Best Stock Photo License: 4 Top Stock Photo Sites Compared

Finding the best stock photo license can seem an impossible task when you see how big the stock photography industry is and all the options out there. Especially when at first glance all licenses appear the same. 

Which license covers all your personal and commercial projects? Which one is ideal for commercial purposes? Which one offers the best cost-benefit relation for your budget?

To answer all those questions and make it easier to buy stock photos, today we sat down and compared the standard and extended licenses at the best stock photo sites. 

And here they are, the best stock photo licenses compared!

TL;DR: The Best Stock Photo Licenses for Each Common Use Case

If you don't have time to read our whole analysis just now, don't worry. Here is a short and sweet list of which agency (and license) to choose for your intended use.

The Best Stock Photo License: Stock Photo Agencies Rundown

Each stock photo agency has its own custom license but to the untrained eye, they may all look the same. The differences are in the fine print. So it's important to compare and highlight the differences. However, the stock photo market is big, and comparing all the stock photo sites would take forever.

Our experts have selected four stock photo sites to compare in terms of licensing, that we feel encompass the core stock photo licensing terms everyone should know. We picked these stock photo websites because they are the most popular choices amongst graphic designers and creatives (not in vain they lead our list of the best stock photo sites) and for good reasons:

  • They all work with Royalty Free licenses – When it comes to stock photos, royalty free images are the most flexible and easier to understand of all.  
  • They have great prices – These stock photo sites offer the cheapest stock photo subscriptions in the market. You can buy high quality photos at a bargain price at any of them.
  • They provide legal guarantees – A key advantage of using paid stock photo sites is that they review all their content not only for image quality but also for legal validity, making them safe for commercial use.
  • They’re trustworthy companies – A license isn't all that valuable if the company that issued it isn't serious. Compared to other stock photo sites, the selected ones have an impeccable reputation.

This clearly contrasts with other stock photo websites and licenses that crowd the web, namely free stock photo websites. While some are more reliable than others –and hence they are amongst the best free stock photo sites– almost every free stock photo site uses generic, Creative Commons licenses that aren’t vetted nor policed, resulting in legally ambiguous images and potential legal trouble for those who use them. Public domain images are the slightly less murky ones of all free stock photos but are still far from ideal for commercial use. Paid images are the way to go if you want a safe and comprehensive license.

Not only the license agreements of these agencies are the most used, but they also help set an industry standard for image licenses. If you know and understand how licensing works at these sites, you have a good idea of how it works at pretty much every other relevant provider. Furthermore, all these offer both Standard and Extended licenses for all their images.

The chosen ones to buy cheap stock photos with a great license are: 

Stock Photo Secrets Shop – The Budget-Friendliest homepage

The Stock Photo Secrets Shop is our very own stock image service, and we’re very proud of it. It focuses on small and medium-sized businesses, so all the prices and buying options for our more than 7 million high quality stock photos are affordable and straightforward. We offer exclusive benefits and first-class customer support. If you're a small business owner, you'll be wise to buy images from us.

Our royalty free licenses are flexible and cover a wide array of possible commercial uses. 

Shutterstock – The One with the Huge Library homepage

Shutterstock is one of the big names in the industry and a staple amongst the best stock photo websites. The inventor of the stock photo subscription has been known for years for their titanic image library: 406+ million royalty free images and counting! Their pictures are highly commercial and as varied as you can imagine with such numbers, so it's the perfect place to find stock photos on every possible topic.

Their license contracts mark a standard in the space, and they’re very encompassing.

iStock – The Highly Curated Option homepage

iStock is considered the very first microstock agency (the first site to sell royalty-free photos under a micropayment model). Under Getty Images' parentage for years, they’re popular thanks to their dedicated curated library that splits between budget photos and exclusive, high-end pictures. All of them are great stock images, though, so you're sure to find what you need.

Their standard license is complete, and they have an interesting model for extended licenses with several stackable options.

