Model Releases: Working with People on the Streets

Model Releases: Working with People on the Streets


Today portrait photographer Christina Dickson looks at the topic of Model Releases and gives some tips on photographing people in public spaces.

The previous post (on Urban Street Portraiture) I described my experiences photographing the street of Portland for a book and documentary project of Revolutionary Media. As I mentioned, there were many technical factors to consider in street portraiture. However, when shooting street portraits there are also other social factors to consider that can either make or break your time.


1. Be friendly: Find a common discussion topic. Sometimes the easiest way to feel out a potential portrait subject is by striking up a conversation with them about a relatable subject. Good coffee. The behavior of a neighboring pedestrian. The weather. Let people see you as a genuinely interested individual and you can’t go wrong.

2. Have a purpose before asking permission: If you are going to shoot portraits on the street, its’ best to have a reason you can give explanation for. Without question, people will ask why you want their picture. “Just because” simply won’t suffice. When I was shooting, I was up front about why I wanted to take someone’s portrait; I needed portraits for a project on the street culture of Portland. Most often, I received very receptive responses.

3. Acquiring model release forms: It wasn’t difficult getting street people to sign model releases for the Revolutionary Media project. I simply took the time to explain the parameters of the release and people were generally at ease with the idea. Once again, if you have a valid purpose and reason you can give explanation for, you should not have trouble getting permission.

If you want to use your portraits for print, promotion, sale, or posting, it’s important to cover yourself legally. Model release forms are a safe way to keep your bases covered. One easy way to receive model releases is to make an exchange: they can get the picture to give to family, and you can use it for your purposes also.

Generally, a stranger-friendly model release should include: Name, contact information, email, and signature. You should also be sure to describe the parameters of your usage. For the Revolutionary Media project, we included: consent to use their photographic likeness for advertising, distribution, print, and sales.


In summary, photography on the streets should be extremely personable. Take the time to converse, to show genuine interest, and the strangers you meet will be more than agreeable to become your subjects.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Arman Molavi April 17, 2010 04:46 am

    I am not sure and it depends on…

  • Andrew May 24, 2008 04:00 am

    The link above (to Dan Heller's site) is an excellent resource for understanding model releases. Now, I'm not a lawyer, but here's what I understand about photography in the US:

    * People on the street have no expectation of privacy, so take as many pictures as you want.
    * The photographer owns the picture, with or without a model release.
    * if you plan to use the picture as art or in an editorial fashion (e.g. news), no model release is required. Display or sale of these images is fine.
    * If you plan to use the picture as part of some commercial/promotional material, then the *publisher* of the picture needs the model release.

    Finally - as a random person on the street, I'd be scared of signing some of the model releases that I have seen, that would give the photographer or anyone working with the photographer the right to publish my image as they see fit. Dan Heller's site basically says: "if you do not have an intended use for the photo, there is no point in getting a model release".

  • Andrea May 9, 2008 11:39 pm

    I highly recommend this lengthy but clear explanation of model releases:

  • AJ May 7, 2008 03:44 pm

    Can you also provide a sample model release form? It will help newly starting photographers like me :)

  • Sime May 5, 2008 07:57 am

    @ Cesar - thanks! I will...

    @ Natalie Norton - Great Idea, I will do that, thanks!

    @ Mark : A lot of Papz clear the images after the fact or call them "news"

    @ Harry Phillips... Bonjour [Dare you to call the French "idiots" to their faces?..That's not very nice mate]

    I think you will find it's not quite as clear cut as you suggest.. You can't take a photo of me and sell it in SO many different instances and obviously that depends upon which country you're in also .. A lot of the time you will find that if YOU sell a photo of ME then, if the person that buy it doesn't ask you for a model release, they are responsible should any litigation arise - but saying that "only photos the author actually required a model release is the ones they intend to use for promotion" is very short sighted and untrue. Sorry, just popping in a fact...


  • Harry Phillips May 5, 2008 07:29 am

    The need for model releases causes a huge amount of confusion. You do not need a model release to take someones photos (except France but they are idiots).

    What you do with that photo AFTER you take it is determined by whether you have a model release. You will notice that in this post it says:

    If you want to use your portraits for print, promotion, sale, or posting, it’s important to cover yourself legally.

    The only photos the author actually required a model release is the ones they intend to use for promotion. I can take your photo, blow it up to poster size and sell it. I can take Tom Cruises photo and do the same thing.

    What I can't do with Tom's photo (or yours) without a model release is stick it on a billboard that says "Come Cruise with us".

    As for the paparatzzi, the photos they sell and the magazines run is not advertising or endorsing a product. They are photos of 'news worthy' event, the news worthiness of Britney Spears' crotch is a whole other isse.

