How do stock photos work?

Stock photography is a very lucrative topic for marketers and photographers alike.

By Matic Broz, the editor-in-chief with 10+ years of experience with design, stock media and licensing, and photography.

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How to use stock photos

In the digital age, high-quality images are more important than ever. They have the power to convey messages, evoke emotions, and capture the essence of a brand. Stock photos play a significant role in meeting these visual demands for various industries, from marketing and advertising to web design and journalism.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the world of stock photos, delving into their importance in digital media and providing you with a complete understanding of how they work. By the end of this post, you’ll have a thorough grasp of the stock photo landscape, allowing you to make informed decisions when incorporating these valuable visual assets into your projects. So let’s dive in and discover the ins and outs of stock photos!

A brief overview of the stock photo industry

The stock photo industry has come a long way since its inception. In the early days of photography, stock images were often found in print catalogs, with limited selections and high costs. As technology evolved, the industry saw significant growth, driven by the increasing demand for high-quality, easily accessible visuals in the digital space.

The concept of stock photography dates back to the 1920s, when photo agencies began offering images for commercial use. H. Armstrong Roberts, an American photographer, is often credited with founding the first stock photo agency, known as RobertStock. Over time, more agencies emerged, and the industry gradually expanded.

Today, the stock photo industry is dominated by a handful of major players, including Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, Getty Images, and iStock, among others. These platforms offer millions of images, covering diverse subjects and catering to various industries. In addition to these large agencies, there are also numerous niche platforms that focus on specific genres, such as nature, travel, or food photography.

The digital revolution has made it easier than ever to access and purchase stock photos. With just a few clicks, users can search through extensive libraries, find the perfect image, and download it for immediate use. This convenience has contributed to the rapid growth of the industry, which is expected to continue as the demand for high-quality visuals remains strong in the digital era.

Types of stock photos

Stock photos come in various forms, each with its own set of usage rights and restrictions. Understanding these different types is crucial when selecting the right images for your projects. Here are the most common types of stock photos:

Royalty-free photos

Royalty-free (RF) photos are the most popular type of stock images. When you purchase a royalty-free license, you’re granted the right to use the image multiple times, across various projects, without paying additional fees. However, keep in mind that “royalty-free” does not mean the images are free; you still need to purchase the license for initial use.

Rights-managed photos

Rights-managed (RM) photos come with more specific usage rights, which are determined by factors like the purpose, duration, and location of use. These images are typically of higher quality and exclusivity, making them more expensive than royalty-free photos. When purchasing a rights-managed license, be aware that any usage outside of the agreed-upon terms will require an additional license.

Editorial photos

Editorial photos are intended for use in news articles, documentaries, educational materials, and other non-commercial projects. These images often feature newsworthy events, celebrities, or public figures and are not cleared for commercial use. Due to the restrictions on their usage, editorial photos typically don’t require model or property releases.

Public domain photos

Public domain photos are images whose copyright has expired or been forfeited, making them free to use without any restrictions. These images can be found on platforms like Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress. While public domain photos can be a valuable resource, it’s essential to verify the copyright status before using them in your projects.

Understanding licensing and usage rights

When using stock photos, it’s essential to be aware of the licensing and usage rights associated with each image. Failing to adhere to these terms can result in legal consequences, such as fines or lawsuits. Here’s an overview of the key concepts related to licensing and usage rights in stock photography:

Licensing basics

A license is an agreement between the stock photo provider and the user, granting the user permission to use the image under specific terms and conditions. The most common licenses in stock photography are royalty-free and rights-managed licenses. It’s important to carefully read and understand the terms of the license before using a stock image to avoid potential legal issues.

