What are Stock Photos? And How to Use Them in 2023

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Are you struggling to find the right stock photos for your marketing materials? This blog post will help you understand the different types of stock photos and provide tips on selecting and using them.

As experts in visual content marketing, we understand the challenges of finding high-quality, affordable stock photos that fit your brand. By the end of this article, you will have the knowledge and confidence to use stock photos in a way that resonates with your audience and enhances your marketing efforts.

What are Stock Photos?

Stock photos are digital images typically licensed for a fee to individuals or organizations for use on websites, marketing materials, social media, book covers, and more. By purchasing a license, you are granted the right to use the stock photo within the terms specified in the license. However, it’s important to note that purchasing a license does not make you the legal owner of the image.

Example of a generic stock photo:

Example of a stock photo
An example of a generic stock photo found under the search term “office”.

Are stock photos even effective?

While there may be a negative stigma surrounding stock photos, they remain a popular and widely-used source of visual content because they are affordable, convenient, and beautiful when used intelligently.

However, there are times when using stock photos is not appropriate. For example, a study by MarketingExperiments showed that using a professional shot of the CEO saw a 35% increase in conversion as opposed to using a generic stock photo of a smiling lady.

Stock photo statistics

Here are a few well-known image statistics, which include stock photos:

  • The human brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than textual information.
  • Articles with visual elements receive 37% more engagement on average.
  • Press releases with photos receive 14% more views compared to those without photos.
  • 67% of online shoppers consider high-quality photographs as “very important” in their purchase decision.

What are stock photo sites?

Stock photo sites, also known as stock photo agencies, are online libraries that offer stock content such as photos, vectors, illustrations, videos, and music. These sites connect photographers, who may range from amateurs to professionals, with customers and handle payment, licensing, and display of the photos. This allows photographers to increase sales and customers to access a wide selection of stock photos.

Some popular stock photo sites include Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, and Depositphotos. These websites contain collections of millions of images, with new additions made every month.

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

Stock photos are created by photographers who allow others to use them and are typically cataloged and made available by a stock image agency. The photographer retains ownership of the images and sets the parameters for their usage.

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.

  • Advertising and Marketing: Using stock photos in your marketing and advertising campaigns allows you to visually represent your message without investing in a full photo shoot. You can also use stock photos to create billboards, commercials, printed materials, and digital ads. With a variety of subjects and styles available, it’s simple to find the perfect stock photos that align with your brand and marketing objectives.
  • Websites & blogs: As we covered earlier in statistics, a website can look more professional and more memorable by using stock photos in several website areas, such as headers, featured images, or as content. They can easily fit into page layouts and act as text overlays because of their versatility. Adding more visual content to the website or blog with stock photos is a great alternative to original images. Of course, you should use them sparingly, as a page can quickly become too “stocky”. In addition, refrain from using very common images in headers.
  • Social media: Stock photos are a common choice for social media and blog sites due to their accessibility and effectiveness in conveying a message. They can be used for promotions as visuals and even in ads and sponsored posts. Their versatility makes them a useful tool for enhancing the visual appeal of social media content.
  • Commercial projects & print media: Although you should be very careful in this field, you can also use stock photos for commercial projects, including packaging, posters, and trade booth displays. We also use them for product launches or trade show displays. However, remember to buy an extended royalty-free license instead of the standard one when you use images in large campaigns or where the image represents the major value.
  • Graphic design: Graphic designers are always looking for a good source of high-quality images since their contractors often have low budgets, so they can’t use custom photos. Stock photos are often a great solution, especially once you find a reliable provider. Speaking of which, we usually recommend Adobe Stock to professional designers, Canva to amateur designers, and Envato Elements to all kinds of developers.
  • Video & animation: In the world of video and animation, stock photos play a crucial role in adding depth and realism to the final product. Since they do not carry the main value, we usually use them as a B-roll (the side footage). By using stock photos as a supplement to live-action footage, creators can save time and money while still achieving a high level of visual quality. For example. they are most commonly used for a film, TV show, video game, or any other type of video or animation project.
  • Corporate Presentations & events: Stock photos are often used for corporate presentations or events, offering businesses a creative and powerful way to convey their message while engaging their audience. With access to high-quality images that illustrate a point, provide a backdrop, or simply add visual interest to the presentation, stock photos truly make an impact.
  • Education & training: Educational and training materials are an excellent place to use stock photos. Using these images makes it possible to provide students and employees with a visual reference for key concepts and make more engaging presentations. Using stock photos, you can represent ideas or concepts that would otherwise be impossible to photograph. For example, we love using stock photos to show landmarks, foreign places, and other difficult-to-access areas.