Adobe Stock – The Trendiest One homepage

Adobe Stock is, you guessed, a stock photo service by Adobe. Built on the base of the old Fotolia agency, its catalog now has millions of very fresh and trendy images, perfect for the needs of the professional creatives that use Adobe Creative Cloud – and this service seamlessly integrates into its apps. It's the ideal choice if you're a graphic designer who enjoys choosing stock photos right on the designing layout.

The Adobe Stock license agreement is ideal for most designers’ needs. 

Quick note: If you used a photo and are now doubting its legal status, or if you were approached by someone claiming you're using their image without permission, you can explore the option of acquiring a post-license from them to both fairly compensate them for their work, and keep the image to use legally.
But please, never use an image from the web without paying for its license, or otherwise verifying you are authorized to use it for free.

Standard License Comparison

As the term indicates, the Standard Royalty Free License is the standard and default license available at these stock photo agencies. 

Each agency has its contract and terms –which we are about to see– but in general lines, the Standard license for a royalty free image gives the buyer a battery of usage rights for an unlimited time, an unlimited number of designs or projects, and without any geographical limitations. Equally relevant, you only pay for this license once. You never have to pay royalties for the continued use, hence the “royalty free” denomination. 

As we mentioned earlier, and now you get to see in the table below, the Standard license agreements across these agencies share many similarities. But here are the key differences: 

Differences in Standard Licenses 

  • Stock Photo Secrets’ Print Run Limit: Our shop’s maximum number of copies with a Standard license is 300,000 – a bit less than every other agency’s. However, in our extensive experience, we believe it is more than enough to cover most marketing and publication needs. However, if you think you need more than 300,000 copies and less than 500,000, you may be better off with a different choice. 
  • Shutterstock’s Video Streaming, Broadcast, and Film Restriction – This site establishes a limit for using images on YouTube videos (or similar platforms), on TV broadcasts, or on theatrical films, by restricting it to projects with a total budget of less than $10,000. This is very unusual; no other agency cares about the project budget at all, and it’s also complicated to abide by and police. It’s a small “odd” point in an otherwise very complete license, though. -However, it makes Shutterstock not the ideal match if you’re going to be using images in content for streaming platforms, TV, or film. For roughly the same price, at other agencies, you don’t have to worry about calculating and policing your budget. 
  • iStock’s Straightforward License – iStock has one of the most uncomplicated Standard licenses, with a simple print run limit of 500,000 copies and not much more restrictions. This is a good choice if you want to not overthink before using your images. 
  • Adobe Stock’s Digital Viewers Cap – While every other agency covers unlimited digital reproductions/views for websites and electronic publications, Adobe Stock limits it to 500,000 views. They also restrict the reproductions on YouTube videos, streaming, TV, and film, only they again cap it at 500,000 viewers, instead of focusing on the budget size as Shutterstock does. Adobe Stock’s digital views restriction is something to keep in mind before using their images on the web because it’s often difficult to predict how many views the content will have, not to mention most users’ goal is to receive as many viewers as possible, not to keep it under a cap. 

Standard License Usage Rights at Top Stock Photo Agencies Side by Side

Let's have an in-depth look at how the Standard licenses compare to one another:

Usage Right Stock Photo Secrets Shop Shutterstock iStock Adobe Stock
Digital Websites Unlimited* Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Electronic publications Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited For <500,000 views
Social media Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
YouTube & video streaming Unlimited Projects with <$10,000 budget Unlimited For <500,000 views
Online platforms Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited For <500,000 views
Video, film, TV broadcast Unlimited Projects with <$10,000 budget Unlimited For <500,000 views
Print Marketing materials <300,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies
Advertising <300,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies
Branding materials <300,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies
Publications <300,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies
Packaging <300,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies <500,000 copies
*Unlimited number of projects, and an unlimited number of views

Extended License Comparison

An Extended license, as you can guess by the title, is a license that expands the rights of the Standard license –usually by removing copies and views limitations–and adds new, exclusive usage rights you only get with this option. It’s still Royalty Free; you only have to pay for it once to gain the rights over the image forever. 