Common restrictions and limitations

Stock photo licenses often come with certain restrictions and limitations. These can include:

  • Usage: Some licenses may restrict the use of the image to specific mediums (print, digital, etc.) or industries.
  • Duration: Rights-managed licenses may limit the length of time the image can be used.
  • Territory: Some licenses may restrict the use of the image to certain geographical areas.
  • Exclusivity: Some rights-managed licenses offer exclusivity, preventing others from using the same image for a specific period.
  • Number of reproductions: Some licenses may limit the number of times an image can be reproduced or the number of users who can access it.

Extended licenses and additional usage rights

In some cases, you may need to purchase an extended license or additional usage rights to cover specific uses not included in the standard license terms. For example, if you plan to use a stock image on a high-volume print run or in a marketing campaign with a wide reach, you may need to acquire an extended license.

It’s crucial to understand the licensing and usage rights associated with each stock image you use, as well as any restrictions and limitations. By adhering to these terms, you can ensure that you’re using stock photos legally and responsibly.

How to find the perfect stock photo

Finding the perfect stock photo for your project can sometimes feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. With millions of images available across various platforms, it’s essential to know how to effectively navigate and filter your search results. Here are some tips and techniques to help you find the ideal stock photo:

Search techniques and tips

  • Use specific keywords: Start with targeted keywords that accurately describe the subject or concept you’re looking for. The more specific your keywords, the more relevant your search results will be.
  • Try synonyms and related terms: If your initial search doesn’t yield the desired results, experiment with synonyms or related terms to broaden your search.
  • Use quotation marks for exact phrases: If you’re looking for a specific phrase, use quotation marks to ensure that the search engine returns results containing those exact words in the given order.
  • Use Boolean operators: Use “AND” to combine keywords, “OR” to search for either term, and “NOT” to exclude certain terms from your search.

Utilizing filters and advanced search options

Most stock photo platforms offer filters and advanced search options to help you refine your search results. These can include:

  • Image orientation: Filter images based on their orientation, such as horizontal, vertical, or square.
  • Image size or resolution: Specify the minimum size or resolution you need for your project.
  • Color palette: Choose images based on their dominant colors or opt for black and white images.
  • Image type: Filter results to show only photographs, illustrations, or vector images.
  • Licensing options: Filter by royalty-free, rights-managed, or editorial licenses.

Navigating categories and collections

Many stock photo platforms curate images into categories or collections based on themes, styles, or popular topics. Exploring these can help you discover images that align with your project’s needs.

By using these search techniques and tools, you’ll be better equipped to find the perfect stock photo for your project. Remember, it’s essential to choose images that not only fit your creative vision but also adhere to the licensing and usage rights associated with the image.

Pricing models in the stock photo industry

The stock photo industry offers a variety of pricing models to accommodate different budgets and usage requirements. Understanding these pricing options can help you choose the most cost-effective solution for your needs. Here are the most common pricing models in the stock photo industry:

Subscription-based services

Subscription-based services offer access to a vast library of images for a fixed monthly or annual fee. These plans often come with a limit on the number of images that can be downloaded per month or per day. Subscriptions are ideal for users who require a high volume of images on an ongoing basis, such as marketers, designers, and content creators.

Some of the benefits of subscription-based services include:

  • Cost savings: Subscriptions often provide a lower cost per image compared to individual purchases.
  • Predictable budgeting: The fixed fee allows for easy budgeting and planning.
  • Access to a large library: Subscriptions grant access to millions of images, ensuring a wide variety of options.

Pay-as-you-go models

Pay-as-you-go models allow users to purchase individual images or credit packs without committing to a subscription. This pricing model is suitable for users who need stock photos occasionally or require a small number of images for a specific project.

Some advantages of pay-as-you-go models include:

  • Flexibility: Users can purchase images as needed without any long-term commitment.
  • No recurring fees: There are no monthly or annual fees, making it a budget-friendly option for occasional users.
  • Wide range of prices: Pay-as-you-go models often offer a variety of price points, catering to different budgets and image quality requirements.

