Do I need a Model Release for Wedding Guests?

By this point, you probably know that any contract you sign with a couple needs to have a model release in it. But….. why do you need a model release? And do you need a model release for wedding guests too?

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What is a model release?

A model release is permission to use someone’s image or likeness in a commercial manner. But what does that actually mean?

“Image or likeness” means anything that identifies a person. This could be their photo, voice, even something as small as their hand if it identifies them as “them.” [True story/ derailment: I worked with an agency who got sued because someone said they used their hand without a model release].

“Commercial manner” is where most folks get off track. Most people think “commercially” means that they have to be selling the images or using the images in an advertisement. That’s way too narrow of an interpretation, my friends.

Commercial use, in a legal context, means anything related to your business. What does this include? It includes your blog, social media, “real weddings” submissions, marketing materials, portfolio, booth displays, website, and any other use connected to your business in any way.

Pretty expansive, huh?

Who Needs to Sign a Model Release?

This section might be better fit by the title “Who can’t sign a model release for someone else.”

The quick answer here? The individual you can identify. The maid of honor trying not to cry. That hot groomsman. The super cute kid on killin the dance floor with his moves. Great Uncle Ed doing the worm.

Any person in photos you plan to use needs to sign a model release.

I’ll say it again for the folks in the back: It’s the person who is in the photo. The couple cannot sign a model release for that person.

Why do I need model releases from Wedding Guests?

I know that you’re probably really annoyed at me right now, but don’t shoot the messenger. I’m telling you the rules, but believe me, I know it’s frustrating to have to get a model release from each individual person you want to use in your portfolio/ social media/ etc. So let’s talk about Why.

Each state has laws that cover the right to privacy. There’s some differentiating factors between public and private places, but the gist is that any time you’re in a private place (e.g. a private event like a wedding) people have a reasonable expectation of privacy. They can expect that the news isn’t going to show up and plaster their face on screen. Think about if you were an A-list celebrity like Taylor Swift— where could you go that press wouldn’t be able to stampede and shove a microphone in your face? Good chance that’s a private space.

We also want to protect the right of people to not have their image exploited for something they don’t agree with, believe in, or know anything about. Can you imagine if you were driving down I-95 and saw your face on a billboard for laxatives— and you had no idea?! It’s such an important right, that some states actually impose criminal liability for using someones image and likeness without permission.

So that’s why this is such a big deal.

Ok, How Do I get a Wedding Guest’s Model Release?

Now comes the tricky part. Since the couple can’t sign model releases for wedding guests, how do you get a model release from them?!

One way to do it is to have an app on your phone where the bridal party and the subjects of those “I-can-feel-it-in-my-bones-this-was-a-good-shot” can quickly “finger sign” a contract. I already pay for Adobe Acrobat and use it for its signature capabilities, but I also like HelloSign and Docusign Moble.

But that’s during the chaos of the event, and it’s not always possible to know when you nailed a shot.

So how do you get clearances post event?

Good old fashioned email.

Find out the guest’s name from your couple. Drizzle on some compliments— “you just look so amazing in this photograph, you’re a superstar, you’re glowing,” etc.— and then ask if they will sign the model release so you can use it on your website and ads “since [they] look like a model!” 😉🙌 Shoot it over, have them digitally sign, and BOOM. Ya done.

Important Note on Luxury Events or Celebrity Guests

Luxury events can often have an air of secrecy about them, as guests can be celebrities, politicians, or other “rich and famous” types. Discuss with your clients beforehand about the restrictions on photographing any potentially sensitive individuals, using images in advertising or on social media, and otherwise sharing images.

If a celebrity is part of the bridal party (a la Taylor Swift in 2017 and Jennifer Lawrence in 2014) you should get photo permissions up front. That way, you’ll be able to utilize those photos on social media. Be prepared for some pushback or alternative terms, because a celebrity’s likeness is their moneymaker, after all. Some alternatives to a full-blown model release include

i) limit the model release to permit only portfolio use;

ii) limit the model release to require no identifying details (i.e. you don’t name them or tag them in social media, making it harder for search engines to find) or

iii) a limit on the use of the person’s photo to group shots only.

What if they don’t sign and completely refuse? Politely ask the non-signing party to step out of a photo or two in order to make sure you’ve got some shots to use for social media. Then, take it up with the couple and ask how they would like you to proceed.

Uh Oh. Don’t have a Model Release?

You understand now that every shot of an individual in a private event needs to have a model release. Well, guess what? You’re in luck, I heard that there is a really good one over in the shop…. 😉🙌😘