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When Do You Need Model Releases for Photographing People in a Public Place?

January 7th, 2018

Michael in Colorado says:

I’m getting ready to do some lifestyle shots of my local downtown area and I believe I remember that when you are in a public place and people are in a public place you do not need any model releases for the people you capture in your photographs. However, I’m not sure if that is correct or if there are legal ramifications. Can you clarify?

It depends on if you are going to use a person’s likeness to promote a product, service, or idea. Here are a couple of good summaries of the law:

  1. rocketlawyer.com/article/when-you-need-a-photo-release.rl
  2. picturecorrect.com/tips/photo-releases-your-rights-and-obligations/

If you are going to use the photos for a listing, it seems that you could do it in such a way the people aren’t recognizable.

It is always important to be discrete and not appear suspicious, or professional as demonstrated by the YouTube example above. This is a good situation to use a smartphone. I’ve been asked to put my DSLR away in a public place while shooting public art in Seattle by a security guard for reasons I don’t understand.

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17 Responses to “When Do You Need Model Releases for Photographing People in a Public Place?”

  • One famous director, years ago, put the cameraman in a wheelchair. They they covered up the camera with a blanket. Then they pushed him down the sidewalk on 5th avenue in NYC at rush hour. Great tracking shot of the crowds. They didn’t need no stinkin’ film permit.

  • @Lee, that’s a film permit rather than a model release.

    There isn’t a cut and dried formula for model releases when it comes to average citizens in public places. I’ve read articles that claim if there are more than a certain number of recognizable people in the image, the need for model releases goes away. I can’t say that I have heard that backed up by an attorney. The best thing is to try and get images that don’t show peoples faces if you intend to use those images as community stock photos for agents to be on the safe side. You can also alter faces in Photoshop. An interesting cheat might be to copy some faces in photos you have found online from a foriegn country and paste those in. If you ever get hauled into court, you can ask if the person whose face you used was at the photo location on the day and time you made the photo. If you are just using these images in an RE context, the chances of having any problems is almost nil. If you license the image(s) for a national ad campaign or for use on a product package, that’s where you might have somebody’s attorney contacting you.

    @Larry, If you are standing on public property, a security guard has no jurisdiction over you in nearly every circumstance. They could be thick as a tub of lard and not realize that they don’t and end up doing something stupid like trying to forcibly take your camera away which could be ugly. Even sworn police officers haven’t all got the memo that taking photos in public of anything is perfectly legal, but most have been told that they can’t tell somebody to stop taking photos or video if the activity isn’t creating some hazard or nuisance. Obviously, if you are street shooting and trying to make super close ups of random stranger’s faces with a fish eye lens, a police officer can ask you to stop or possibly detain you.

    Oddly, some “public” sidewalks are on private land and are subject to some control by the owners. That’s why you may come across little signs or plaques from time to time that say “Private Property, permission to pass can be revoked at any time.” I believe it’s a carry over from a long time ago. With modern zoning laws, all land is subject to easements for public passage and utility access.

  • You’re right about the film permit. But my point was that if you are discrete, you can shoot with a Panavision 35mm movie camera and get away without being noticed. Wheelchair shots notwithstanding. If you’re in public, no one can touch you for shooting a scene where they happen to be standing.

    Maybe use a Fuji X100 series or similar travel camera. Or throw a pancake lens on your camera. I used to have a Fuji X100s for fun. Great little camera, very small, looks like a tourist camera, and makes quality pics too. Fixed 28mm equivalent lens, I think. No one will notice you shooting an X100.

    Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.

  • I was taking photographs of a clock tower in Canterbury, England last September (with no people in the shot) in front of a restaurant and was ordered by a security guard not to take photographs because I was standing on ‘private property’. He then suggested I move *2 feet* to my left (no sh*t) where I would no longer be on ‘private property’ and would be able to continue taking photographs.

    As a Brit who has lived out of the UK for over 30+ years (Costa Rica for the last 18 years) this makes me very sad. Sad for my country and sad for the ‘Security Guard’ who thinks he’s doing an important job. George Orwell would be amazed…

  • Thank you for the responses.

    As this is a project that could have national exposure, I’ve decided to alter my approach. I’m waiting until the holiday crowds clear out and am going to shoot early in the morning when there are fewer people on the street (fewer faces to blur) and do some shots with a slow shutter speed to blur the people. I don’t want to risk the one-in-a-million chance that some “very private person” would recognize themselves and haul me into court.

  • @Scott Oliver, It sounds like the security guard was being very British and polite where in the US you might have been told off without being given a simple alternative. I’d guess that the security guard has been given certain instructions and is keeping to the letter so he can’t be sacked but doesn’t see any sense in the rules either so he’s more helpful than authoritative.