Free stock photo websites

There are numerous websites that offer free stock photos, such as Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay. These platforms provide images under Creative Commons licenses or within the public domain, allowing users to download and use them for free. While free stock photo websites can be a valuable resource, it’s essential to carefully review the licensing terms and ensure that the images are suitable for your intended use.

Popular stock photo agencies

There are numerous stock photo agencies available, each offering its own unique library of images and pricing models. Here’s an overview of some of the most popular stock photo agencies, which cater to a wide range of industries and user needs:

1. Shutterstock

Shutterstock is one of the largest and most well-known stock photo agencies in the world. It offers a massive collection of over 350 million images, including photographs, illustrations, and vectors. Shutterstock provides both subscription-based and pay-as-you-go pricing options, catering to a variety of budgets and usage requirements.

2. Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock is a stock photo platform integrated with Adobe’s suite of creative tools, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. This seamless integration makes it an ideal choice for designers and creatives who regularly use Adobe software. Adobe Stock offers a diverse library of high-quality images and provides both subscription and pay-as-you-go pricing options.

3. Getty Images

Getty Images is renowned for its high-quality, exclusive content, making it a popular choice among professional designers and media organizations. The platform offers a mix of royalty-free and rights-managed images, as well as editorial content. Getty Images’ pricing tends to be higher than other platforms, reflecting the exclusivity and quality of its collection.

4. iStock

iStock, a subsidiary of Getty Images, offers a wide range of high-quality images at more affordable prices. The platform provides both royalty-free and rights-managed images and features a unique collection of exclusive content known as “iStock Signature.” iStock offers subscription plans as well as credit packs for pay-as-you-go purchases.

When choosing a stock photo agency, it’s essential to consider factors such as the size and quality of their image library, pricing options, and the ease of use of their platform. By evaluating these aspects, you can select the agency that best aligns with your project’s needs and budget.

Creative Commons and public domain photos

In addition to traditional stock photo agencies, there are also sources of free images that can be used for various purposes. These images typically fall under Creative Commons licenses or are part of the public domain. It’s important to understand the distinctions between these types of images and their usage restrictions.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization that provides a standardized system of licenses, allowing creators to share their work with the public under specific terms and conditions. Creative Commons licenses come in several types, each with different levels of permissions and restrictions.

Some common Creative Commons licenses include:

  • CC0: Also known as “No Rights Reserved,” this license allows the creator to relinquish all rights to their work, essentially placing it in the public domain. Images under CC0 can be used freely without any restrictions.
  • CC BY: This license allows others to use, share, and modify the work, as long as the original creator is credited.
  • CC BY-SA: Similar to CC BY, this license requires attribution to the original creator and also stipulates that any derivative works must be released under the same license.
  • CC BY-ND: This license allows for sharing and use of the work, with proper attribution, but does not permit any modifications or derivative works.

How to use public domain photos

Public domain photos are images whose copyright has expired, been forfeited, or is otherwise inapplicable. These images can be used freely without any restrictions. However, it’s essential to verify the copyright status of an image before using it to avoid potential legal issues.

Finding reputable sources for free images

When searching for Creative Commons or public domain images, it’s crucial to use reputable sources to ensure that the images are correctly licensed and free from any copyright infringements. Some popular websites for sourcing free images include:

  • Unsplash
  • Pexels
  • Pixabay
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Library of Congress

When using Creative Commons or public domain photos, it’s essential to adhere to any usage restrictions or attribution requirements specified by the license. By doing so, you can utilize these valuable image resources legally and responsibly in your projects.

The legal side of stock photos

Using stock photos in your projects can save time and resources, but it’s essential to be aware of the legal aspects involved. Ensuring that you adhere to licensing and usage rights, as well as understanding the importance of model and property releases, can help you avoid potential legal issues. Here’s an overview of the legal side of stock photos:

Licensing and usage rights

When you purchase a stock photo, you’re essentially buying a license to use the image under specific terms and conditions. It’s crucial to understand and comply with these terms, as failure to do so can result in legal consequences such as fines or lawsuits. The most common licenses in stock photography are royalty-free and rights-managed licenses. Be sure to carefully read and understand the license terms before using a stock image.

