galleries. I do not obtain model releases for any of my street portraits as I never intend to sell them. The question has to do with reproducing someone’s likeness from a photograph with a different type of media and making that new work for sale. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. That’s a great question and one better answered by a lawyer. However, from my understanding, you cannot sell work that has someone else’s work in it. Like if you photographed a billboard and tried to sell it, the stock photo or whatever might be on the billboard is copyrighted by another photographer.

      1. There may be a loophole: if you create a NEW piece of “art” from the original work, you now own the rights? I think Texas set a legal precedent on that recently.

  12. Hello, thanks for this blog. I am working on publishing a book in the car industry for my brand. I am looking to make a coffee table book. Probably publish a few hundred copies.

    I am shooting at meets, shows, friends, family, etc mainly in public spaces. Can I make a book without having to get a model release for each person identifiable in the photos?

    1. You’ll need to discuss that with an attorney who understands the laws in each state or country where those photos were made. You’re doing this for profit, and at events, so that changes things greatly.

  13. I plan on publishing a book of my poetry, each one highlighted by a photograph I’ve taken. I have a few photographs of London street musicians singing or playing their instruments in tourist areas for money. Their faces are recognizable; will I need a model release from them?

    1. Better safe than sorry and get a model release. But be sure to check the laws in London.

  14. So nobody could answer the question by Ray Mahlberg?

    Seems like on YouTube you can post anything without any model or property releases? Well that is brilliant news. I will invest in 4K DSLR only, after all 200,000 hits on one shocking video on YouTube makes more than 25,000 images on microstock.

    This is the future of photography, sell your still cameras. I am not going to get model release from unknown person who draw graffiti on train etc. (this is what ShutterStock property release guide suggests).

  15. What about if you took a street portrait of a person and didn’t obtain a model release at the time. years later decide to include the image in a book of photos but said person has died? Oh, and can a photo book be considered a journalistic journal, that way i don’t have to try to track people down from years or days ago to get a model release?

  16. Hi :)
    My question is a bit different. I’m putting up an exhibition of photographs taken around the town I live in. The prints may be sold. Some photographs show our local town center with shops and people. People are not recognisable for the store fronts are. Is that ok? Do I require a release from each business establishment?

    1. You might need a property release from each building owner. You’d have to check with a local lawyer.

  17. Can a person who is the subject of street photography later use that photo, if no release form was signed? All articles I am reading talk about the photographer’s rights, but not the person being photographed (other than their objecting to the photo being taken.)

    1. That’s a great question. I don’t know the legal answer to that, but the right thing to do would be to reach out to the photographer and say “hey that is me in the photo. I don’t mind you using it, so would you mind if I used it too?”

  18. I think this is appropriate to photograph even without a release in the case of street photography. But I don’t support who is knowingly exposing themselves to the public.

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