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What are Stock Photos? A Complete Guide to How Stock Photos Work

What Are Stock Photos thumbnail

Stock photography is the supply of visual content for digital use, yet few web users know how it works. If you’re looking to dive deeper into what are stock photos and how to most effectively use them to enhance the visual aspect of your marketing, website, or other content, this article’s for you. 

What are Stock Photos?

Stock photos are digital images that are typically licensed for a fee to individuals or organizations for use on websites, marketing, packaging, social media, book covers, and more. Purchasing the license gives you the right to use the stock photo within the terms of the license, but does not make you its legal owner.

Although there is a stigma around using stock photos, they remain a widely used resource of visual content because they are very affordable, convenient, and beautiful, when used intelligently.

The following image is an example of a generic stock photo:

Example of a stock photo
An example of a classic stock photo

When hearing about stock photos, most people first think of generic and staged photographs of people in an office or at a dentist’s, like the one above. However, there is more to stock photography.

What are stock photos used for?

Stock photos can be used for various purposes, including marketing, advertising, personal projects, commercial projects, and blogs. They’re also quick and easy to edit, making them a good choice for graphic designers and businesses. Plus, stock photos offer a wide range of options, so it’s easy to find the right photo for any project.

Why are stock photos important?

Stock photos are the cheapest and most convenient way to get visual content. They provide an easy way for businesses and individuals to get high-quality visuals without hiring an expensive professional photographer.

Stock photos are important because they help ensure your website or blog looks professional and polished. Using stock photos can make a big difference in how visitors perceive your site.

How to use stock photos?

In general, stock photography can be useful for everyone. Bloggers can use royalty-free images to enhance the aesthetics of their blog posts. As a graphic designer, stock photos can help you create better designs for your clients.

You can use stock photos to promote a product or service, beautify your website, and even pad your portfolio if you’re in that field.

  • Business: Presentations, social media, such as photos on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter, branding material, fair displays, and trade booths.
  • Promotional: Billboards, commercials, printed materials, films and videos, catalogs, brochures, product packaging, posters, and Facebook ads.
  • Design: Web design, graphic design, digital wallpapers, home decoration, postcards.
  • Entertainment and Culture: Magazines, newspapers, newsletters, blogs and online, websites, books, and eBook covers and illustrations, and videos.
  • Personal use: Social media, postcards and invitations, prints, art, posters.

What is stock photography?

Stock photography is the supply of photos that can be licensed for specific uses, such as blog images or graphic design.

Most designers and clients prefer stock photography agencies over photographers to save costs. Publishers can buy photos on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis.

Types of stock photography

There are three established models of stock photography: macrostock, midstock, and microstock.

  • Macrostock is high-priced and exclusive stock photography, also known as traditional stock photography. These images cost several thousand dollars.
  • Midstock is stock photography priced between microstock and macrostock and is often used online.
  • Microstock is low-priced and inclusive stock photography. Competing with traditional agencies, microstock photography is a relatively new model of stock photography offered by agencies that sell images at lower prices but in larger quantities, usually costing around $0.30-$1 per image.

What are stock photo sites?

Stock photo sites, also known as stock photo agencies, are online libraries of stock content, including stock photos, vectors, illustrations, videos, and music.

Their role is to connect an artist to a customer and handle the photo’s payment, licensing, and display. This way, stock photographers generate more sales, and customers find a large selection of stock photos.

Shutterstock stock photo collection
Shutterstock’s collection of stock photos (Credit: Shutterstock)

Some of the most popular stock photo sites include Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, iStock, Depositphotos, and Getty Images. These websites maintain collections of hundreds of millions of images, with more than a million new images added monthly.

Who are stock photographers?

A stock photographer is someone who takes photos of a particular subject and then licenses them for use in a variety of contexts.

Professional stock photographers typically have their images contractually housed with one or more stock agencies, while amateur photographers may make their photos available online.

How to get stock photos?

There are two types of stock photos: free and paid. As the name suggests, you can get the free stock photos without paying for them, while the paid stock photos cost from a few cents up to hundreds of dollars.