Model and property releases

When a stock photo features recognizable people or private property, it generally requires a model or property release. A release is a legal document signed by the subject (or their legal guardian) or the property owner, granting permission to use their likeness or property in the image. Stock photo agencies typically ensure that releases are in place for images in their collections, but it’s always a good idea to verify this information before using a photo.

Editorial use vs. commercial use

Stock photos can be used for various purposes, but it’s important to understand the difference between editorial and commercial use:

  • Editorial use refers to using images in news articles, documentaries, educational materials, and other non-commercial contexts. Editorial images often feature newsworthy events, celebrities, or public figures and are not cleared for commercial use.
  • Commercial use involves using images to promote or sell a product, service, or idea. For commercial use, images must have the necessary model and property releases in place.

Always ensure that you’re using stock photos in accordance with their intended purpose and any applicable restrictions.

Legal consequences of misusing stock photos

Failing to adhere to licensing terms, usage rights, or other legal requirements can result in serious consequences, such as:

  • Fines or monetary damages
  • Legal action, including lawsuits
  • Damage to your brand’s reputation

To avoid these issues, always carefully review the licensing terms and usage rights associated with any stock photos you use, and ensure that you’re using images legally and responsibly.

  • Intellectual property rights
  • Model and property releases
  • Avoiding copyright infringement

How photographers make money from stock photos

Stock photography can be a lucrative source of income for both professional and amateur photographers. By selling their images through stock photo agencies or independently, photographers can generate passive income while expanding their creative portfolio. Here’s an overview of how photographers make money from stock photos:

Selling images through stock photo agencies

Many photographers choose to sell their images through established stock photo agencies, such as Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, or Getty Images. These platforms offer several advantages, including:

  • Exposure to a large customer base
  • Marketing and promotion of images
  • Streamlined licensing and payment processes

In exchange for these benefits, stock photo agencies take a percentage of each sale as commission. Photographers typically receive royalties, which can range from a few cents to several dollars per image download, depending on factors such as the agency, image quality, and licensing type.

Selling images independently

Some photographers opt to sell their images independently through their own websites or online marketplaces. This approach allows photographers to retain more control over the pricing, licensing, and marketing of their images. However, selling images independently requires more effort in terms of promotion, payment processing, and customer support.

Creating niche or exclusive content

Photographers can increase their earnings by focusing on niche subjects or offering exclusive content that is not readily available on other platforms. By catering to specific industries or creating unique, high-quality images, photographers can differentiate themselves from the competition and command higher prices for their work.

Passive income and long-term earnings

One of the most appealing aspects of stock photography is the potential for passive income. Once a photographer uploads an image to a stock photo platform, it can continue to generate revenue for years to come, as customers download and license the image. Although individual image sales may be relatively small, a large and diverse portfolio can result in substantial long-term earnings.

To maximize their income from stock photos, photographers should focus on creating high-quality, unique images that cater to the needs of their target audience. By selling their work through reputable stock photo agencies or independently, photographers can generate a steady stream of passive income while showcasing their creative talents.

Best practices for using stock photos

While stock photos can be a valuable resource for your projects, it’s important to use them effectively and responsibly. By following these best practices, you can ensure that you’re getting the most out of your stock photos while maintaining a professional and unique brand image.

1. Choose high-quality images

Select images that are sharp, well-composed, and visually appealing. High-quality images not only look more professional but also help convey your message more effectively. Additionally, make sure to choose images with the appropriate resolution and size for your project to avoid pixelation or distortion.

2. Understand licensing and usage rights

Before using a stock photo, carefully review the licensing terms and usage rights associated with the image. Ensure that you’re using the image in accordance with these terms, and obtain any necessary permissions or additional licenses if required.

