The Business Side; The Importance Of A Model Release

Photos © 2004, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

If travel photography were all about travel, I'd be a lot happier. For some of you, it probably is all about the experience of discovering new places, revisiting favorite ones, and creatively recording special moments and memories. But for me, there's the business side to consider, and although many years of experience have taught me to deal with it fairly smooth and professionally, I can never take it for granted.

My prime concern is the model release. If you've ever thought of selling or licensing one of your images for commercial use, you've got to have a release for any recognizable person in the picture. Don't even think of using the photo in any commercial way without a release. Not for stock, a book, a magazine--not for anything that involves commerce. For photos licensed for editorial use, no release is necessary. That can include textbooks, even newspapers, because you have a right to inform and educate. But even then, I'd advise you to be sure of your rights before allowing your photo to be used.

Model Mao and Chinese Model
I needed model releases for both subjects in these photos, but not a property release for the first photo's Tiananmen Square background.

There are different types of releases, including blanket releases, long forms, short forms, releases for minors, and so on. Where can you learn more about them, and where can you get them? Search the Internet as a start--look for shareware releases, short forms and long forms. Check books on the photo business. Pro organizations, like the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) provide release forms to their members. I recommend that as a travel photographer you take a look at Susan McCartney's book, Travel Photography: A Complete Guide to How to Shoot and Sell, in which there are short form releases in about 30 different languages.

If I have any anticipation that a photo has the slightest commercial value, I'll spare no effort to get a release. If I'm by myself, I take out my short form release in the language of the country in which I'm shooting and present it to my subject. Most of the time I have an assistant--a local coordinator or production person who's my guide and translator. When that's the case, I do the shooting and that person gets the releases signed.

St. Mark's Square, Hong Kong
I needed permission from the building owner to reach my vantage point for the night photo of Hong Kong. No permission was necessary to take a photo of Venice's Piazza San Marco.

Recognizable people aren't the only subjects that require releases if you're thinking of selling your pictures. A recognizable property--a hotel, museum, art gallery, resort, ship, you-name-it--must be released. Often you don't need any special permission to take pictures on the property, but that's not the same as not needing permission to use the image commercially.

And not only do you have to get a release for people and places, you have to be able to find that release. Don't laugh, more than a few photographers have learned that lesson the hard way--meaning the expensive way. If you can't find a release that you obtained and filed away five or 10 or even 20 years ago, it might as well not even exist. These days, pro shooters are scanning their releases and filing them in digital databases. The releases are numbered, dated, cross-referenced, and they have the image electronically attached. For me, photographs that I send electronically to my stock agencies consist of three files: the picture itself (with picture information); a model release; and a caption.

If all this sounds like you'll need a lawyer to sort it all out and guide you, let me tell you, you will. I have three of them. One here in Dallas, where I live, and two in New York. One attorney handles model release issues, one does contracts, and the third is the family-affairs lawyer. You won't need that kind of coverage, I'm sure, but if you're thinking of making money with your pictures, legal advice has to be part of your plan.

Model and Clipper Ship
You don't need a property release if the property--in this case, the clipper ship--is the background, but you do need a model release for the photo's subject. When the subject is the ship, then you need the property release.

The Paper Trail
Great travel photography doesn't just happen. Planning and preproduction are a big part of a successful image. In fact, you might say the image is the end result of preparation. I learned very early on that the more prepared I was and the more I'd planned, the better my shots were.

Whenever possible I carry a letter of introduction, and I always carry one when I'm shooting on assignment. I get it on the letterhead of the assigning company, and it's written in the language of the country I'll be visiting. The letter explains who I am, who hired me, and what I'll be doing. And it expresses gratitude for any help the reader of the letter can give me. When no one has hired me--when I'm going to be shooting for stock or even just for fun on vacation--I write up a letter of introduction for myself on my own letterhead. I print out copies on nice stationery and carry them in my camera bag. If there's any hassle, out comes a copy. You might benefit from the idea--it can't hurt to carry a letter of introduction from a gallery that's exhibited your work, or a local publication, even a camera club.

As far as permits and clearances, I don't need one to photograph most landmarks or locations. Permission is something else, but I've always thought it's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission; if you always ask for permission, you'll never get anything done. There are special cases, though. For a photograph I once took of the Hong Kong skyline, I needed permission to go up in the building from which I took the picture. I found the building's supervisor and received permission. I didn't even have to show my letter of introduction, but I had it handy just in case. As a general rule for most travel photographers, unless you're setting up a shot in which models or lighting are involved, you're okay to go ahead and shoot. Say you're sorry and move on if someone objects.

Of course, the best thing I can carry is assignment clout--meaning that whoever hired me has paved the way and opened the doors. Essentially, I just show up and take pictures. Which is a nice way to do it, and a welcome change from the times when the photography business turns out to be more of the latter than the former.

If there's anything you'd like to ask me about my photography or my business, visit my website,, and send an e-mail by clicking on the "Contact Jack" link. You don't have to clear it with any of my lawyers.