Release forms: When and how to get permission to use photos * Rough & Ready Media
Back view of Young woman holding cell phone and making photo of her girl friend. Two girlfriends take pictures of each other on Smartphone camera on nature background. Summer holidays and technology

The legalistic complexities of obtaining permission to use photos in promoting the good works of a non-profit organization or the products of a business can be distilled to this:

  • If a photo is used to make money, get a photo release signed.
  • If a photo is not being used to make money, be courteous.

This means that if a business hopes to profit from an image, be it of a person, a pet or a building, the business must obtain written permission of the subject or the subject’s owner. The business also should compensate the subject in some way, perhaps by offering a discount on purchases rather than outright payment. One wrinkle in businesses’ use of images is that if the images are being used for editorial purposes — accompanying a news article or journalism piece, as examples — they don’t require a standard signed photo release form.

In the case of nonprofit organizations, being polite to the subjects of their images means asking permission to take and use their photos, displaying them respectfully, and assuring subjects that photos they object to can be taken down from the web or social media or not used again in print.

Businesses and nonprofit organizations both use paper or online forms in which subjects formally grant permission to use their images. This is especially important if the subjects are younger than 18; in that case, the written permission of parents or guardians must be obtained. 

Assuming the nonprofit is not using professional models, which would involve an employment contract, photo release forms for these organizations are one way to courteously ask people if their photos can be taken or to inform people that their photos will be taken in certain situations and that the organization plans to use the photos in certain respectful ways.

Although lawsuits can be brought on the flimsiest of bases, nonprofit organizations’ concerns over using photos are largely a matter of treating people well — be they donors, other supporters, staff or clients.

For example, if a senior center has obtained permission to use a resident’s photo but his family objects to its use after the resident’s death, it’s not like the center could say, “We have a release, too bad.” The center is going to respect the family’s wishes.

Other steps a nonprofit can take to politely use images include:

  • State on the website that the nonprofit will take down any photo upon the request of the subject.
  • Have a written policy that pledges to take and display photos respectfully; this policy should state how long an image will be used.
  • Never use a photo that contains anything unflattering.
  • Have a photo release (with an easy and clear way to opt-out) included in a program registration, event sign-in, or volunteer agreement. Then, for in-person gatherings, visibly identify those who opt out with a name-tag sticker or, for children, a colored dot sticker on clothing.
  • Place a sign at the entrance to an event or meeting indicating that photos will be taken there and shared.
  • If particular people are identified as compelling examples of the need for a nonprofit’s services, dedicated staff members or people who would be especially helpful in telling the nonprofit’s story, discussing this with them well in advance is, again, only being polite. 

Nuts and bolts

Signed permission forms, whether paper or digital, do no good without a record of them and copies of them that can be found easily.

As with any image or other document, they should be stored in a way that makes them easy to find. In the case of images, it is important to have a naming convention that includes the date the photo was taken.


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