    I like Eastern Europe where there isn’t as thick of a carpet of lawyers as in other parts of the world. The last time I was in Prague, my friend and I walked out across the tracks at the main train station to get photos of some magnificent steam locomotives that were there that morning under full steam. I got the impression that it was figured if we were run down by a train entering or leaving the station, that was our problem. They had bells and horns and they weren’t moving very fast. A few coins in a donation box and we were allowed to shoot stunning cathedrals to our hearts content sans flash and behind the ropes. We were never chased from anywhere for taking photos.

  • Don’t let comments by Lee Miller confuse you. There is difference between when and where you may take photos and what you can do with those photos, and being discrete has nothing to do with this.

  • Let’s take, for example, New Year’s Eve in Times Square. My comments about using a small discrete cameras when shooting in areas where security guards are present may have confused David Eichler. It’s 100% legal to shoot in public and not blur people’s faces. You don’t need a release from everyone in Times Square when shooting New Years’s Eve. TV networks, film companies, photographers, etc. shoot everyday on the street in public without obtaining releases. This fact is self evident.

    But you do need to worry about security or police hassling you for not have a permit. Try showing up in public area with 50 lbs of gear with a tripod and flash and assistant. The risk of being hassled is increased by doing this. Shoot with a small camera at the same location without the tripod, and no one will notice. You do not need release forms.

  • Lee Miller, you are clearly not grasping what is at issue here. You may legally photograph anyone in a public space and use those photos for things deemed to be in the public interest, such as news, documentary and editorial presentations, without needing a model release for the subjects. What you may not do is use those photos for commercial purposes without a model release. Perhaps there is an exception for commercial usage without a model release for large crowds. I am not sure about that. The matter at hand here is usage of photos to promote goods and services. I would say that any usage of images on a real estate agent’s website would always be promotional usage, even if it is presented as informational. If I were a real estate agent, this is how I would treat it, though I have the strong impression that most agents do not pay attention to this distinction.

  • Can this subject die now? Jeez!

  • Not yet, Lee. Since you raised the subject of permits (which were not a part of the initial question), this requires some clarification. Some counties, municipalities and, in some cases, the Federal Government may require these for photography or film making on public property. Usually they are required for commercial photography or film making, or whenever models and props will be used. It varies from place to place. Yes, you might technically still need a permit in some cases if just walking around with a handheld camera and shooting whatever is going on in the street, if the photos will be used for commercial purposes. As far as I am aware, private security have no jurisdiction with regard to photography on public property, though they could report to the police anything they might consider to be unlawful.

    All that notwithstanding, what Michael was asking about should not require anything more than walking around with a small, handheld camera, which is hardly likely to draw attention of the police. So, while a film permit might technically be required in some locations for what he wants to do, the possibility of that being an issue is de minimis.

  • I believe the general consensus around here is that if your subject is a person, you would need a release for them. If you subject is the town, and it just so happens to have people in it, then they are now the background and wouldn’t be considered the subject of the pix/video, therefore not needing a release.
    If you ever watch hidden camera shows, they typically only blur out peoples faces when they were the subject of the show but didn’t want to be on tv, and actually keep everyone who just happens to be walking in the park that day un-blurred.

  • Good advice from all here, but please let’s stop repeating this grammatical/lexographical mistake. We need to be DISCREET. WE’re all automatically discrete unless we are conjoined twins.

  • Jordan DiCaprio, you have not been following the discussion here closely. You do not need a model release in all cases. However, for PFRE, which involves commercial usage, you do need model releases, not to actually take the photos, but in order for them to be used commercially. As to usage on tv shows, I think it depends upon what sort of show. For a show that is in the public interest, such as news or educational programming, a model release would not be needed, as I understand the law. That said, some tv shows for which a model release would not be needed might still blur some of the faces because of privacy concerns, which may be a courtesy to the subjects rather than a legal requirement.

  • My wife does street photography and often includes people in the image to further the message or theme. Those folks have no expectation of privacy and for the most part (not always however) have no objection, nor grounds to complain. Her gray area is this: If it’s hanging on a gallery wall, it is for the public interest AND it is most often for sale.

    I helped another photographer with a restaurant promotion photo and video session last year – strictly for commercial purposes – and the owner simply asked patrons as they entered if they had any objections to being shown in the promotional materials. Actually, they were happy and intrigued. No releases were signed or even offered.

    Now you guys have me wondering if we did this wrong. This is interesting stuff.

  • Phil brings up a useful point. While permission from the subjects is always required for commercial usage (with the possible exception of some large crowds), it might not always be in the form of individual model releases. I believe that it is possible to notify people at the entrance to a premises that entering constitutes permission. However, I would suggest checking into what constitutes sufficient legal notice, and I suspect that it would be prudent (if not actually required) to document the notification.

    There are also cases where people grant their employers or their school permission as a condition of their employment or enrollment, which would also mean that individual model releases are not needed at those locations.

    You should always be clear with the client about who will be obtaining, or already has, the permission. While it is the party using the photos that needs the permission, if the photographer misleads the client, he or she may have some liability as well.

    Not a lawyer, so please don’t rely on this as legal advice. Always do your own due diligence and consult a lawyer when needed.

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