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, eBook covers and illustrations, and videos.
  • Personal use: Social media, postcards and invitations, prints, art, posters.

Types of stock photography

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


Microstock is a type of low-priced and inclusive stock photography. This model competes with traditional agencies by offering images at lower prices but larger quantities, typically costing around $0.20-$10 per image. Microstock photography is a relatively new option offered by agencies.


Macrostock refers to high-priced and exclusive stock photography, also known as traditional stock photography. These images can cost several thousand dollars.


Midstock is stock photography priced between microstock and macrostock and is often used online.

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)

2. Credits

Many stock photo websites use a credit system in which you purchase a certain number of credits in advance and then use those credits to buy photos. This can be a cost-effective option if you plan on purchasing multiple photos. To purchase credits, locate the desired photo and click “Buy” or “Add to Cart”. You will be prompted to create an account and pay for the credits using 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 subscribe to a stock photo agency that will provide you with a certain number of photos each month for a fee. This can be a good choice if you plan on using multiple photos regularly, as it is often more affordable than purchasing credits. To sign up, locate the desired photo and click “Subscribe.” You will be prompted to create an account and pay for the subscription using 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. Therefore, annual commitments are the most cost-efficient.

4. Unlimited downloads

Some stock photo websites offer unlimited downloads for a monthly fee, which is a convenient option if you anticipate using many photos regularly. However, we have found that many stock photo sites with unlimited downloads tend to offer lower-quality images. Two wonderful exceptions are Envato Elements and 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 legal agreement between the customer, photographer, and stock photo agency outlining the responsibilities of each party. When you pay for a stock photo, you do not gain ownership of the image. Instead, you purchase a license that grants you the right to use someone else’s photo.

Types of licenses

We have previously covered stock photo licenses, so we’ll give you a quick rundown here. 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, a new RM license must be purchased for each additional use of the photo. RF licenses can be exclusive or non-exclusive and are often restricted to a certain location, period, and use.
  • Editorial stock photos are photos 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 must be signed when a stock image depicts recognizable objects (landmarks, logos) or people.

  • A model release is a document that permits you 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 permits you 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 license that allows people to use or distribute work without going 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 acquired by Getty Images in 2005.
  • 1936: Otto Bettmann, a German curator, founded one of the earliest traditional stock agencies called the Bettmann Archive. The company delivered photos within 24 hours to magazines. His initial collection contained 15,000 images 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 moved from physical archives to servers and started being called “stock agencies”. The keywording system became 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 was founded and introduced a monthly subscription fee payment model.
  • 2004: Dreamstime was founded.
  • 2005: fotoLibra and Can Stock Photo opened to the public.
  • 2006: Getty Images acquired iStockphoto.
  • 2013: The co-founders of iStockphoto founded Stocsky United.
  • March 2013: Depositphotos launched Clashot.
  • December 11, 2014: Fotolia was 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 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.

What is stock photography?

Stock photography refers to a collection of photos available for licensing for various purposes, such as blog posts or graphic design projects. Many designers and clients opt for stock photography agencies rather than hiring photographers directly due to cost savings. Publishers can purchase stock photos on either an exclusive or non-exclusive basis.

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    About your guide

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    Matic Broz

    Matic Broz is a multifaceted creative professional, with experience as a photographer, graphic designer, and business owner. He has a decade of experience in helping other creatives improve their craft and start their own businesses. His writing and research have been featured in notable publications such as The Guardian, PetaPixel, and USA Today. Additionally, his scientific research has been recognized with a cover feature in the prestigious MDPI-owned journal. In his leisure time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and spending time with dogs. Read more

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