i have never asked anyone i ever photographed for a model release…..it is just not something i can do…..to ask someone to sign a legal document after taking a picture is just too hard for me to do….it is not in my genes…..

but, i do have model releases for pictures which i shoot for advertising… i have an assistant do it…now i am shooting in new york for a couple of days on the same ad campaign that takes me to brazil…..they want my freestyle street shooting and yet require a release…this is very difficult in new york where people are rushing and often suspicious…

santiago, chile 1989

more and more, publishers of all kinds are requiring model releases…we live in a litigious society….newspapers and general circulation magazines in the  united states  still are legally exempt from needing a release from someone who is photographed in the "public domain"….but, even these publications are starting to at least suggest getting a release..

for sure, you need to have written legal permission if you are going to publish work which would involve the selling/marketing of a product….if you have a picture that is published inside a magazine, that same picture would require a release if used on the cover and subsequently the cover  used to promote the magazine….

yesterday, while out shooting for this ad campaign, i shot a random picture of a Catholic nun who was walking through the park..i was riding from one of those horse carriages for tourists and the picture was an interesting juxtaposition of the driver and the horse’s head and the nun dressed in white…"stop this carriage!!"…marie ( read about marie in "student work") jumps off and runs to get this release signed…i cannot even look….the driver tells me he cannot stop in the middle of the street like this…marie comes running back with the nun who, as it turns out , was walking with her non-nun sister…

i said, "hey, we have to move"…i looked down at the smiling nun….i said," why don’t you come with us"….she smiled even more….i reached down, grabbed her hand, and pulled her and her sister up into the horse carriage…..off we went…..

Sister Gemma and i shake hands and she introduced me to her family sister Rhonda who was visiting from Kansas…Sister Gemma resides in new york along with 50 other "sisters" in a convent ….can’t remember which one….anyway, we start talking about Kansas….i used to live there…my first job as a photographer out of grad school was at the Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal….when i told Sister Gemma and her non-nun sister Rhonda that i used to be a photographer in Kansas, their smiles got bigger!!! but, i could not help but think they had to have some doubt…some suspicion…i mean, here is this man in Central Park with a camera riding around in a horse carriage and asking them (or marie is asking them) to sign a legal document!!! 

well, as it turns out Sister Gemma wants to take better pictures….she shoots sometimes for the Catholic publication of her convent….which camera is best?? you know the conversation..i gave her my business card and the link to this site..we chatted for awhile and had a very pleasant ride through the park…neither marie nor i had ever taken one of these horse carriages before….i mean, if you live in new york,  this just does not happen!!!

Sister Gemma said she could not sign a model release…she would need permission from Sister Superior from her convent….we exchanged phone numbers etc….

so, there you have it…i do not have a model release…..this picture cannot be used in this campaign….was i disappointed??  not at all….the warm eyes and the sincere conversation i had with Gemma and Rhonda made my day…..

it started to rain as we said goodbye….warm handshakes….Sister Gemma and Rhonda, i hope you read this….it was a pleasure to meet you…..

15 thoughts on “sister gemma and model releases”

  1. Mr. Harvey

    Do you change something in your digital photos before publication? Correct something in photoshop? Color, contarst etc.?


  2. ” … it started to rain as we said goodbye….warm handshakes….”, a great narration David, just like a poem at the end.. like your photos your thought is so delicate …

    on an other note, i find it is too difficult to ask somebody in the street to sign in a model release… you are right …you can exchange smile, exchange thought and feel with your subject, but asking for sign on a legal document .. uff, it is too difficult..

    Regards, Sandip

  3. martin…

    i do not even know how to use photoshop….and since i spent so many years shooting transparencies , i try to make my tech side right on it…..i do have people around me who can use photoshop , so before making exhibiton prints , i will make small corrections for this purpose…but nothing significant gets changed from what i see on the back of the camera…


  4. Hi David,

    I will like to know if you need talent releases when you pubish a book. Everybody is telling me that a book is a commercial product where you make a profit using the images…so you’re supposed to use one.

    I see every day that more photo contests are asking for model releases. I think that even NG “foto del lector” section ask for one so I’m not participating very much of this opportunities because most of my work happens in the streets with unkown people and they are mostly “moments” where I can not go back and ask for a release. I was reading that in a public space you can shoot if the person happens to be there…is that truth?

    I ‘ve been a creative director for many years and we ask for model releases all the time…we use a producer to do this and it’s usually for 1 year period (and then a renewal)… I thought that editorial and books were different…I guess not?

    saludos y gracias por la informacion

    Carlos Rubin

  5. David

    Last two days I have used adobe lightroom program to editing photos. It’s trial program and I thinking to buy one (but it’s too expensive for me 300$ !!). It’s very useful and easy program and its work like darkroom. I never want to change anything in my photos. But more black… why not?

    That why I asked.

    The truth is that I hate (!) my digital photography. It’s without expression. And I have to do something creative with it.

    I am jealous of your last works…

    I must invent my personal way…

    Your works is enviable…

    That’s all.