  • Jeff & Candace Painter May 4, 2008 03:42 pm

    Model releases are definately a sticky subject. We always prefer to safe rather than sorry, even with friends! A model release is a great idea. I like the idea of having something in another language for the one traveling to Peru. A release is essential in my mind, if for no other reason than, what I like as a photo may not be what they like as a photo and I would like to freedom to use the one I want in my advertising. It would be nice though, to find a more definitive answer as to the needs of a model release.

  • Mark May 3, 2008 08:28 pm

    I have a question...what about the Paparatzzi? Why are they not made to get a "consent" form from the subject they are shooting?

  • Harry Phillips May 3, 2008 04:13 pm

    olivier lalin Says:

    You are quite right - first be genuine, explain what you are searching for, courteous and sociable is a ++ You cannot do without a model release these days or else the photos stays in your draws!

    How wrong you are, you only need a model release if you are using their image in advertising. You took the photo, you can do what you want, sell it, make a book out of it, about the only thing you can't do is use their image to advertise the book, unless of course they signed a model release.

  • olivier lalin May 2, 2008 07:22 pm

    You are quite right - first be genuine, explain what you are searching for, courteous and sociable is a ++ You cannot do without a model release these days or else the photos stays in your draws!

  • Magistus May 2, 2008 05:46 pm

    Great article with good tips. Thanks for sharing!


  • Author: Natalie Norton May 2, 2008 02:12 pm

    oh and Sime. . .ha ha. . by right. . .I mean write. . . I'm clearly a frazzled mommy today! oops!

  • Author: Natalie Norton May 2, 2008 02:11 pm


    Sime is right.


    I'd have someone right down a simple sentence for you in Spanish and have it laminated and just carry it around in your camera case. . . maybe connected to a clipboard with your releases. . .

    Just my 2 cents!

    Best! Great article! I need to get some releases and just carry them around in my bag!

  • MP May 2, 2008 01:50 pm

    But, are model releases absolutely mandatory? Most street photographers I know don't ask for permission. This doesn't mean they'll run into any kind of trouble.

  • Helen May 2, 2008 08:58 am

    I have taken several incidental photos of people in the big city, not strictly portaiture per se, but rather, in-the-moment photos.

    I have two particular photos that I am fond of and would love to enter in competitions; one of a homeless man who I have never seen grace the same city streets again and one of two children playing on a bronze statue.

    Not knowing who any of these people are (or in the case of the children their parents), what proceedure could I follow?

    Cheers, Helen

  • Cesar May 2, 2008 07:11 am

    Hi Sime,

    If you're planning to come to Peru (that's where I live), I don't think you should have any problems when photographing people in the street. You may have to ask them for permission, though, and that's what I always do; not everybody agrees to have their picture taken, but you can always try. You may find people dressed up with their traditional costumes near favorite tourist spots and most surely they will ask you for money. If you're planning to publish their image I suppose you should tell them and send them their photograph once you have it printed. Since I assume you'll be accompanied by a tour guide or a local, I would advice you to ask them how to go about this in that particular city or town.

    Good luck and I hope you take hundreds of beautiful photographs in my country. Have a good trip!


  • Bev May 2, 2008 06:33 am

    My question is : Where do you obtain a basic release form that can be used for the general public? Bev

  • Sime May 2, 2008 05:19 am

    Hi Aaron, Yes you will require a release to be signed. Obviously depending upon what you want to use the photo for.

    I have a question - Maybe after my upcoming trip to Peru i'd like to release a book on my travels... I guess i'll need a release for anyone that I put in the book - but that's where I will run into trouble... I don't speak Spanish... Any thoughts?


  • marcus May 2, 2008 05:08 am

    I have a strategy for approaching strangers at popular tourist spots. When people ask me to take their photo with their camera, I always agree. Then I ask if they mind if I take one with my camera. Usually, they're amenable because I've done something for them, and they can feel like they're doing something nice back.

  • Aaron May 2, 2008 04:00 am

    I have a question? Do I need to get someone to sign a Model Release even if I the photographer is under 18. I have no clue if that matters or what!?

  • Seim Effects May 2, 2008 01:14 am

    God tips. I need to get better at this. It's not that I'm unfriendly, but I guess I've always been better at post production than walking up to random strangers and asking to take an image.


  • Amanda May 2, 2008 01:08 am

    What if you are looking for a candid catch-a-stranger-at-their-natural-state image? Ones that just don't work the same once they are aware of you and your camera.

  • Kell May 2, 2008 12:56 am

    Do you approach them before or after you shoot them? I imagine myself shooting someone and then before I can approach them they're leaving to go elsewhere. But if you approach them *before* taking the picture you ruin the natural feeling of the shot.

  • Alex May 2, 2008 12:43 am

    The weather is sure a safe shot to start with, very common and works all the time :)