What Does Stock Photography Mean? [ALL you need to know]

Stock photography refers to high-quality photos that are already created and made available for licensing, to use in multiple creative ways. Basically, instead of hiring a professional photographer to do a photo shoot for you, you pay a photographer for the right to use their intellectual property (i.e. their photo) in your work. 

Stock imagery –which includes illustrations and graphics on top of stock photographs– is usually offered in the form of stock libraries, and large image banks where you can find all kinds of visual content to purchase a license to use for commercial purposes. 

That’s stock photography in a nutshell. But there are quite a few aspects of it that should be understood before diving in, so let’s cover them!

Before You Start

Before even searching for stock photography, it is important to consider your needs as far as types of stock photos, licensing, and price. Each company has its own licensing terms, which may or may not include the rights you need for your project. There are different types of licenses, such as rights-managed or royalty-free. These licenses can also be extended for commercial use, which is another consideration to take into account. If the image is for personal use, there are still restrictions you must abide by, or you run the risk of consequences for your unauthorized use.

Stock Photography Agencies

Stock photo agencies are companies that compile, verify, and curate large catalogs of stock photographs, issuing and managing licenses for them, and splitting the profit with the photographers. This is usually done online now. 

Stock photography websites, then, host very large digital stock libraries that you can surf at your pleasure, and you can purchase licenses for photos in just a few clicks of your mouse. They make it easy to find all the photos you need in one place, granting model releases, and copyrights, and all legal matters are cleared.

Stock agencies have different types of licenses, pricing, and buying models. 

Microstock Agencies

Microstock photography is by far the most popular today, and it’s thanks to its business model. Microstock agencies are 100% web-based, they establish a minimum purchase threshold –commonly in the form of image packs or credit packs–, and they work with royalty-free images only. 

The royalty-free license offers great versatility: it gives you a wide range of usage rights, including commercial purposes such as marketing campaigns, for a one-time fee. This is a non-exclusive license, which also means it can be licensed many times over, and as a result, each license comes at a very low price point. This is why there is a minimum purchase in place. 

Stock Agencies such as Shutterstock, iStockphoto, etc. are all microstock, and great places to find that specific image or illustration you are looking for. 

Traditional Agencies

Traditional stock photography operates in a more case-by-case way: they issue Rights Managed licenses, which are tailored for the specific use each customer requires, with both price and contract being adjusted to that. Usually, they don’t have a minimum purchase limit, because pricing tends to be considerably higher. However, with a Rights Managed license, it’s possible to acquire exclusivity in the use of an image, for a certain period of time, which isn’t available in royalty-free images.

Traditional agencies are scarce today, as microstock really took over the industry, but you can find some of the most prestigious, old-school companies are still around. 

Stock Photos in Use

Stock photography is utilized in mediums all around us. Marketing materials, advertising, and social media, are just some of the many common uses. Marketers and design professionals use stock images regularly in web design, product marketing, publications, smartphone apps, posters, brochures, and much, much more. If you don’t have the talent or resources to be able to provide your own images, stock image sites provide the perfect place to find what you need from professionals all over the world.

Personal Use of Stock Photos

For personal use, you could consider purchasing the rights to an image for decor in your home, your personal website, homemade cards, an event poster, a school project, your yearly Christmas letter, or anything you can think of. The stock photo libraries are not just for professionals – They are used by anyone who has a need for a professional quality image for their project.

Free Stock Photos

Seriously, professional stock photography can be very affordable nowadays, but it is still paid for. There are, however, sites offering stock photos that you can download and use without paying. 

Bear in mind, though, that these free stock photo sites are not giving images away, they are simply giving licenses to use the images for free – free stock images are still subject to copyright, model rights, etc. 

There are several types of licenses for free photos: Creative Commons and its many variants simply put them in the Public Domain, or even custom license agreements. Some require attribution –crediting the author/the website you got it from–, some do not. But with very few exceptions, free stock photos aren’t truly verified for legal validity, so you are at your own risk using them for commercial-oriented projects. For personal use, they are ok. 

If You Are a Photographer

On the other side of things, stock photography sites are also a source of income for photographers and artists. Turn your hobby into money by submitting your images to various stock photo sites. Unless the exclusive rights to the image are sold, you will retain the rights to the image while selling the rights to use the image over and over to stock photo purchasers.

Amos Struck
Amos Struck

I am a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. I focus on providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry. I am the founder and editor of Stock Photo Press, one of the largest networks of online magazines in the industry. I am the founder of Microstock Expo, the only conference dedicated to the microstock segment. I created several software solutions in stock photography like WordPress plugins. Plus I am a recurrent speaker at Photokina Official Stage, and an industry consultant at StockPhotoInsight. I am passionate about technology, marketing and visual imagery.

1 Comment
  1. I’ve only recently come across your site (which is full of very interesting information for buyers that I will go back and study), but as a contributing photographer to many microstock sites, I was attracted first to this page for Photographers.

    I don’t know if a link is permitted here, but if a photographer is looking to make a start in microstock, I have recently published an eBook Getting Started in Stock Photography. This is aimed at beginners and focuses solely on how to submit your images, which sites are worth submitting to, a practical workflow for managing your photos, software packages to help smooth your work etc.


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