Photo Usage for Nonprofits

As nonprofits, you want to show off the amazing impact you’re making in your community. Social media is the perfect arena to publish some well deserved humble brags. However, it’s also a grey area for photography usage rights.
Before you post that public photo album, here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and the people you serve, without sacrificing the quality of your photos.

Different types of “use”

Normally, if you’re using a photo for commercial purposes—like an advertisement or sales flyer—you need to ask for a signed photo release, a form that proves the subjects in the photo consented to having their image used by your business. This is called the right to “commercial use.” But if you take the photo for “editorial use”, which is strictly for educational/informational purposes—like documentary film or news articles—you may not need a release.
Because social media is a fuzzy line between commercial and editorial use, it’s best to get a photo release in all cases. That said, if there are photos of children, no matter the use, you’ll need a photo release form.

Is your photo “commercial use” or “editorial use”?
Here’s a great breakdown from Business 2 Community:

  • Editorial Use: used to educate or inform…
    • In a newspaper or magazine article
    • In a book or text that does not promote the book or text
    • In a film or video documentaries or news broadcasts
    • On a blog or website for descriptive purposes
    • In a non commercial presentation
      = Likely, no release form is needed
  • Commercial Use: used to promote or sell…
    • On a commercial website
    • In any kind of advertising or promotional material
    • On product packaging
    • In television commercials
    • On commercial brochures, collateral, or other printed material
      = Photo release definitely needed

Want more legal details? Stanford University Libraries has a great article on the nitty gritty.

Make photo permission easier

Getting photo release forms retroactively, or passing a clip board around in a crowd can be cumbersome and time consuming. To streamline the process try this:

  • At an event, keep release forms at your registration table. Have them sign upon arrival.
  • Post a sign at the event entrance saying that attendance implicitly gives photo release permission.
  • Send an email to all attendees before photos are posted on social media saying if they’d like their photo taken down to send a direct email to your organization.

No release? No problem.

Even though our rule #1 for creating sharable, compelling photos is to include people and faces, we understand many nonprofits just can’t do so. This might be to protect the identity or privacy of vulnerable constituents or minors. In these cases, you can still take great photos…you just have to get a little creative:

Hands are a great way to show scale, context, and personality.

High or low angles
Unique or surprising angles hold the viewer’s attention, without relying on direct eye contact with the lens.

Physical touch
The human brain loves photos of faces because it sparks an empathetic response. A great way to engage the same response, without too many identifying details, is to photograph hugs, high fives, and celebrations.


Need tips to make your photos look awesome? We got you.