  6. carlos…

    i think all of us are a little confused about all of this….we are photographers and not lawyers…

    i do not see how a book is any more commercial than a magazine, but that is just my opinion….in all of my professional shooting i have not gotten releases for magazines or books always thinking that both fell under the same “law” that protects journalists and photographers to be able to gather information for the “press” as part of all of our “free speech” statutes…i am 99% sure that this is true…certainly books are the least profitable thing out there, so bringing a lawsuit against someone for all the money they are making off of a book would make the judge laugh out loud..

    but now, as you said, even natgeo is asking their photographers to get releases…but i do not think this is because they need it for the magazine, but because they have the Image Collection agency that most natgeo photographers use to distribute their works later….any photographs in this collection which are not model released would have little value inside this archive because they could not be sold for commercial i.e. advertising purposes..

    and i have no clue about “talent releases”…i do not even know what a talent release is, but i can imagine that “talent” would always try to get whatever they could get out of anything…but, i have always worked under what i do know is a law or was a law …and that is, that people in the “public domain” i.e. famous personalities, politicians etc etc are sort of up for grabs…they have no rights!! that is how these paparazi photographers make a living..

    now here is the final blow…even if you have a model release, you can have action brought against you….the only model release that really protects you would be a model release that gave out specific rights for specific pictures for specific uses….in other words, there really is no “general release”…

    i am getting a headache….


  7. martin..

    i need to see your pictures..where are they?? if i see your work, then i might be able to help you a bit…you should be able to do the same thing with digital that you do with film..

    certainly medium and large format work and black & white film does give a different “better look” when you see a fine print…the texture of film reproduced in a black & white print is hard to match….but, i have a feeling it will soon be matched…

    when technology moves forward, we always gain something and we always lose something….it is easy to be careless with digital…i think this is the main problem….but, i am just like everyone else, trying to justify digital, being sentimental about film, etc etc…

    for me , the “bottom line” is just THE PHOTOGRAPH…the moment, the lyrical quality, the light composition etc etc…if you take a great photograph with digital, you should be able to make a fine archival print….do not blame technology for not doing good work….while you are blaming technology, someone else will be hanging a show at the Museum of Modern Art executed with a 4 megapixel “point and shoot” !!!

    my suggestion, as always, is to simplify all of your gear…get it down to one camera and one lens or at least not walk around too much “stuff” …i try to not “look professional” ….be light on your feet….fly fly…think think think about what you are doing, but at the same time be loose loose free free….have fun…play….be serious…really serious….get “in the zone”….with a pinhole camera or with a digi “point and shoot” or with an 8×10 on a tripod….


  8. David

    Here is my web page.


    I done it in short time few days ago, because maybe I will have a order from cultural institution. But there is no Digital photography and without current works (maybe it is good).

    Some explanations about me.

    I start interesting photography some about 2, 2,5 years ago. I like b&w photography, I hate zooms, always I used one camera and two lens 28 and 50, now join rangefinder camera with 35 lens. This last 2 years I learned my self, because I wonted to know about photography everything. And I want to work for publishing.

    When I work for somebody I must using digital camera. I don’t have expensive digital equipment, and I must use zooms. But I have to say my digital photos is ordinary press pictures. Sometimes I don’t feel excitement when I taking digital photos, and I don’t like visual effects. (I working on it)

    But! I must start to like this photography. And I must find my personal way in this technique.

    In next weekend I’ll go to castle once again, and I’ll be using digital equipment.

    If you have time I invite you to see my web page. It’s no working perfect and I must change some things (thumbnails directions). But it’s only place in web with my works.

    Then when I come back from castle I’ll show you pictures and maybe we’ll talk about.

    My digital photography make me feel depress… but will be better!

    Martin :)

  9. Ahh, the model release. For a commercial shooter that might not ever venture into the realm of editorial, it is no more a chore than following an art director or negotiating rights. But for the newspaper or magazine shooter, it just does not seem right. And yet, if we are to earn a few extra bucks in the advertising or stock field, it has to be done.

    I admire that you have Marie do it for you, that truly must free up the mental gymnastics that should be put to good use in connecting with the moment and the person, darn good idea David!

    Nine years ago, I moved to a small but wonderful ski town called Aspen. I had just left a great newspaper job in the Midwest to pursue my love of the high country. I had about $400 in my pocket, no where to live and no jobs lined up. I was 30. After working construction clean up for three months and having a lot of persistence , I landed a job at the local paper…game on baby! You see, I had a bigger things in mind than the Aspen Times, but I knew the job would be the best possible thing I could do. It was. Upon landing the job, I negotiated an unusual deal with the publisher. I would take a lower hourly rate in exchange for full rights to all my work. They got to reprint it and I still owned it, all of it, the negatives and all.

