Technology has made it dangerously easy to alter photographs. People can use computer programs to remove, add, or move elements in a photograph without detection. Although some of these alterations may seem harmless, when communicators cross the line of changing content even slightly, they are jeopardizing their readers’ trust. A photograph is perceived as an accurate recording of an event.

Therefore, the following is University Communications’ policy related to the creation and use of photographs:

  • A photo’s content—the positions and appearance of people and objects—must never be changed or manipulated.
  • Alteration of a photograph that misleads, confuses, or otherwise misrepresents its accuracy is strictly prohibited.
  • Enhancing the technical quality of a photograph is acceptable, but changing the meaning is not.

In any instance when a question arises about such issues, consult the University Communications staff. The following information provides more specific guidelines about acceptable and unacceptable use of photographs.


  • Electronic equivalents of established practices for traditional darkroom printing methods—dodging, burning, toning, and cropping, for example—as long as the content and meaning aren’t changed.
  • Color and tonal correction to ensure accurate reproduction of the original photograph.
  • Technical touch–up of images for the purpose of color–balancing or removal of flaws (such as dust spots, scratches, digital noise, artifacts, etc.) to achieve better reproduction. Such changes will be considered to be insubstantial.
  • Routine cropping is not considered to be an alteration. However, there is a possibility of changing reader perception with creative cropping. When cropping, keep the modified version true to the intent of the original photo.
  • Conversion of a color image to black and white.

Not acceptable

  • Content alteration of any kind—moving, adding, deleting, combining, stretching, flipping, shrinking, etc.
  • If a caption is needed to explain that the content isn’t real, don’t use the image.
  • Misrepresenting a created scene as a “found” moment.

Photo illustrations

Photo illustrations differ from news photos in content, creation, and purpose. They are staged or produced, and are manufactured situations. They often are set up in a studio and are used for fashion, food, and product promotion. When an existing photograph is altered for artistic purposes, such as by adding or deleting content, it also is considered a photo illustration. Environmental portraits shot on location are not considered photo illustrations.

Use caution when creating a digital illustration on a computer that uses a photo as its base material. The final image should not be so photorealistic that a reader could perceive it as being real.

When publishing a photo illustration, it should be made clear to readers that the image does not represent a real situation. In all cases, photo illustrations should be labeled as such. Any permitted alteration changing the original content of an image must be labeled as a “photo illustration.” The credit line should read: “Photo illustration; original photo by XX.” Artistic use of images, as in a collage, is permitted.

Remember, however, that no amount of captioning can balance a visual lie. Carefully consider any consequences, including jeopardizing credibility with readers, before creating a photo illustration.


Copyrighted materials cannot be altered without written permission of the copyright holder (generally the creator or source of the original photo).

Photographs (UW–Madison images and those from freelancers) should be considered to be copyrighted materials. Photographs supplied to University Communications from other UW–Madison offices or from non-university entities cannot be altered without written permission from the copyright holder, even if the image belongs to UW–Madison.

Permission/model releases

Written permission is required for photos or videos of children, patients in health care settings or laboratories, research participants, and for photos or videos of individuals being featured in advertisements or promotional materials in which a person’s name, image and/or likeness are being used.

Download the general release form that can be used for most instances

Please note:

If you are part of the UW–Madison Health Care Component, your use of photos may also be subject to HIPAA regulations, policies, or accreditation standards unique to your area of campus.  (Contact the HIPAA Privacy Officer for more guidance.) Therefore, if you are part of the UW–Madison Health Care Component, you must contact UW–Madison’s HIPAA Privacy Officer (link to for a release.

In situations where University Communications is photographing a university preschool facility or a K–12 school classroom, we confirm with that administrative entity that parents or guardians have given permission for their children to be photographed. In these cases, the administrative entity most often maintains its own photo policy records and provides permission.

University Communications does not regularly use model releases nor seek written permission for most other photography or videos created for both internal and broader university use. Written permission is not required when making photographs or videos of individuals in public settings or using the resulting photographs or videos in news and editorial contexts. However, care should be exercised in subsequent use. Make certain that the published context and the caption do not imply details about an individual that are not known to be true.

Care should also be taken to address any permission issues when taking photos or videos at non-UW facilities which host community-based events that allow opportunities for program promotion or community outreach.  Those facilities may have their own guidelines about the capture and use of photos and videos, including limitations about use of the photos or videos on websites or social media.

Whenever possible, University Communications photographers identify themselves and seek verbal permission when taking photos. They inform subjects about the potential uses of the photo, such as providing information for a story and/or creating images to more broadly describe the campus, both now and in the future. In instances when an individual asks to not be photographed, University Communications photographers comply with those wishes.

When photos are supplied by a client, permission to use them is implied, but check with the client to make sure permission has been granted by the creator and the subjects, and that appropriate photo credits are published.

Location restrictions

Photography and recording in some laboratory spaces is not permitted unless specifically authorized. Examples include areas where animals are housed or used in research as well as areas such as the Influenza Research Institute where serious pathogens are studied.  Care should also be taken to ensure there are no location restrictions in areas of the UW–Madison Health Component or at facilities hosting community-based events.

Photo library

Photographs created by staff photographers are for the news and editorial needs of the university. News media may use any of the images in the online photo library for news or editorial content, both print and electronic, related to UW–Madison. UW–Madison departments, faculty, staff, students, and alumni may use any of the images in the library for noncommercial communication pieces about UW–Madison. The images are not available for generic use unrelated to UW–Madison.

For university-related commercial uses—including textbooks, commercial products, or advertising—please contact Bryce Richter, photographer, University Communications, 608-262-7411.

Published photos must include a credit (“photographer’s name/University of Wisconsin–Madison” or “courtesy of …”). The specific credit and other details are also embedded in the digital file, which can be viewed by using Photoshop and choosing “File Info…” under the File menu.

None of the images may be modified, altered, or used in any way that changes or misrepresents the photograph’s content or overall context.

Other university image collections

Other campus sources for photographs related to UW–Madison include:

Freelance policies and rights

When hiring freelancers or using work created by freelancers, you are often commissioning the right to use that work, you are not buying ownership of the work. For freelance work that you anticipate using one time only, consider the following policies used by the editorial team of On Wisconsin, the alumni magazine.

However, if you intend to use the work in multiple instances, we strongly recommend buying all rights.  In general, the university expects to maintain the rights to any campus images, and does not support selling or giving those rights to freelancers.

  • Any editorial content for On Wisconsin — including writing, photography, or illustration — that is developed outside the work–for–hire arrangements with the magazine’s staff must be done under conditions agreed upon at the time of assignment and subsequently stated in writing prior to publication.
  • In most cases, On Wisconsin purchases “first serial rights” or “first North American serial rights”—also known as “first rights” or “first editorial rights,” which are defined as the right to publish the material for the first time in On Wisconsin and its subsequent online companion publications. All other subsequent rights remain with the writer, photographer, or illustrator.
  • On occasion, On Wisconsin may purchase “second serial (reprint) rights,” allowing the publication of material that has already appeared in another magazine or newspaper.
  • In very rare circumstances, On Wisconsin may purchase “all rights,” which prohibit the writer, photographer, or illustrator from selling the article, photo(s), or illustration(s) to another publication. Such circumstances might include, for example, an assignment to write about a subject who wishes to be profiled only in On Wisconsin or an assignment to an international freelancer who might be difficult to contact for reprints of photographs.
  • When an On Wisconsin editor assigns writing, photography, or illustration, the agreement is put in writing via a standard “rights letter.” Two copies of the rights letter are sent to the freelancer, with a request to return one signed copy for the magazine’s files.