If you have any plans to use a photograph of a person or their property for commercial purposes, model releases and property releases are necessary. They really should be part of the best practices of any professional photographer. I recommend carrying them in your camera bag, and keeping a virtual release app on your smartphone in order to ensure you’ve got them ready when they’re needed.
I use a model release based on those provided by the American Society of Media Photographers. You can find them online at asmp.org/releases. If you don’t have a good release, or if you want to learn all about the ins and outs of releases, the ASMP is a good place to start.
No matter how you handle obtaining signed releases, the important part is that they get connected to the photos to which they apply, and that they stay there indefinitely. That way you’ll always know who has signed a release, and where to find it. When it comes time to sell a photo, that release is as good as gold. Here’s how I ensure that I can always properly identify releases and find them when I need them.
Step one with the original, printed release is that I make a digital copy of it right off the bat, using a scanner or just snapping a picture with my smartphone. (The Dropbox app has the ability to instantly turn a printed page into a PDF file saved online. Pretty cool!) That way I’ve got a backup if something happens to my filing cabinet. That cabinet, by the way, contains a single master file of all of my model releases.
Before filing it away forever, I print out a picture of the subject from the session and attach it, physically, to the original model release. This covers my need to be able to identify the person in the picture down the road, because that picture is going to be attached to the release. I then staple that printed picture to the back of the original signed release, so there’s no confusion five or 10 years down the road about who was who and who signed what.
The next step—and this one is the most important—is to go back to that digital copy of the release and store it electronically alongside the original image files. In my case, those files are organized via Lightroom, so I import into the original image folder that digital version of the release. Whenever I return to the folder containing the photos in question, the last one is always a digital version of the signed release. The technique is simple, but it’s the kind of thing that can be immensely helpful by taking the filing burden away. After all, if you’re going to lose your model releases, why bother having them signed in the first place?
Use this simple technique to keep track of them—assuming, of course, you already know how to keep track of your photos, too. In this way, the model releases will always be associated with the photos to which they pertain, and it will be backed up with the same rigor with which the photographs are backed up.