    So I started making a name for my self and a presence in this small little town with big eyes for great pictures. I also would carry model releases with me and occasionally use them. About a year later, I covered a fun event called “Ski-Splash” where skiers wearing strange costumes…..or nothing at all, would hit a ski jump and land in a hotel swimming pool. One guy was wearing a full cowboy outfit. I knew I had a great shot of him and decided to ask him for a model release.

    Now, aside from David, if you have never asked the subject of a editorial photograph for a model release, it is kind of like asking Miss America for her phone number, pretty uncomfortable. Firstly, these people are not models, that immediately puts you at a disadvantage and makes you feel like you are trying to sell ice cubes at the North Pole. This taught me great people skills and respect for them, either it was going to happen and I would wish them a good day with a smile, or it was not, and I would still wish them a good day, with a smile.

    The ski jumping cowboy would not sign a release. I was still happy to make his aqaintence and wished him well. For the next five years, I built up a heck of a reputation, won awards and was eventually sought after by quite a bit of art buyers and magazines. I left the paper with a great experience in my mind in heart…and over 30,000 images that were now available as stock, many of them with model releases.

    This was the best thing I could have done for my career in a monetary and commercial sense. Aside from engaging in my own editorial and agent repped assignments, I own and run my own privately visible stock agency and it does very well.

    But the best thing? I had a great time making it all happen. And like David, I never felt like I had lost out by not getting a release from the subject of a great editorial shot. Things in this life have a tendency to come full circle, so you really ought not to burn your bridges.

    Last week, I was on a ski lift with my camera gear on the way to a shoot. I was next to a man that looked a tad familiar. All be damned if it was not the “Skiing Cowboy”. He immediately recognized me and went on and on about how much he loved the shot of him jumping in the pool some 8 years ago…..and then he went on to say that he really had respect for my work and if I ever wanted him to sign a release for that shot he would be happy to oblige. He also invited me to come out to his ranch and do shoots, use him and his ranch hands as models, anything I wanted. I was stunned.

    He said, “We pay it forward in this valley, now it’s my turn.”

    Making great images happen is certainly a rewarding part of the career. But it is all the great people you meet and wish well that make it a truly incredible life.

    Thanks for posting this David….and thank you for paying it forward with this blog..:-)



  10. daniel…

    absolutely wonderful story!!! we obviously think alike in terms of people respect.. surely you have mastered the fine art of getting a release and having a pretty good time doing it…

    i suppose it all has to do with positive thinking…..if you think good things, good things will happen to you….sure , there are bumps and some pretty tough ones too, but all in all, good vibes in , good vibes out….

    thank you for the thoughtful letter…

    saludos, david

  11. Going back to the discussion about digital and film “looks”…

    I recently saw talk in a forum elsewhere that mentioned the fact that many of the “big” magazines today ask for the RAW image from their photographers in an effort to keep things consistent with the magazine’s “look.” The complaint being that the photographers no longer have THEIR “look” anymore. Everything is becoming homogenized, the argument was.

    Do you have any thoughts on this David?

  12. michael….

    i have not had this problem…nor have i heard any complaints from my colleagues at any of the major magazines…that does not mean such complaints do not exist…i just have not heard them…

    i shoot with digi exactly the same way i shot with film….i get it exactly the way i want on the camera…you are looking at a jpeg on the back, so i can always have someone match my jpeg which i shoot simultaneous with the raw…i have not had anything go in some weird direction in any publication…maybe i have just been lucky, but so far they always get my opinion on the final file that goes to press..

    i think being an ex-transparency shooter really helps..i always had to get it “right on”…so i still think the same way….there is always a bit of an “interpretation”, but in my case i might just “tweak” a tiny bit, but nothing severe….

    as i said in another post, i do not even know how to use photoshop…but, of course, i should learn!!!

    cheers, david

  13. Nice to hear that, David.

    I’m a photoshop neophyte myself, so I sympathize. The last thing I ever wanted to do was become a computer graphics wiz. I like being a photographer! I still use ND grads and polarizers, still try to do as much as possible in camera. When I want a blurred effect, I do it. I don’t add it later! I think it was Bob Krist who once said he resented digital as it turned him into a photo lab tech over night. I wouldn’t necessarily say the same thing, (and he probably doesn’t even feel that way anymore) but I can certainly appreciate that sentiment.

    Even though the pluses with digital outweigh the minuses, (And I genuinely believe they do!) I do still miss holding up a nice, sharp, colorful chrome to the light!



  14. michael…

    i miss some things about film too…but, mostly i miss black & white film….color transparencies, although spectacular in their color depth etc. were a real pain when it came to organization…the minute you open a box of chromes, you have destroyed the sequence order and you never see what you shot the way you shot it again…and how i could manage to lose my favorite slide that was just sitting here right in front of me , i will never know..

    even now my biggest organizational disaster are boxes of transparencies sitting around in corners with magic marker tags that do not mean now what they meant when i wrote them…

    ..i loved contact sheets…all my neg shoots are organized.. and we have “contact sheets” with digi…all of my digi work is organized too….

    only my transparencies are a mess…of course, most of this is my fault and not the fault of film!!!!

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