How Do Stock Photos Work? Great Beginners Guide to Stock Photography

Some people only discover the world of stock photos when they first find themselves needing images for a project. A new website for their company, imagery to revamp social media channels, marketing campaigns, and so on.

And while many can immediately recognize the value in stock images for creative design and commercial projects, they are often unsure about how stock photos work and how can they be used.

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Is it your case? Then you're in the right place!

At StockPhotoSecrets we've put together a super simple yet in-depth guide with all you need to know about stock photos, from what they are to how you can benefit from them, to where to get them. Dive in!

Looking for information to sell photos in the stock photo agencies? Our honest guide for stock photo contributors is for you!
Are you a student? If so, make sure to check our stock photography guidelines for students and universities, you'll find everything you need to know, including special discounts and deals for students!
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How Do Stock Photos Work: A Comprehensive Guide for New Buyers

Stock photos are photographs that you can buy and use in your own projects, without having to commission a photographer and therefore spending much less money and saving a lot of time.

Cool, right?

Let's get the details straight:

What are Stock Photos?

Stock photos are photographs that are already taken, edited, and ready to be used. But are stock images free to use?

A big and resounding NO. The photographer or author of a stock photo makes it available for licensing, meaning you can pay a fee to get the right to use the stock image in your designs legally.

One of the most popular license types is that of Royalty Free, which gives a wide range of usage rights over one stock image for a very low cost. Royalty Free images are also amongst the most affordable. But there are other models, such as the Rights Managed license that is more controlled and also more expensive.

Commonly, authors submit their photos to stock photography agencies, companies that offer big digital catalogs full of images that you can pay online and download directly from their stock photography websites. You buy from the agency, and they split the profit with the photographer.

Stock images are not limited to photographs, you can find illustrations and vector files –including design templates for social media or print materials, customizable infographics, and illustrations–, plus video clips, soundtracks, and more.

What are Royalty-Free Stock Photos?

You probably guessed this one. They are photos under a Royalty Free license. This license is one of the most popular in the stock photography industry, because of its flexibility and low cost. Royalty free images are by far the most convenient resource for creatives.

A royalty-Free license is customized for every stock photo site, but in general terms, it gives you the right to use any image in commercial, editorial, and personal projects, without any limitations regarding geographic area or duration.

Plus, it's a one-time-only fee (This is what its name means, which should NEVER be mistaken for them being free photos: Royalty-Free photos are NOT FREE).

This means that you pay for the image once, and you get to use it however you want, wherever you want, and for as long as you want. The best is that as the same image can be licensed over and over, the license price tends to be very low, within $1 to $15 on average, and even less than $1 each with subscription plans.

It's important to note that what you are buying when you buy stock photos is a license that gives you the right to use them in your work. You are not acquiring ownership of the image, the author still holds the copyright for it.

Where Can I Buy Stock Photos? Are there any Free Trials?

The best place to buy stock photos is at stock photo agencies online. The most popular ones have digital stock photo libraries with millions of images to choose from, all high quality and ready to be downloaded in a few simple clicks.

Note: Make sure to choose a legitimate stock photo company, that is trustworthy and serious about their business.

Most of these catalogs on stock photo websites are searchable by keywords and include advanced filters for narrowing results, so you not only have a variety of content but also easy access to it.

Best of all these stock photo companies have very affordable prices, and options to buy images one by one, or in bulk and save in the long run.

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We recommend these stock photo websites, but if you want more options, check our full list of the best stock photo sites, there are more than 20 options listed!

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How Can I Use Stock Photos?

When you buy Royalty Free stock photos from reliable agencies, there are very few restrictions on what you can do with them. Here's how to use stock photos legally:

As long as they are labeled for commercial use, you can use stock photos in multiple designs and projects with a for-profit purpose, including websites, marketing and advertising, branding, and more.

Interested in design and marketing? Check out our guide to the best color combinations for your marketing, we include cool tips to use color in stock photos!

Need a hand with your branding strategy? Check this guide to the best color combinations for brands! Want a more hands-on approach to stock photos and graphics? Jump onto our guide with 102 tips for creating visuals with stock images!

You can use stock images for all kinds of marketing and business-related purposes: landing pages for your products, social media images for your channels, newsletter images for your campaigns, and even stationery design.

You can also use them in editorial work, such as in publications and book illustrations, for example. If the photos are labeled as Editorial, you can only use them for this end (never commercially). Plus, with an extended license (available at most agencies too) you can also use the images in products for resale, earning your potential income.

There are virtually no creative limits for editing stock images. From removing backgrounds to replace them or creating cutouts, to cropping, resizing, color-changing, and beyond.

Discover the best free design software tools to create beautiful designs with stock images!
And if you don't know a lot about graphic design or editing software, then AI photo tools that perform perfect edits in one or two clicks are perfect for you!

The limitations in the usage of stock photos mostly refer to illegal or morally questionable topics. You cannot use images in content that refers to illegal activity or sensitive matters, like racism or violence. And of course, you cannot resell or redistribute the photos as they are, to anyone. Remember, you are not the owner of the photos, you only own a license to use them.

