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What are Stock Photos?

Matic BrozUpdated May 24, 2022

A stock photo is a digital image available for free or bought for use in digital or printed media. You can find them on stock image sites that act as mediators between the photographer and the customer. When you download photos, you get a license, which allows you to use them within certain terms.

But keep in mind that although you pay for the photo, you don’t become its rightful owner. By paying the fee, you merely get the right (license) to use the image.

What are stock photo sites?

Stock photo sites, also known as stock photo agencies, are online repositories of stock content, including stock photos, vectors, illustrations, videos, and music. Their role is connecting an artist to a customer and handling the payment, licensing, and displaying of the photo. This way, stock photographers generate more sales and the customers find large selections of stock photos.

Some of the best 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.

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

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 through an online process.

What are stock photo licenses?

Since you’re using someone else’s property, you must get permission to use images (called a “license”). It’s a violation of copyright law if you use an image without first obtaining a license, or if you use it outside the scope of the license. We divide stock photo licenses into three types based on rights, price, and legal compensation.

Types of licenses

Public Domain (PD) refers to stock photos protected by copyright, but where the rights have been waived. This means that the photo may be used for personal or commercial purposes without crediting the author or paying royalties. Such stock photos are in the public domain, meaning that they’re no longer protected by copyright. Therefore, the owner cannot invoke copyright and you can use them freely for any purpose.

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 that allows a one-time use of the photo. 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.

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

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that allows various licenses to be issued with works licensed under it. The license specifies how users may reuse or distribute the work. One of the most common uses for this type of license is in Creative Commons music, where fans can download directly from verified artists rather than having intermediaries use their content without permission. The public domain, on the other hand, means that no one owns exclusive rights to any content or idea that has had its intellectual property rights removed. This gives people more freedom when they want to use something because specific legalities will not impede them in any way if they end up bringing it into use in some form.

Why do you need stock photos?

Stock photos are increasingly being used on websites, e-mails, social media posts, and even videos. They are an excellent resource for photographers, bloggers, businesses, and anyone else looking to create eye-catching visuals on a budget. They are a quick and simple way to create visuals for your blog, emails, social media posts, and videos. They’re also a great place to get creative ideas.

Stock photos are essential if you’re a blogger, photographer, or run a business that requires images. If you’re a blogger or a photographer, you know how difficult and frustrating it can be to find a high-quality image that represents your content. If you’re a blogger, you’ve probably had to choose between using an image that doesn’t quite fit your content (and making you look like a spammer) and using your own photo (and looking like an amateur).

Stock photos solve this problem. When you buy stock photos, you own the rights to use them, but you do not own them. As a photographer, you can create a stock photo portfolio and sell your photos to other people and businesses.

How to use stock photos?

Everyone can benefit from stock photos. If you are a blogger, you can use royalty-free images to decorate your blog posts. If you are a graphic designer, you can use stock photos to provide a nicer looking design for your clients. If you are a business, you can use stock photos for a lot of things. You can use stock photos to promote a product or service. You can use stock photos to simply decorate a website or product. And you can use stock photos to fill up a portfolio.

Why use stock photos?

There are numerous reasons why you should buy stock photography. For starters, stock photos are a great way to spice up your website. According to research, when customers see a variety of products, they are more likely to buy. Second, stock photos can help you increase the credibility of your website. People believe that a website using stock photos is more professional than one that does not. Finally, stock photos are inexpensive. You can use a stock photo instead of hiring a model and a photographer for a fraction of the price. Finally, stock photos are an excellent substitute for taking your own photographs. Instead of rushing to create your own photos, you can take your time and choose photos that you think will work best.

To summarize: stock photos are a great way for everyone to quickly and cost-efficiently get any photo they want.

Examples of what are stock images used for:


  • Presentations
  • Social media, such as photos on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter
  • Branding material
  • Fair displays and trade booths


  • Billboards
  • Commercials
  • Printed materials
  • Films and videos
  • Catalogues
  • Brochures
  • Product packaging
  • Posters
  • Facebook ad


  • Web design
  • Graphic design
  • Digital wallpapers
  • Home decoration
  • Postcards

Entertainment and Culture:

  • Magazines, Newspaper and newsletters
  • Blogs and online websites
  • Book and eBook covers
  • Book and eBook illustrations
  • Videos

Personal use

  • Social media 
  • Postcards and invitations
  • Prints
  • Art
  • Posters

There’s no limit to what stock photos can be used for; after all, they are photos.

When you purchase stock photos, they come with some sort of license that has its restrictions. You should, and I cannot emphasize this enough, always know how you are allowed to use the purchased stock photos; otherwise, you might break laws and run into legal troubles.

I want to help you avoid such scenarios, so let’s talk about stock photo licenses.

How to buy stock photos?

