663556_78743243This is a huge topic with clients; here are some thoughts I shared recently:

FYI: I don’t want to argue with lawyers, but I’ll just give you my understanding of it… just my opinion, don’t sue me 😉

They always say that photo rights are on a sliding scale of ‘Location’ and ‘Usage’… the more public the location and the more ‘news’ the usage, the more clear the ability to do what you want with the photo. The more private the location and the more ‘advertising’ the use, the more you need signed permission. You have to decide on how far the balance is tipped in each situation.

Scales in red light 2

This is pretty consistent with what my clients do. At the biggest college I work for, we don’t get photo release permission forms on anything during Reunion. And those photos go up in several online galleries.
We do get them when I photograph in a hospital (no surprise… not ‘public’, very private and with HIPAA rules) and I’m sure the Marketing team gets them for the Billboards and ads (which I don’t take the photos for).

What shots don’t need releases?

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There is a point where the group is large enough in a photo, that a release isn’t expected. If it’s a very public event, and a very wide shot of the crowd with no real main subject focus, you would be less apt to be told to get a photo release for fairly ‘safe’ uses, like promoting the event next year, etc.

And let’s not forget the classic ‘no faces showing’ option, where people are only seen from behind. When done well, you don’t even think about it.

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(in this photo, the only face showing is a staff member)

But the lawyers!
Caucasian businessman poin

It’s totally possible that lawyers might say that you must have every single photo released before using it in any fashion… but that would be crazy and impossible to do on a large scale event. But a lawyer’s job is to play it super-safe and they may not think through the implications.


I’d estimate that getting permissions would cut the number of photos by a factor of 10 and add one or two workers to follow me. Imagine getting the form from every subject in groups taken on the run. I’d be holding things up and being a pest. Really, I’d just have to focus at each event on 2 or 3 good shots, and not get the other 20 things I get. And that becomes a decision you’d have to make.


We did releases once for a brochure (so it was marketing use, not news), at a very public event and it was so crazy, I’d think twice before doing it again… or more likely would change what I attempted to do… and for that shoot, I had 2 helpers getting forms signed.


Hope that helps explain the difficulties of a system of having every photo taken having a signed release at every public event.

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