Stock Photos Basic FAQ

Here we answer the most common questions about stock photos, including some quick tips to use them right:

How do stock pictures work?

Stock images are pictures already created and available for license at stock agencies. You acquire a license that gives you permission to use a stock image in certain ways, including commercial usage.

How can I legally use stock photos?

By licensing them. You buy them from a stock photo agency and download them directly from its website. That way they're covered by the stock photo site's license agreement and you can use them in all the ways accepted by royalty free licenses, including commercial purposes such as marketing materials and more, legally.

Can you make money through stock photos?

Yes, can sell your own photos at stock photo agencies and make money from buyers purchasing licenses to your images online. If you are interested in this, read our honest guide to selling photos online.

Why you shouldn't use stock images?

Stock imagery has its detractors. Some people will tell you not to use stock photography because bad stock images ruin your brand, because everyone ends up using the same photo for the same purposes, or because image licensing is confusing.
While it might be true that getting custom imagery for your visuals has its advantages, the reality is that stock photo sites today have high resolution photos, and most stock photos in any serious stock library feature real world setups, natural poses, and modern concepts that hit your target audience efficiently.

Is a royalty free image better than a free stock image?

Yes, 100%. While other websites out there offer stock photos you can download and use without paying, there are a few things to know.
1. Free images are still licensed. They're usually under Creative Commons licenses that enable free use
2. The free photo sites don't always police the images people offer on their platforms. Many images available on them might not have a proper model release for the people it depicts, or not be authorized by the copyright holder. Thus, despite being licensed, they're still not legal to use – this may be less risky for editorial purposes but it's a big risk for commercial use
3. They are not always high quality photos and you may not find the creative assets you need at these sites

Are rights managed images the same as royalty free?

No. Rights Managed licenses are different than royalty-free. These are custom licenses, tailored for the intended use of the buyer. The contract includes details on the mediums, the regions, the number of projects, and the duration for which you intend to use the picture. And you may also get exclusive use of the image for a certain period of time (something you can't do with royalty free photos). For this reason, they come at a much higher price point.
Sometimes, it's possible to find the same images under royalty free and rights managed license options.

What's In for Me in Using Stock Photos?

What is not in for you, should be the question! By using stock photos, you can solve a lot of your graphic design needs at once, in a very efficient and low-cost solution.

For one, you can get the high quality images that you need right away, without having to wait for a photographer to shoot them, edit them, and hand them to you. They are online and ready to be downloaded and used. Add to that, that they are a high-converting resource for all marketing purposes, and as varied and current as they could be. For example, you can find great photos of diverse people without having to dig much for them. And you can find the perfect images to address specific target groups, like baby boomers or millennials, or particular subjects like families or business-themed images, all in one place.

Secondly, they also save you a lot of money. The cost of hiring a professional photographer to do a custom shoot for you is way, was higher than the $15 or so that you would spend buying a stock photo. Let alone that if you get a subscription, or you buy a bunch of them at once, you can get them for as low as a few cents each.

And lastly, stock photo companies do a great job making it easy for you to find the stunning photos you are after. They incorporate advanced search engines with reverse image search and even AI-powered technology, among other perks, so you can navigate all the photos they have and identify the perfect one for you in a matter of seconds.

Using stock photos you can have professional-looking designs for your adverts, your website, your presentations, and many other projects, without breaking the bank and without taking any legal risks.

It's a super useful resource for small to medium businesses, startups, beginner professionals, and any other person needing professional, high-quality photography right away and at affordable rates.

If you are interested in finding a manual for the correct use of stock photos, our brand-new guide to rules for using stock photos might be a great help for you.

What are you going to use stock photos for? Let us know in the comments!

Header image: Copyright by Stock Photo Secrets / Ingram Image Ltd, all rights reserved.

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.

24 Comments
  1. What about in the case of revenue-making writing on sites like Medium?

    Many of the writers on Medium make money by writing articles that almost universally feature amazing imagery sourced from websites like Pexels or Shutterstock. Are these authors paying for the right to use this imagery in their articles or are they able to use them for free?

    Thank you in advance for considering my question.

    • For that reason, we always suggest buying stock photos from outlets like Shutterstock where you have clear rights given in the license agreement what you can and can’t do with the images. They do allow commercial usage of the images (to a certain extend). We do not suggest using Pexels images because no one is checking those images for any legal issues nor do they have a proper model release of the persons shown on the images. Of course, you could use images from Pexels without any persons on it but there are still some traps you could fall into.

  2. If you purchase a commercial free image, can you edit the images? For example, you buy a vector image and you want to change the color and use it as part of your logo.

    Also, do you recommend Adobe Stock?

    • It all depends on the website you download the vector file from. But generally speaking, you can NOT use vector images as part of a logo. You would need a confirmation from the creator of the image for this usage. There is some exceptions like our website https://www.freelogovector.com/ which allow the usage. This also applies to Adobe Stock, which is a great service.

  3. Hi Amos,

    First, thank you for the well written and easy to understand article.