There are two main ways to buy stock images: subscription plans and on-demand. In short, subscriptions are cheaper and the on-demand option is more flexible; which you choose, depends on your needs and budget.

Let’s compare subscription plans and on-demand:

Subscription plans

Subscriptions give you a certain amount of stock image (videos, music, and audio too) downloads each month. In exchange, you pay a fee each month, regardless of how many images you download.

Subscription plans come in different sizes, meaning the number of downloads. Generally, the larger the plan, the more you pay. However, stock photo websites reward buying large plans by giving you a better price per download.

Moreover, subscriptions come with monthly or annual commitments. The key difference is that you can cancel monthly plans at any time, but they cost more. In contrast, annual plans are a lot cheaper, but you can cancel after one year.

In conclusion, subscriptions are the best option for you if you need images consistently.


On-demand plans have no recurring fees; you pay once and get downloads. If you want more, you pay again.

Compared to subscription plans, on-demand stock photos are more costly, but you’re not bound to any contract. Therefore, on-demand is the best option for you when you have inconsistent image needs.

Model Release for commercial stock photos

Stock photos that include people must have a signed legal permit from people who appear in them. It must express their agreement to the stock image being sold and shared for commercial purposes. Such a legal document is called “model release”.

The same rule applies to private and intellectual properties, including real estate, trademark logos, product designs, and items. Photos depicting these must also have a permit signed by the owner of the property, that expresses their consent of their property being depicted and used for commercial purposes. Such a legal document is called “property release”.

Whenever you’re either selling or buying stock photos, you must make sure that you’re either providing these documents or that the stock photo has them; otherwise, you could run into serious legal troubles.

Editorial stock photos

Sometimes the photos don’t have a model or a property release. Whenever this happens, the photos cannot be sold for commercial purposes, but they can be used for Editorial purposes only.

Editorial use permits you to use the stock photo for non-profitable projects, such as entertainment, public interest topic, or news.

The most widely known Editorial photos are those of celebrities or other famous people, big crowds, such as parades and concerts, or other events with a large number of participants. These photos are most often taken by news reporters, hired photographers, and paparazzi.

To summarize: You can use Commercial images for both editorial and commercial projects, but you can use Editorial images for editorial purposes only.

History of stock photos

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).

The Best Stock Photo Sites

1. Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock is the best stock photo agency for designers. It’s simple to use, allowing users to buy only what they need and test the images before committing to a purchase. In addition, Adobe Stock pricing is straightforward. You can buy stock photos with subscription plans or on-demand with credits. For your illustrations, you can also choose among millions of vector images.

2. Shutterstock

Shutterstock is the largest stock agency, with over 350 million images and 100,000 added every day. These figures ensure an infinite variety of photos that you can always use for your projects. Shutterstock ensures the quality of all photo resolutions and file formats, including high-resolution and vector options for designers and 4K video clips, thanks to its strict technical standards for photos.

3. GettyImages

Getty Images is a premium stock photo site with a long history of offering first-rate photos for commercial use, including exclusive images from around the world. It sells images under a rights-managed licence that you can tailor to your specific requirements. However, it is much more expensive than a royalty-free licence, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

4. iStock

Getty Images owns and operates iStock, a microstock photography website. It was founded in the early 2000s and now has over 16 million images from over 500,000 photographers. If you need high-quality stock photos, illustrations, or video footage for your design projects, iStock may be the place to go!

5. Unsplash

Unsplash is one of my favourite free stock photography websites. Crew founded it five years ago as a Tumblr blog that provided free images. It quickly became one of the most popular free stock photo sites, with a library of over 1.5 million images from contributors. You can use all of their stock imagery for free, for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Furthermore, you are not required to seek permission or provide credit.

Frequently asked questions

What does stock photo mean?

Stock photography refers to the collection of images that can be licenced for use in a variety of projects. Stock photography is an excellent choice for businesses and individuals seeking an artistic way to convey their message. From abstract imagery to photos of humans, animals, and food, there is a wide range of categories available for personal and professional use. Stock photography can give a polished look to a product or service without a large upfront cost for businesses or individuals with a limited marketing budget.

What do stock photos do?

Stock photos can be a valuable asset to any business, regardless of the type of work you do. From social media posts to blog posts and other content, stock photos can be a great way to capture your audience’s attention and keep them interested in your company and what you’re promoting.

What makes an image a stock image?

Stock photos are images that already exist but can be licenced. 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.


I believe you are sick of me repeating how important the proper licensing and abiding by the rules is by now, but it is crucial if you want a successful business that won’t get sued.

There are a lot of stock photo sites that sell photos for very reasonable prices. Check my full list of stock photo sites here.

I hope this article was helpful to you. If I failed to make any part of it clear, let me know in the comments or via email.

I always try my best to provide accurate and helpful information.

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About the author

Matic Broz profile image

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 and PetaPixel. In his free time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and petting random dogs. Read more

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