One of the biggest areas of confusion I run into as a photographer is when model releases are necessary. There is a lot of misinformation out there and quite a few people willing to make up the rules to fit their preference at the time.
First, a disclaimer. This is not intended to be legal advice, which you get from a real lawyer, this is my current understanding. Laws and legal requirements also vary by country, so things may be different where you live.
You don’t need a release to photograph someone in a public place, period. You don’t even need permission, but I’m one of those people who prefers to ask. There are two schools of thought when it comes to asking, both have their advantages and drawbacks.
If you take a picture of someone in a public place, you can display that photograph as part of your gallery and sell the prints. All of that without a model release. You can even sell it to newspapers and magazines for what’s called “editorial use”. Editorial use would include hard news stories, educational material, or stories with editorial content.
That’s why you rarely see newspaper photographers chasing people around trying to get them to sign a photo release. Model releases are not necessary in the context of news gathering.
I’ve had plenty of people try to convince me otherwise including security guards and people who didn’t want to have their picture taken. I’ve had people threaten to have me arrested, which they can’t do, or sue me, which they can do but not likely successfully.
So, when do you need a model release? Generally you’re going to need a release for any commercial use of any identifiable individual. Commercial use such as advertisements, in almost any context like print ads, web ads, brochures, magazines, or billboards.
If you’re thinking of trying to sell your images to any stock photography company or microstock company, you will have to have a signed release for every person in the photograph, even people in the background. Check the site requirements carefully, some require any images submitted be accompanied by their release and, in rare cases, a copy of the subject’s ID.
If the subjects are children, the same rules apply except the parent or legal guardian has to sign the release for anyone under 18.
Keep the releases in a safe place essentially forever. If your subject gets famous later in life, you don’t want to be scrambling around trying to find that old release.
To sum all this up, you only need a release if you intend to sell the image for commercial use. It’s good to get them when you can because you never know when a company might want to buy one of your images.