    My question is along the same line as Michelle’s above, except I am not looking for a image for a logo. Simply, I want to know can we purchase a commercial free image and edit the color?

    Many thanks for your assistance.

  4. Hello,

    Can you buy a before and after style stock picture for a beauty treatment e.g botox injections and advertise that beauty treatment via the image? My concern is you cant claim to have created the picture because it’s not your own work, yet I would be advertising that treatment so in an indirect way would I not be claiming ownership of the work in the image?

    Sorry if that doesn’t make sense

    • Hi Angus, I’m actually not sure if I have understood your question. You can never claim that you have created an image if you haven’t created it. Stock photos are for advertisement purpose usually. This means that they are more like a “canvas” for your products. With medical treatment it is another story and you might need to get an extended medical (called sensitive) license for this. Maybe you want to clarify your question a bit more. Regards Amos

  5. Hi Amos,

    Great article.
    I am in the business of installing marine electronics in boats. I have include a picture of a new Simrad fish finder on my website.
    1. If the Simrad picture I used is NOT on the Simrad website am I breaking Simrad copyright rules.
    2. If the Simrad picture is on the Simrad website am I breaking Simrad copyright rules.

    Cheers,
    Darren

    • Hi Darren, it’s really simple. If you don’t have persmission from the producer of the product (and the photo) you can not use it anywhere. Just because it is available on some website do not mean that you can use it as well. If you are selling those Simrad finders, then you can most certainly just reach out to the producer and ask for permission to use the image. They usually give this persmission or the permission is maybe even included in your resellers contract. I hope that helps.

  6. Hello Amos
    My question is this, how do you tell if someone is using a stock image to promote their business ?
    Example their are lots of psychics sites that purport they are mediums and clairvoyants, using what is alleged to be photos of themselves and families. Also lots of love scammer sites.
    Do you put the image into the computer and it then tells you who is the true identity?
    Many thanks
    Bradley

    • Hi Bradley, thank you for your question. I wonder why you wanna know that? Stock photos are used hundreds, thousands and even more times in many ways. Thats how they are working and thats the reason why they can be so cheap. Maybe you can explain a bit more what you exactly wanna know or what you are worried about. Kind Regards
      Amos

  7. Hi Amos,

    Thank you for your very helpful website. I was wondering what the restirctions are regarding a royalty-free image that was downloaded during a 30-day free trial? Can one continue to use it one a website after the 30 days are up?
    Many thanks,
    Ray

    • Hi Ray, I can only speak in general terms here since I don’t know what stock agency free trial you are referring to. In general, the images which are downloaded and used (!) while you have had a free trial fall under the same royalty-free license as if you would have a full subscription. Nevertheless, there might be some exceptions with some agencies. You should always check it with them directly. Also keep in mind, that many agencies with subscriptions do not allow to stock-pile their stock images. You can only keep them afterward if you have used them while having an active subscription. You can not join and then download them “for later usage” and then leave. As I said, not all of them have this in their license. Kindly check with every you download from. I hope that helps.

  8. Hi Amos
    very helpful article. I saw a photograph in a large distribution newspaper. The photo is marked ” THE IMAGE BANK ” and I want to paint (in acrylic) a copy of the photo. My first thought is to donate the painting when finished to the Legion but I want to keep my options open in that (depending on the results) I may want to sell copies.
    My question is this: How do I go about paying for the use of the photo (what if I do more than one copy) and perhaps, more importantly, what credit am I required to give to the image bank and how should I phrase it?
    I appreciate any thoughts you might have
    regards

    • Hi John, interesting question. Quick disclaimer I’m not a lawyer and this is a personal opinion. First of all, I recommend that you find another image to paint. There are so many free photos out there where you could also simply ask the photographer if he is OK with you painting it. For the photo you saw you would need to purchase a license, usually an extended license, which is even more expensive. In same cases the license agreement of some stock agencies do not even allow a derivate via a painting. I think you are better off with some free photos where you can also make the photographer happy by showing (and asking beforehand) your painting afterward.

  9. Hello. Thank you for this article. I want to make a calendar and was wondering what the rules were if I wanted to use stock images. Can I alter the images to use them for a calendar? Also, do you know an alternative route if this isn’t allowed. Thank you in advance.

  10. Hi Amos Struck,

    Thank you for this informative article.
    I would like to know if I can use stock images that I have purchased for my T-shirt prints to sell?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Jolene, it is possible to use stock photos in t-shirt prints to sell, for that you need an Extended License. These licenses come at higher price points than the regular ones, but give you the right to use images in products for resale (such as the t-shirts), among other added usage rights.

      Hope this helps!

  11. Hi Amos,
    I want to use some animal photos for painting. The paintings are not for sale.
    They are only for myself and exhibition of endangered animals. Can I use stock images free?

  12. Hi Amos
    I would like to copy (draw and colour) a picture of a bird from a shutterstock stock photo, and put it on a t-shirt to sell. Does buying an extended licence cover this? What I mean is, does shutterstock allow you copy a photo by drawing it, as long as you buy the correct licence?

    • Hi Juliet, we are not Shutterstock therefore I recommend asking them directly. