Photographing People Part IV: Payment and Model Releases

In this photographing people series, I’ve discussed the golden rule, the approach, and putting your subject at ease. Now I’ll cover the sometimes sticky subject of payment and the hot topic of model releases.

To Pay or Not to Pay

We’ve all come across the situation where a very photogenic local is perfectly happy to pose for a photograph….in exchange for money. To me, these situations are transactions rather than interactions.

This isn’t to say that I don’t “pay” people in other ways, the most important of which is to give respect. Sharing an image on the back of my camera is a nice way to show people what I am seeing in them. As often as possible I get contact information so that I can send copies of images to people. And I do follow through on my promises, even if it takes me a year.

Also, if I’m photographing in a market, for example, I’ll buy something small from the vendors I’m photographing because I need to eat or pick up a few souvenirs anyway. I want people to have a favorable interaction with me and hopefully this will set a good precedent for whoever comes along next with a camera.

Picture of women at their sewing stall in Takoradi

I found that people in Ghana often refused to have their photo taken or alternatively wanted to be paid. These women at a stall in the Takoradi Market Circle first had asked for money, but after I put my camera down and chatted with them for a while they then allowed me to photograph.  They had realized I didn’t simply want a snapshot, I actually wanted to get to know them. I later mailed a packet of photos to Ghana for them.

Model Releases

One of the most frequently asked questions I get when I’m teaching is

Picture of people at Afro's Chicken in Durban

It isn’t practical to get releases from everyone in many of the shots I take, like in this scene at Afro’s Chicken in Durban, South Africa.

about model releases. Do you need to get a model release? Well, be warned, I am no lawyer, but for editorial work (newspapers and magazines) you do not need a model release, nor for personal portfolios. You do need a model release (and usually property releases) for any image that you hope to use for advertising or commercial work.

Although not required for my work, I do try to get releases when I can. I’ve found that in situations where I have time and there aren’t too many people involved, there is a natural time to ask for a release to be signed. This also gives me the opportunity to get people’s contact info so that I can send them a few photos. I carry around a stack of model releases binder-clipped together, but have also used an app on my phone called Easy Release.

Picture of two South African women in Durban

I spent some time making pictures of these two friends (who were in the foreground of the above shot) and they were willing to sign model releases. When I later found out that the group shot would run in Traveler magazine, I was able to share with them the exciting news.

For the last series in this post, I’ll resurface the subject of gear and give the telephoto lens its just deserts.

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