There are many issues in photography where a one-size-fits-all answer doesn't...well...fit. This category of issues falls lower in the hierarchy of importance than the Nikon/Canon and "is retouching images ethical" debates, but they're still important. Being a highly opinionated person, I find these discussions almost impossible to resist, so here goes another one.... The issue today is model releases. Do you need them? My answer is "yes;" yours may be different. My opinion is you should try to get a model release whenever you can. Feel free to disregard my opinion since I'm not an attorney - although I have some great lawyer jokes.
This is a pretty complex issue, and there are lots of variations of laws from state to state and country to country. Pro photographers will give different answers. They love to indulge in philosophic discussions that begin with the age-old phrase of "What if..." I'm not going down that road, since I can't give any kind of legal advice (have I repeated that enough to be perfectly clear?). Besides, this blog is a just to make you think about the issue. Let's just keep it simple.
The key ingredient in your decision is probably how you envision the picture will be used, but do you really know what you're going to do with the image? These are old pictures I took in the '80s. At that time, no one imagined the digital distribution systems of today or photo websites or blogs. Al Gore hadn't even invented the internet back then. Yet, because I obtained a model release from my clients, I can still use these photos.
I've been a people photographer since I started taking pictures, back in the late '70s, and I've always used model releases. I've never had any trouble getting them from my wedding and portrait clients. I also ask people when I'm out and about, shooting for myself. I use this as an opportunity to pass out a business card and offer them some prints for their cooperation. If you scan the release and put them into your Adobe Lightroom database, you can always find the release. I go an extra step and keyword relevant images with "Model Release."
Yes, I even get releases from family members and friends if I really think an image has the potential to be used in my advertising or maybe a sale to a stock photo agency. People who know me are used to me asking. Some of already seen their pictures used in my work. Since they usually feel free to ask me for a copy of the photos, I just trade it for a release. If nothing comes of it, I've wasted a tiny amount of space in my databases storing the release. Remember what your grandmother told you, "Do what is right, even when no one is looking."
Last year, we attended a seminar with Ed Greenberg, a lawyer who specializes photography and copyright cases, and he was adamant that photographers should always get a model release. I guess you might expect that, but he had some pretty compelling cases to illustrate his reasoning. Another good resource for legal information is Carolyn Wright's blog, Photo Attorney.
In the end, you'll make your own decision. Count me as a photographer who loves to take portraits of people and is smart enough to get the release.