Each stock photo website establishes its Extended license terms, as you are about to see. But they all work similarly, too.

The most relevant right you acquire with most Extended licenses is the right to use the photos in products for resale, meaning using the pictures as part of a design you will then include in an item you will sell for a profit: t-shirts or other apparel, calendars or other publications, posters or other print materials, web templates or other digital products, etc. 

It’s important to note here that “product for resale” implies the image will be a part of the product, not the product itself. You are never allowed to license a stock photo and then sell it, as a stock photo, to anyone else. There are no licenses that permit this. 

Differences in Extended Licenses

Across the board, all our recommended agencies give unlimited use of everything included in the Standard license when you acquire an Extended: unlimited prints, unlimited views in the case of Adobe Stock, and unlimited project budget total in the case of Shutterstock. But there are significant differences that are important to highlight: 

  • The Stock Photo Secrets Shop’s Unlimited Products for Resale – This site adds products for resale in both digital and print form, with unlimited items allowed. For example, you can stamp and sell as many t-shirts as you wish. Also, it has the lowest prices for Extended licenses of all. A go-to if you need images to use in products for resale. 
  • Shutterstock’s Unlimited Reproductions in Products for Resale – Besides getting rid of the project budget limitation for streaming, TV, and film use, Shutterstock includes the right to use the pictures in products for resale, ranging from web templates and mobile apps to apparel and promotional print materials, with unlimited items coverage. It’s a simple and relatively affordable option.
  • iStock’s Multiple Extended License Options – iStock is a particular case because they sell each extended usage right as a separate license. Unlimited Reproductions, which removes the print run cap, is one. Products for Resale, which allows using the images in merchandising and other commercialized items, is another. And here, it’s important to note, they come with limitations: you don’t get unlimited items to resale. Another Extended license option is Multi-Seat Access (for more than one person to download using the same account). Each one of these Extended licenses is also paid separately, and you need to stack them if you need more than one usage right, which makes it a lot more expensive than the other agencies. Overall, it’s not an ideal place to buy Extended license photos. 
    However, if you use our exclusive 25% discount for large credit packs you can significantly cut down the price for Extended licenses from iStock.
  • Adobe Stock’s Extended and Enhanced Licenses – Adobe Stock makes things simple. Their Extended license extends unlimited reproductions to the Standard license and includes products for resale with unlimited items. The issue is that on their site, specific images come with an “Enhanced” license, which has unlimited reproductions, but NOT products for resale. While this distinction is marked on the pictures, the similarities in the license’s names can be confusing, so you must pay special attention when licensing a photo here, making sure you are getting the exact rights that you want. 

Extended License Usage Rights at Top Stock Photo Sites

Now let's see the Extended licenses rights each agency gives you, side by side:

Usage Right Stock Photo Secrets Shop Shutterstock iStock Adobe Stock
Digital Websites Unlimited* Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Electronic publications Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Social media Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
YouTube & video streaming Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Online platforms Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Video, film, and TV broadcast Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Digital products for resale Web templates Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (with Product for Resale License) Unlimited (with Extended License)
Screensavers Unlimited** Unlimited Unlimited (with Product for Resale License) Unlimited (with Extended License)
Mobile apps Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (with Product for Resale License) Unlimited (with Extended License)
Print Marketing materials Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (with Unlimited Reproduction License) Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Advertising Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (with Unlimited Reproduction License) Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Branding materials Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (with Unlimited Reproduction License) Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Publications Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (with Unlimited Reproduction License) Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Packaging Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (with Unlimited Reproduction License) Unlimited (Enhanced and Extended License)
Print products for resale Physical products & merchandise (apparel, mugs, etc.) Unlimited Unlimited Up to 2,000 (with Product for Resale License) Unlimited (with Extended License)
Promotional material (stationery, greeting cards, etc.) Unlimited Unlimited Up to 100,000 (with Product for Resale License) Unlimited (with Extended License)
Publications Unlimited Unlimited Up to 10,000 (with Product for Resale License) Unlimited (with Extended License)
*Unlimited number of projects, and unlimited number of views
**Unlimited number of projects, and unlimited number of copies

The No’s in All Licenses and All Agencies

We feel it’s worth telling you about the things none of these stock photography sites lets you do with their photos, no matter which license you buy. 

