Photography & Copyright in the UK

An incredibly important topic that is so often misunderstood, copyright and issues surrounding it are something everyone involved in photography should understand. This doesn’t just applies to photographers: models, make-up artists and even clients should have some understanding of this to know what can and can’t be done with images.

DISCLAIMER: While the advice I give is based on years of photography experience and discussion I am not a legal representative: thus this page only constitutes opinions. If you are wish to be sure always contact a solicitor for professional legal advice

I have a tendency to be rather wordy so for every blog post I will summarise the points, then go in to more detail later:


Copyright vs Usage

  • Copyright: Defines who owns the photos

  • Usage/Licence: Defines who can use the photos

Who owns copyright

  • An independent photographer (one not working for a larger company) owns the copyright to all images they take unless they have agreed to transfer the copyright to another party.

    • This is very rarely done for free as photos are a photographers trade. Few experienced photographers will hand over copyright, and thus ownership, unless well compensated.

  • Paying a photographer does NOT guarantee copyright: more typically payment is traded for extended licence

Usage Rights and TF* Shoots

  • TF* shoots are a collaboration so everyone should be granted fair usage

  • “Fair usage” is a broad term, always make sure everyone is on the same page before the shoot

    • Get this agreement in writing. A summary e-mail will suffice

  • At a bare minimum all TF* shoots should grant all participants licence to update their portfolio

Licensing: Usage Rights & Model Releases

• Licence Agreement: The agreement given by photographers to others that details what use the photos are permitted to be used for

• Model Release:  This is a contract signed by a model that grants the photographer commercial use of the images.

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Copyright vs Usage

These two terms are often conflated, which is a problem as they are quite different in terms of their meaning.

•Copyright related to the legal ownership of the image, and thus who can dictate what can be done with the image.

•Usage/Licence are the terms used to describe what other parties can and can’t do with these images.

Thus it is possible for one party to have near unrestricted licence to use an image but still have someone else owning the copyright

Who owns the copyright on photographs?

The simple question is who owns it by default: well it never hurts to quote from the source so here is a passage from the UK Copyright Service guidelines for Photography:

Under law, it is the photographer who will own copyright on any photos he/she has taken, with the following exceptions:

  • If the photographer is an employee of the company the photos are taken for, or is an employee of a company instructed to take the photos, the photographer will be acting on behalf of his/her employer, and the company the photographer works for will own the copyright.

  • If there is an agreement that assigns copyright to another party.

In all other cases, the photographer will retain the copyright, if the photographer has been paid for his work, the payment will be for the photographer’s time and typically an allocated number of prints. The copyright to the photos will remain with the photographer, and therefore any reproduction without permission would be an infringement of copyright.


  • If Bill Smith asks Peter Jones the photographer to photograph his wedding. Peter Jones will normally provide a single copy of the prints as part of the fee, but any additional prints Bill or his family and friend want must be ordered via Peter as he is the copyright owner and controls who can copy his work.

  • If Bill Smith engages the services of XYZ-Photos for the same job, and Peter is an employee of XYZ-Photo who instruct Peter to take the photos, XYZ-Photos will be the copyright owner and control how they are used.

There are exceptions to this:

  • If the shot was set up by another individual (art director, client etc.) then it can be claimed that the creative input was primarily the work of this individual, thus they own the image

    • Take a theoretical example of a photographer and art director. The art director sets up the scene, poses the models, selects the location and selects the make-up and styling and the photographer only handles lighting and pressing the shutter. In such situations it could be argued that the art director and not the photographer owns copyright as they are the main creative influence

Usage Rights and TF* Shoots

(For a full definition of TF* see my other blog post)

A TF* situation is exactly what the name suggests: everyone involved gives up their Time For a chance to update their portfolio. As such the copyright is not actually the important part, rather that as TF* shoots more than any other are an equal collaborative effort then it is imperative that every member of the creative team should be granted fair use of the photos.

Fairness comes in to it especially in TF* shoots and no photographer would ever doubt the hard work and skill put in by models, MUAs and stylists. As such fair usage is something every photographer will be happy to give, and in TF* shoots that usually means everyone gets use of the images for their portfolio.

When arranging a shoot it is vital to be clear what fair usage means, as what some people take for granted others have differing opinions on, e.g:

  • Photographer A gives out hi-res images straight from camera that they are happy for others to edit.

  • Photographer B gives out gives out their final edited images in web resolution.

Neither of these is right or wrong, it it dependant on individual circumstances and opinions. As editing is often as much a part of a photographers craft as shooting some may not want others to edit their pictures.

Legally it is at the discretion of the photographer but in terms of common decency the entire group have equal say and usage. What this is should be agreed on by all parties in advance.

To emphasise an important point: get this agreement in writing! Some go down the road of contracts for this, however this can sometimes seem heavy handed and can scare people off. My personal preference is to use e-mail: in a legal sense it counts as a written contract and speaking practically you are killing two birds with one stone by making sure everyone is on the same page while you are keeping in touch.

Licensing: Usage Rights & Model Releases

Again there people have a tendency to conflate these two and think of them as a single thing but they serve quite different purposes

• Licence Agreement: This is the agreement that grants others use of an image copyrighted by another.  Typically speaking this is what photographers give to models, make-up artists etc.  It can be as formal as a contract but it can simply be a word of mouth suggestion or an e-mail.  As above: get it in writing for an easier life

• Model Release:  This is a contract signed by a model that grants the photographer commercial use of the images.  Many stock websites insist on model release forms as standard


Hopefully this should help answer some of your questions. If you want to give feedback or learn more there is a contact form on the website:

Stuart Dreghorn



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This content of this post was contributed to and influenced by a discussion on the Scottish Creative Network forum. Photographers, models, MUAs and other creatives should have a look and join this free networking & discussion group:

Daniel Oi Photography

The licence and links sections were assisted greatly by suggestions from Daniel Oi

Useful Links

UK Copright Service – Guidelines on Photography

The ABCD of Photographic Copyright

Copyright FAQ Sheet

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