Selling Pictures without Model Releases

It might look like a small detail compared to the challenge of framing the image and adjusting the lighting but for photographers looking to cash in on their images, the lack of a model release is a major limitation when it comes to making sales. It’s one of the most common reasons — together with duplication and trademark infringements — that stock companies reject images, and it’s also one of the hardest elements for photographers to deal with. If you know you’re going to be shooting with the idea of selling for stock you can hire models or ask your subjects to sign on the dotted line but when you’re hoping to sell pictures shot a long time ago and whose subject is long gone, usage will always be restricted to illustrating editorial pieces, and the value of the image will be lower. One solution is to shoot — and offer — the kinds of pictures that don’t require model releases.

When Elizabeth Popadopoulos joined Flickr in March 2008 she had only a Canon Powershot, iPhoto and, she says, time on her hands. She began uploading images, found the feedback from other members addictive and, realizing that digital photography allows her to shoot as much as she wants without wasting film and with no extra expense, continued taking pictures. She’s since upgraded her equipment (at least a little), completed a number of photography classes, but more importantly, she’s shot 40,000 photos. Despite her lack of experience, Getty approached her a year ago and invited her to add a number of her images to its Flickr collection. She sold eleven licenses in the first month and has gone on to make a total of 143 sales.

No Model Releases Keeps Things Simple

Part of Elizabeth’s success is down to the quality of her photography but much has to do with her creativity and a fortunate detail about the subject of her images. Elizabeth shoots mostly artistic abstracts, rich in line, color and detail. They could be close-ups of feathers, shots of hot air balloons, or even patterns made from colored post-it notes. But what they all have in common is that the images are sellable and none of them requires model releases.

“Model releases are not an issue for my photos,” says Elizabeth. That’s great for me because it’s another way of keeping things simple (and less work).”

Photos like these also carry another benefit: they’re artistic enough to serve as fine prints, an area that Elizabeth is promoting as well. That’s unusual. The kinds of pictures that buyers usually want to use tend to be more deliberately commercial. If they don’t include shots of business people in suits, they’re likely to show happy families walking in a park or receptionists talking on the telephone — all images that would require model releases.

Following Elizabeth’s approach to shooting sellable (and artistic) image doesn’t have to mean lining up pieces of colored paper or getting close to a peacock’s feather. It’s also possible to separate the elements from her work and focus on color or form alone. Paul Marotta’s photo of buttons, for example, goes for form; Martin Pickard’s picture of traditional sweets goes for both. Each of those kinds of images is artistic enough to be rewarding for the photographer to shoot and commercial enough to be offered for sale. And they don’t need model releases.

All of those pictures involve getting close to the subject. It’s also possible though to step back. While certain buildings can require property releases — you can sell photos of the Eiffel Tower shot in daylight but the lighting company owns the copyright to the way the tower appears at night — you should usually be on safe ground if you’re hoping to offer photos of landscapes and cityscapes. Just packing the camera as you stroll the city then may be enough to land you a spot on Getty although you might have more fun creating shots that demand a little more artistry.

That’s fine if you’re the kind of photographer that’s happy to shoot the environment or make pictures out of buttons. But what if you’re a people photographer at heart? Are there still easy ways to enjoy yourself shooting photos of faces and offer them for sale without having to chase down the subject of the image first for a model release?

Self-Portraits Deliver Easy Model Releases

There’s you, of course. Self-portraits are a particular kind of photograph but they’ve allowed Icelandic Flickr member Rebekka Gudsleifdottir, among others, to build a career, and stock sites offer them too. Ignore the cheesy stuff in which photographers shoot the topic rather than the style and look to the genuine article for examples of what you can create when you’re willing to put yourself in front of the lens — and supply your own model release. Sometimes it’s even possible to create a self-portrait that lets the photographer maintain a secret identity and which requires no release at all. Shooting someone from a distance or in a way that makes them unidentifiable can do that too.

And if all that fails, there are always the old favorites. Think ahead and make sure the people you photograph are prepared to let you use their image either because they want to or because you’ve bribed them with a CD-load of free images for their own use. Or stick to offering images of friends and relations who are easy to find and unlikely to refuse. But whichever approach you take to beat the model release challenge, it also pays to be flexible. As Elizabeth Popadopoulos put it:

“Remember, nothing is forever in the market. Needs and tastes change. No one can tell me if my images will be selling in a year or two, or at what price points. So keep your eyes open and always consider your options.”

And if all else fails, get the model release first.

2 comments for this post.

  1. Paul Marotta Said:

    Hi and many thanks for the mention...nice piece too...and here is said image of buttons which is with Getty Images right now:

  2. Martin Pickard Said:

    Hi cheers for the mention as well, here is another way around model releases. Use a manequin, only posted to getty as a joke, but was accepted.

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