Why mess with paperwork, when you just want to take pictures? A release form, alas, is well worth your time.
Who Needs Legalities?
If you're a casual photographer and take photos only for your own enjoyment, then you probably don't need to read the rest of this article. However, if you ever plan to make money off of your photos, it's a good idea to become familiar with the legal documents that apply to photographers. Going to court is never fun, even if you win; having everything important in writing can help avoid it.
Fortunately, getting everything in order isn't particularly difficult, or even complicated. Photography release forms basically specify that you have the right to photograph whatever it is you're taking pictures of, as well as what you can do with those photographs afterwards. It's essentially things that you and your subject (or the owner of your subject) will have agreed to verbally, put in writing for your protection.
The Model Release
Say "photo release form" and most people will think of a model release form. You'll need this when the person you're photographing is recognizable; if you're shooting someone from the back, you probably don't need a release. You also don't need a release if the photograph will not be used commercially, but it's always safer to get one, just in case.
In a nutshell, the model release specifies what you can do with the pictures you take of the model. It will say whether the model was paid, and what permissions you're being granted. However, it can grant rights to the model as well! For example, the form may specify that the photographer can use the photos any way he chooses, but that the model has the right to make any number of copies for personal and self-promotional use.
The release will often specify exactly which photographs it covers; for example, the model may grant the photographer all rights to the photos taken at a paid photo session on a specific date, but not any photos that may have been taken elsewhere. Agreements for photographing underage models, in particular, often include additional restrictions on how the photos will be used.
The Group Release
Other times, rather than photographing one or two models, you'll be shooting a large group; at this point, keeping track of all the individual release forms becomes a huge hassle. In this case, you'll generally want to use a group release instead; this is similar to the individual release but you have everyone sign the same paper. Additionally, if you have a lot of people whom you might or might not photograph, this lets you get their signatures on file just in case, without going to the trouble of signing an individual release for each person.
The Property Release
When photographing property, there are several considerations to be aware of. First, you need permission to use the images you take; second, you'd like to avoid being arrested while you're taking them! While you have the legal right to photograph objects you can see in a public area, that doesn't mean that you have the right to use them commercially. (Also, there are some exceptions to this general rule; occasionally you'll end up in an area where - legally or not - the local authority has determined that photography is not allowed; in this case, you'll either have a permission form to show them or be aware that one is not available). Additionally, being a photographer doesn't give you the right to shoot on private property, whether or not you're allowed to be present there.
The Image Release
On the other side of the process, you'll also want a release form when you're ready to sell your photographs. A photographer's release form (or image release form) grants another party the right to use a photograph you've taken. Depending on the situation, you might retain ownership of the photo while granting the right to use it once in a specific situation, or you might give up all rights to the photo (presumably for a substantially higher sum!)
If you're doing freelance photography, you might or might not own the pictures you're taking. In some cases, you might end up doing "work for hire", in which case you get paid to shoot an event, but the client owns all of the photos you take. In some cases, you might share the rights; for example, many wedding photographers now have contracts allowing the client to make any number of copies of the photos for personal use, while the photographer retains the right to use them for promotional purposes.
Be Legal, Be Safe
Very few people actually enjoy spending time dealing with the legal paperwork, but it's worth doing right. If you end up taking a great photograph that gets published in a national magazine, the last thing you want is your model coming after you for a big share of the profits! Make sure you're using the correct photography release forms and keeping them on file so that you can find them if you need them. You'll be a lot safer in the long run!
About the Author
William Springer is an amateur photographer who enjoys shooting his friends. Currently his interests lie in shooting landscapes using HDR techniques.