Important Considerations for Model-Released Stock Shoots (Sensitive Uses)

Upon carrying out a Google Reverse Search on one of my random sold images, I was pleasantly surprised to spot that two of my model-released images were licensed to a gay-friendly tourism blog.

This type of usage certainly doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t even think this is considered a “sensitive usage”, but who am I to argue if a model may have issues?

As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to advise models that there’s a risk that their images may end up in certain potentially awkward situations (henceforth known as “Sensitive Usages”). In this short blog post I’ll discuss what are sensitive usage type images and how to mitigate your legal risks.

Avoiding Model-Released commercial altogether

I mentioned this situation to “Pedestrian Tom”, a fellow Microstocker, who I regularly bounce ideas off, and he gave me some interesting insight:

“One of the reasons I don’t do people shots anymore. Not worth the risk of losing friendships or being sued. A few of my people shots ended up in mental ads, bed wetting and Trump voters.” – Pedestrian Tom

Potentially awkward situation?

The shoot was from last summer at Milan’s navigli (canal) district, click here to see the blog post tutorial.  The guy is a cool millennial so, as expected, after I notified him, he laughed and was flattered that they considered him to be a “handsome man”.

Defining “Sensitive Usages”

Anyway, all is good above, so I’ll transition to a more academic discussion; what if one of your model-released images end up in a potentially really really awkward situation, such as:

  • Far-Right / Far-Left wing website supporting a cause;
  • Implying a physical / mental health condition;
  • Drug abuse;
  • Endorses, advocates, or believes in a particular product, service, cause or opinion
  • Is otherwise associated with an issue that might considered controversial or unflattering.

Protecting Models

The main awkwardness likely derives from the models’ potential employers / current employers seeing the images and the risk that it may do to the model’s professional reputation.

Imagine the situation of a head-shot of one of your models with copy space written in bold letters, “I SUPPORT (insert extreme political party)” or “I’m HIV +” as in the following litigious example:

Link to the background to story here at the New York Post

Sensitive Use Licenses

According to Shutterstock’s FAQ on Sensitive Use License:

“Advertising agencies are by and large the most common users of the sensitive use portion of our license because some of their advertising projects are for pharmaceutical clients who in turn are most likely to need the sensitive use. However, it is important to note that actual “sensitive uses” are only a small part of the total of uses by these buyers, they just prefer to have the option available.

By agreeing to Sensitive Use in your Account Settings, you get access to all sales made to these agencies, not just sensitive use licenses. “Sensitive uses” are rare and a very tiny percentage of image uses, but agreeing to this license gives you access to possibility of higher royalties and the highest number of sales opportunities. In addition, if your image or your description of your image already depicts a sensitive subject, you acknowledge that it’s appropriate for sensitive use. For example, a model-released image clearly depicting drug abuse can be used for a poster campaign against drugs.”

Opting out of Sensitive Use

Now, Shutterstock allows you to opt out of this quite easily:


iStock / Getty’s Policy on Sensitive Usage

I couldn’t find anything on sensitive usages on the contributor contract, but within the wording of the model release document, I spotted this relatively generic and WIDE wording:


iStock / Getty photo buyers also have a legal responsibility to indemnify the models:

Sensitive Use Disclaimer Required. If you use content that features models or property in connection with a subject that would be unflattering or unduly controversial to a reasonable person (for example, sexually transmitted diseases), you must indicate: (1) that the content is being used for illustrative purposes only, and (2) any person depicted in the content is a model. For example, you could say: “Stock photo. Posed by model.” No disclaimer is required for “editorial use only” content that is used in an editorial manner. – source

As for other agencies, best to check before, by contacting their Customer Support and/or reading the T&Cs, prior to submitting if you believe that a model may object to some usages.

Avoiding situations by shooting editorially

One way to avoid any such situation is to submit editorially, but obviously this may defeat the purpose of such images. No buyer wants/needs editorial images of a smiling model with a white background, as an extreme example.

My friend and fellow Microstocker, Mirco Vacca, shoots images of his son and submits them as editorial. He tells me the main reason for submitting as editorials is:

“I prefer to not see them on a large commercial billboard related to some kind of disease” – Mirco Vacca

When I pressed him that he may opt-out he replied:

“Yes but only for all port I think”

Which is a fair point since perhaps he doesn’t mind sensitive usage on some of his other commercial images but wants to avoid any to do with his sons. As far as I know you cannot opt out for individual images.

A screenshot of Mirco’s portfolio at Shutterstock

Final Words

As a commercial stock photographer hiring models, be them relatives, friends or professional, you have certain responsibilities. The work carries small risks and firstly by being aware of them will help you to avoid awkward situations are best and keep you out of legal trouble, at worst.

Secondly and most importantly, I believe it’s important to have a frank conversation prior to the photo-shoot and notify the model(s) that there’s a small risk that their images may be used for “sensitive usages” (in the case that you opt-in at Shutterstock) or other sites which are silent on their policies.

If you feel that’s too much for them to handle and they may walk away, perhaps best to stick with shooting models that won’t object to the small risk or as a worst case, shoot models as illustrative editorials in a street-scene type setting, for example.

Have you ever encountered situations of where you model-released images were used in a “awkward” situation? How did you handle the situation? If so, please comment below and share!

About Alex

I’m an eccentric guy on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images. I’m determined not to waste my life away as a corporate drone and have devoted five years to making it as a travel photographer and freelance writer. I hope to inspire others before it’s too late.

I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it as a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography



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