You can get free stock photos at free stock photo sites, free trials, and free collections of paid stock photo sites.

There are four ways to buy stock images: single purchases, subscription plans, unlimited downloads, and image packs or credits.

1. Single purchase

The easiest but most expensive method is to buy each stock photo individually. Find the photo you want on the stock photo website and click the “Buy” or “Add to Cart” button.

You’ll be prompted to create an account and pay for the photo with a credit card or PayPal. Once the purchase is complete, you can download the photo.

The following image shows you how you can buy a single photo directly from the library:

Buying a single photo at Adobe Stock
Buying a single photo at Adobe Stock (Credit: Adobe Stock)

As you can see, you can also use a free trial or get an Extended license.

2. Credits

Many stock photo websites use a credit system where you buy a certain number of credits up front and then use those credits to purchase photos. This can be a cost-effective option if you want to buy multiple photos.

To buy credits, find the photo you want to buy and click “Buy” or “Add to Cart”. You’ll be prompted to create an account and pay for the credits with a credit card or PayPal. Once the purchase is complete, you can download the photo.

Buying credits at Adobe Stock
Buying credits at Adobe Stock

After you buy the credits, you may use them to download any piece of content. Various assets cost a different number of credits.

3. Subscription

Another option is to sign up with a stock photo agency that will provide you with a certain number of monthly photos for a fee. This can be a good option if you plan to use multiple photos regularly because it’s cheaper than credits.

To sign up, find the photo you want to purchase and click “Subscribe.” You’ll be prompted to create an account and pay for the subscription with a credit card or PayPal. Once the purchase is complete, you can download the photo.

Buying subscriptions at Adobe Stock
Buying subscriptions at Adobe Stock

You can choose between various sizes and durations of subscriptions. Usually, the larger and the longer the plan, the cheaper it is. Therefore, annual commitments are the most cost-efficient.

4. Unlimited downloads

Some stock photo websites offer unlimited downloads for a monthly fee. This can be a good option if you plan to use a lot of photos regularly.

However, we found that most stock photo sites with unlimited downloads are low-quality. There’s no exception: Canva.

Getting unlimited downloads at Canva
Getting unlimited downloads at Canva

To sign up for unlimited downloads, find the photo you want to purchase and click the “Unlimited Downloads” button. You’ll be prompted to create an account and pay for the unlimited downloads subscription with a credit card or PayPal.

Once the purchase is complete, you can download photos without any limit. However, there’s often a limit of 50 to 100 downloads per day to avoid scraping.

How much do stock photos cost?

The cost of stock photos varies between stock photo websites and depends on the license type. The lowest price for a stock photo is $0.14 at CanStockPhoto, while the average price is $0.26. Stock photos can cost hundreds or up to $4,444 at Pond5.

The following table compares the minimum, and maximum prices between stock photos ordered ascending based on the minimum price.

Stock photo siteMinimum image priceMaximum image price
Adobe Stock$0.26$79.99
Offset by Shutterstock$211.90$349.00

What are stock photo licenses?

A stock photo license is a written agreement between the customer, photographer, and the stock photo agency that describes the liabilities of each party.

You don’t become its legal owner when you pay for a stock photo. Instead, you pay for a stock photo license, which gives you the right to use someone else’s photo for your purposes.

Types of licenses

Based on the type of copyright of the photo and the required use, we distinguish four basic licenses:

  • Public Domain (PD) stock photo license is a license that allows photos to be used for any purpose, without the need to pay royalties or fees. This license is often used for photos in the public domain, which means they are not subject to copyright.
  • Royalty-free (RF) is a type of image license offered by stock photo sites in which you pay once to get the right to use the image perpetually without having to pay for subsequent uses. RF images are usually not exclusive unless additional features are added through the expiration date of your license or freeze date restriction options, also known as “owning” rights.
  • Rights-managed (RM) refers to a copyright license allowing a one-time photo use. Compared to an RF license, for each additional use of the photo, a new RM license needs to be purchased. RF licenses can be exclusive or non-exclusive and are often restricted to a certain location, time period, and use.
  • Editorial stock photos are those that do not have a valid model or property release. Therefore, they may not be used for commercial purposes but only for education.