These restrictions are included, with more or less the same wording, in all the licenses we reviewed here: 

  • Transferring the image file to others – All licenses are issued under the buyer’s name, and the images are to be used by the person who licensed them. You absolutely cannot let anyone else use the image, whether they give you money for it or not. This means you also cannot put the image online in a way where others can download it. The license is non-transferable.
    Note: creating a design using the image and then giving that design to a client is permitted in all cases, but the client gets to use the design, not the image alone. For more info, check our article about using stock photos in client work
  • Pretending the image is yours or was created by you – While most stock photo licenses do not require attribution (this is, crediting the author or the agency), they explicitly prohibit you from claiming their stock images as your original work or your property. Besides, this infringes the author’s copyright. So never do this. 
  • Sensitive Use clause – All these agencies include a clause regarding sensitive use in their license contracts. What this means is, that you cannot use the images in a way that puts the author, the agency, or the models depicted in a bad light. This also means that morally questionable or sensitive topics like adult content, politics, health, and religion, are either off-limits or need to be verified with the agency before using. For more info on this, check our article Sensitive Use Explained. 

Stock Photo Licenses FAQ

Let's quickly answer some of the most common questions regarding royalty free stock photography and stock photo licenses.

Do you need a license to use stock photos?

Yes. All stock photos, be they free stock images, royalty free stock photos, editorial images, or else, are under some form of license. And you always need to have a valid license in order to use them.

What license are stock images?

Stock images can be under many possible licenses. A free photo is usually under the public domain or a form of Creative Commons license for free usage; the best stock photos are paid, though, and they can be royalty free –like the ones we covered in this article– or Rights Managed, which is a more controlled and specific license model that comes at higher price points, too.

How much does it cost to license a stock photo?

A royalty free photo can cost anywhere between $0.20 and $25, give or take, depending on which stock photo agency you use, and which method to buy images you choose.
With stock photo subscriptions that all our selected sites offer, you get the lowest prices. But some let you buy photos on demand also. Some agencies have credit packs and other stock photo websites do image packs. It all depends on what fits your budget.

Which stock photo service is best?

The best stock photo site is the one that gives you exactly what you need. So the answer varies from one buyer to the next.
Most reputable stock photo websites offer high resolution photos and have affordable pricing. Stock Photo Secrets Shop and Shutterstock have both, for example.
If you need exclusive images or unique stock photos, you are better off at iStock or Adobe Stock, though.

Stock Photo Licenses Compared: Which Stock Photo Site is Best for your use case?

Now you know how each stock photo license compares to its competitors, you are armed with great knowledge to choose the one site and the one license that fits your purpose. But just in case, here is a quick list of our recommendations: 

  • For simple marketing and advertising purposes, like online ads, visuals for your website, or your social media channels, print advertising like signage or flyers, etc.: all sites serve you well
  • For YouTube videos, TV, or Film: prefer Stock Photo Secrets Shop and iStock, they have unlimited coverage for this use with a Standard license
  • For electronic publications such as eBooks or digital magazines: Stock Photo Secrets Shop, Shutterstock, and iStock, all have unlimited views covered
  • For products for resale like t-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs, etc.: Stock Photo Secrets Shop, Shutterstock, and Adobe Stock have great Extended license offers

Which stock photo site do you feel has the best license? Tell us!

Ivanna Attié

Ivanna Attié

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in and Stock Photo Press and its many stock media-oriented publications. I am a passionate communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Lucky enough to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, I am happy to share my research, insights, and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers, and the stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

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