3. Consider your brand’s visual identity

Choose stock photos that align with your brand’s visual identity and complement your overall design aesthetic. Consistency in your visual elements helps reinforce your brand image and makes your content more memorable and recognizable.

4. Look for unique and authentic images

Avoid overly generic or clichéd stock photos, as they can make your content appear unoriginal and uninspired. Instead, search for unique, authentic images that effectively convey your message and resonate with your target audience.

5. Customize and personalize images when possible

Consider editing or customizing stock photos to make them more relevant to your specific project or brand. This can include adding text overlays, incorporating your brand’s color palette, or combining multiple images to create a unique composition.

6. Be mindful of diversity and inclusivity

Ensure that your selection of stock photos represents a diverse range of people, cultures, and backgrounds. By using inclusive imagery, you can create a more welcoming and relatable experience for your audience.

7. Give proper credit when required

If the stock photo license requires attribution, be sure to credit the original creator as specified in the licensing terms. Proper attribution not only complies with the license but also shows respect for the work of the photographer or artist.

8. Balance stock photos with original content

While stock photos can be a useful tool, it’s essential to balance their use with original content, such as custom illustrations, graphics, or photography. Mixing stock photos with original content helps create a more unique and engaging visual experience for your audience.

The pros and cons of using stock photos

Stock photos can be a valuable resource for various projects, but it’s important to weigh their advantages and disadvantages before deciding whether to use them. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of using stock photos:


  • Time and cost efficiency: Stock photos save time and money by providing instant access to a vast library of images. Custom photography or illustrations can be time-consuming and expensive to produce, whereas stock photos are readily available and often more affordable.
  • Wide variety of options: Stock photo platforms offer millions of images, covering a diverse range of subjects, styles, and themes. This variety ensures that you can find an image to suit almost any project or concept.
  • Professional quality: Stock photos are generally high-quality, with professional-grade lighting, composition, and post-processing. By using these images, you can elevate the visual appeal of your projects without the need for extensive photography or design skills.
  • Licensing and usage rights: Stock photo platforms handle the licensing and usage rights for their images, simplifying the process of obtaining permissions for use. This can help you avoid potential legal issues associated with copyright infringement.


  1. Lack of originality. Stock photos can sometimes be generic or overused, leading to a lack of originality in your projects. This can make it difficult to stand out from competitors or create a unique brand identity.
  2. Limited customization. Stock photos can be limiting in terms of customization and personalization. While some basic editing is possible, you may not be able to achieve the exact look or style you’re seeking for your project.
  3. Inconsistency with brand identity. Finding stock photos that align perfectly with your brand’s visual identity and messaging can be challenging. As a result, using stock photos may lead to inconsistencies in your brand’s overall aesthetic.
  4. Licensing and usage restrictions. While stock photo platforms handle licensing, the terms and usage restrictions can vary between images and platforms. It’s essential to carefully review the licensing terms and ensure that you’re using the images in accordance with their specified usage rights.

Alternatives to stock photos

While stock photos can be a convenient and cost-effective option for your projects, there are various alternatives that you can consider if you’re looking for a more personalized or unique visual approach. Here are some alternatives to stock photos:

1. Custom photography

Hiring a professional photographer or taking your own photos allows you to create unique and tailored images that perfectly match your brand identity and project requirements. Custom photography ensures originality and can showcase your products or services in a more authentic light.

2. Illustrations and graphic design

Custom illustrations or graphic design elements can add a unique and creative touch to your projects. Working with a professional illustrator or designer can help you create one-of-a-kind visuals that align with your brand’s aesthetic and messaging.

3. User-generated content

Leveraging user-generated content (UGC) from your customers or followers can provide authentic, relatable visuals for your projects. UGC can include photos, videos, or artwork shared by your audience, often showcasing your products or services in real-life scenarios. Be sure to obtain proper permissions before using user-generated content in your projects.

