Street Photography and Model Releases

Mar 17, 2016

Topic: Contracts, Releases
Time Investment: 7 Minutes
Suggested Product: Release Bundle


Street photography uniquely captures our world in a candid and artful way. In attempting to capture an un-manipulated scene, these photographs are often taken in public places with the subject unaware of the photographer’s presence.

In our litigious society who appears in professional photographs and what is done with those photographs has become increasingly important for professional photographers to take into account. There is widespread misinformation regarding these concerns, and the law is constantly evolving to protect people’s privacy.


Street Photography

The general rule for street photography is that you can take photographs of anyone or anything in plain view from a public place. This even includes private property that is plainly visible from a public place (e.g., a photograph of a privately owned building from a public street.) Despite this wide breadth for public place photography, you must still use common sense and take into account people’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Some examples of crossing the line:

  • Shooting a photograph of the inside of someone’s home, even if taken from a public place
  • Using a telephoto lens to take photographs of a private place from a public place.
  • Taking inappropriate photographs of someone (i.e., under the bathroom stall, up a skirt, etc.) There are often laws specifically guarding against this type of action.

Further, even some public places may have some photography restrictions or permission requirements. For example, certain areas may not allow photography for national security purposes or for public safety purposes (think taking photographs in the middle of a busy street.) Make sure you investigate any potential restrictions or permissions needed before you head out for your street photography session.


Confrontation While Engaging in Street Photography

There is a lot of concern and misconception about what can and cannot be photographed. You may be approached by a private citizen or by a police officer inquiring about what you are doing. If this happens, keep calm and professionally explain what you are doing. If you are told that you are not allowed to take photographs, feel free to ask for more information about the policy or law that they believe restricts your actions.

Even if you are within your legal rights to take the photograph it may not be worth the confrontation that would come with taking the photograph. Remember that even if you are behaving legally a police officer may not know that and you could end up with a headache of a legal issue. You will need to weigh your options in the moment to make that decision.


Model Releases

The elusive model release! When do you need to get one and for who? The general rule is that you do not need a model release to take a photograph of anyone in a public place. Now (of course) that is not limitless! You will need a model release from any identifiable person in your photograph that you want to use in a commercial way. More on this below!

If you think you may use a photograph for commercial purposes it is better to obtain a model release at the time you take the photograph. Imagine trying to track down a stranger you saw on the street to have a model release signed if you decide later that you want to use the photograph for a commercial purpose. Pretty impossible!


What You Can Do With Your Street Photography

So what can you do with your street photography? Under the right circumstances you can use street photographs in commercial and non-commercial purposes. The two main considerations to take into account if you want to use your street photography for commercial purposes are:

  1. Is there an identifiable person in your photograph?
  2. Are you using the photograph for a commercial purpose?

If you want to use the photograph for a commercial purpose and there is an identifiable person in the photograph then you will need a model release from that person. A commercial purpose includes any advertising, most likely including posting the photograph on your website as part of your portfolio.

If you want to use your photograph for other non-commercial purposes then you do not need a model release, even if there is an identifiable person in your photograph. A non-commercial purpose can include any editorial use or even selling the photograph to a gallery.

Example out of NY 


Be encouraged, street photography is amazing and a bit more relaxed on the formalities. Always consider your intention with the images before you shoot – it’ll make everything easier in the end!


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