Stock photo releases

A stock photo release needs to be signed when a stock image depicts recognizable objects (landmarks, logos) or people.

  • A model release is a document that gives you permission to use a photo depicting a person. Stock photos typically require a model release from the person in the photo.
  • A property release is a document that gives you permission to use a specific location or real estate in your photos. Stock photos typically require a property release from the owner of the location.

What’s the difference between Public Domain and Creative Commons?

Essentially, Creative Commons is a type of license that allows people to use or distribute work without having to go through the normal channels. On the other hand, the public domain is a type of content or idea that is not owned by anyone and can be used freely by anyone.

The history of stock photography

  • 1920: H. Armstrong Roberts acquires signed model releases of the people photographed in “Group in Front of Tri-Motor Airplane”, allowing the photograph to be used commercially.
  • 1920: H Armstrong Roberts founds the first major stock photography library, called Retrofile. Retrofile was in 2005 acquired by Getty Images.
  • 1936: Otto Bettmann, a German curator founds one of the earliest traditional stock agencies, and calls it the Bettmann Archive. The company delivered photos within 24 hours to magazines. His initial collection contained 15,000 images which he brought from Germany when he emigrated to the US.
  • 1930s: Tony Stone licenses his collection of 20,000 images of mountain scenes to popular chocolate advertisers.
  • 1945: Sir Edward Hulton sets up the Hulton Press Library and hires Charles Gibbs-Smith using keywords and classification to organize photos. Supposedly, this was the first indexing system for pictures.
  • 1980s: Stock photography becomes a lot more widespread.
  • mid-1990s: Stock libraries move from physical archives to servers, and start being called “stock agencies”. The keywording system has become even more popular.
  • 1991: Photodisc starts licensing images as royalty-free, allowing the buyers to use the images as often as they liked without paying further fees.
  • May 2000: iStockphoto is founded as a free stock image website.
  • 2001: iStockphoto transitions to a micropayment model.
  • 2003: Shutterstock is founded and introduces a monthly subscription fee payment model.
  • 2004: Dreamstime is founded.
  • 2005: fotoLibra and Can Stock Photo open to the public.
  • 2006: Getty Images acquires iStockphoto.
  • 2013: The co-founders of iStockphoto found Stocsky United.
  • March 2013: Depositphotos launches Clashot.
  • December 11, 2014: Fotolia is acquired by Adobe.

Stock photography started in the early 1920s. Back then, stock photos were a side-product of commercial photo shoots. Hence, they offered an affordable alternative to hiring a photographer. By the 1980s, cameras became widely accessible, even among amateurs, so stock photography exponentially grew. Photographers started earning by taking photos solely for stock photo agencies.

As the industry matured and the internet was born, stock photo agencies moved their businesses online. These are now known as stock photo websites (or sites).

Frequently asked questions about what are stock images

What does the stock photo mean?

A stock photo is a professional photographer available for purchase and use by anyone. Businesses and individuals who need high-quality images for their websites, brochures, and other marketing materials often use stock photos.

What do stock photos do?

Stock photos provide images that can be used for various purposes, such as in advertisements, blogs, and websites. Most stock photos are taken by professional photographers and then sold to companies or individuals who can use them for their purposes.

What makes an image a stock image?

Stock photos are images that already exist but can be licensed. They are frequently used for blog post images, advertisements, social media channels, and even books.

Should I use stock photos?

Yes, stock photos are an amazing way to save money while getting the same high-quality photos as your competition. But make sure you pick only the best photos.


About your guide

Matic Broz profile image
Matic Broz

Matic Broz is a photographer, graphic designer, and stock photographer. For over ten years he's been helping photographers improve their photos and graphic designers find the best images for their designs. His work has been featured by Lifewire, Skylum, and PetaPixel. In his free time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and petting random dogs. Read more

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