4. Video content

Video content can be a dynamic and engaging alternative to static images. Creating custom videos for your projects allows you to tell a more immersive story and connect with your audience on a deeper level.

5. Animated GIFs and motion graphics

Animated GIFs or motion graphics can add visual interest and movement to your projects. These elements can be used to illustrate concepts, highlight key information, or simply add a touch of playfulness to your content.

6. Creative Commons and public domain images

If you’re looking for free alternatives to stock photos, consider using images licensed under Creative Commons or in the public domain. These images can be used for various purposes, often with fewer restrictions than traditional stock photos. However, it’s essential to review the specific licensing terms and adhere to any attribution or usage requirements.

7. Typography and text-based designs

In some cases, you can replace images with creative typography or text-based designs. By using unique fonts, colors, and layouts, you can convey your message effectively while maintaining a visually appealing aesthetic.

The future of the stock photo industry

The stock photo industry has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the changing demands of businesses, creatives, and consumers. As technology and user expectations continue to advance, the industry is likely to undergo further transformations. Here are some trends and developments that could shape the future of the stock photo industry:

1. Increased demand for authentic and diverse imagery

As audiences become more discerning and aware of the visual content they consume, there is a growing demand for authentic, diverse, and inclusive imagery. Stock photo platforms will need to expand their collections to include images that represent a broader range of subjects, cultures, and backgrounds to meet this demand.

2. The rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning

AI and machine learning technologies have the potential to revolutionize the stock photo industry in various ways, such as:

  • Improved search algorithms that help users find the perfect image faster and more efficiently
  • AI-generated images that cater to specific user requirements and preferences
  • Enhanced image recognition and tagging, enabling more accurate and detailed categorization of images

3. Greater emphasis on video and multimedia content

With the increasing popularity of video content across various platforms, stock photo agencies are likely to expand their offerings to include more video assets, motion graphics, and animations. This shift will enable users to source a broader range of multimedia content from a single platform.

4. More niche and specialized collections

As the stock photo market becomes more saturated, there will be a growing need for niche and specialized collections that cater to specific industries or user needs. This trend could lead to the emergence of more specialized stock photo platforms, focusing on areas such as healthcare, technology, or environmental themes.

5. Continued growth of user-generated content

The popularity of user-generated content (UGC) is likely to continue growing, with more stock photo platforms incorporating UGC into their collections. This shift can provide a more diverse and authentic range of images, while also creating new income opportunities for amateur photographers and content creators.

6. Evolving licensing models and pricing structures

As the industry evolves, stock photo platforms may need to adapt their licensing models and pricing structures to remain competitive and cater to different user needs. This could involve offering more flexible or customizable licensing options, as well as introducing new pricing models that better align with user expectations and budgets.

The future of the stock photo industry is likely to be shaped by the ongoing advancements in technology, changing user expectations, and the need for more diverse and authentic visual content. By adapting to these trends and remaining innovative, stock photo platforms can continue to thrive and serve the evolving needs of their users.


In conclusion, the stock photo industry plays a crucial role in providing businesses, creatives, and individuals with access to a vast array of high-quality and diverse visual content. As the industry continues to evolve, it’s essential to stay informed about licensing, usage rights, and best practices when utilizing stock photos in your projects. By understanding the various aspects of the stock photo world, you can make more informed decisions when selecting images and ensure that your visual content remains engaging, authentic, and impactful.

To stay ahead in this ever-changing industry, don’t forget to explore the latest trends, adapt to new technologies, and consider alternative sources of visual content when appropriate. The future of the stock photo industry is full of exciting possibilities, and embracing these changes will enable you to create more dynamic and captivating content for your audience.

Ready to dive into the world of stock photos? Start exploring different platforms, compare their offerings, and find the perfect images to elevate your projects today. Your audience will appreciate the effort you put into creating visually engaging and relevant content. So, take the plunge and begin transforming your projects with the power of stock photography!


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