After a shoot last summer, I was chatting with the model as she signed my release form. As she finished signing, she mentioned that it was only the second time a photographer had ever asked her to sign a release. It was an offhand comment, but I was a little dumbstruck at the thought that some photographers aren't bothering with releases.
Always Use a Release or Contract
If you're not having your models sign a release or contract, you should start immediately. It's risky to publish pictures of a model—even just to social media—without a signed release or agreement in your possession. You might never need it, but if you do need it, you damn well want to have it.
The law in many places—including the United States—does give photographers automatic copy rights in the images they take, but copyright is not the only issue that can cause you problems. There are other risks—such as claims of defamation or violating rights of publicity—where the law does not automatically provide photographers protection and which can potentially cause you problems if you don't have a signed release.
Also, if you ever hope to publish your work in a print or high-end web publication or ever wish to sell your images to a stock house, you will need a signed release before they'll even consider publishing your work. Many of them will also require proof of age along with the release.
Release vs. Agreement
Since I said "you should have a release or agreement", I should probably clarify what the difference is. A release is a document signed only by the model that "releases" you (the photographer) from certain legal claims they might otherwise have against you. The vast majority of the time, a release is all you need when photographing a model, as the model is the one whose rights could potentially cause you legal issues.
There are times, however, when a release is not sufficient. Because you, as the photographer, do not sign a release, you cannot be bound by the restrictions it contains. When you need to include restrictions or limitations on the photographer's legal rights, a modeling agreement (or modeling contract) is required. This is a two-party document that serves pretty much the same purpose as a release.
Because both the model and the photographer sign it, a modeling agreement can contain restrictions or limitations that are legally binding on either or both parties. If, for example, you were doing an implied nude shoot and you wanted to set your model at ease by restricting your ability to publish images that show more than the model has stated they are comfortable showing, you could use a modeling agreement instead of a release and include a clause restricting your ability to publish images that contain actual, rather than implied, nudity.
In general usage, the term "release" is often used to refer to any document that secures the photographer's rights in the final images regardless of whether it's actually a release or an agreement.
Even if you don't intend to submit your images to magazines or stock houses, you should make a habit of checking your model's ID to verify that they are at least eighteen years old (or whatever the age of majority is where you live). This obviously becomes much more important if you're doing nude or erotic photography, but it's still a good idea to make sure your model is a legal adult even if the shoot will contain no nudity or erotic content whatsoever.
Unemancipated minors cannot sign a release or contract and have it be legally binding. There are some exceptions to that general rule, but a model release generally won't be one of them, so always make sure your model is an adult who is legally able to sign a release. If they aren't, make sure they bring along a parent or legal guardian to the shoot to sign the release on their behalf.
18 USC §2257
If you're planning to produce sexually explicit images, ensuring that your models are adults becomes even more important. When producing this type of imagery, there are elevated and very specific record-keeping requirements that come into play because of a Federal law called the "Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act" (18 USC §2257). I'll discuss those requirements in detail in a future post.
Header image is by Cytonn Photography, via Unsplash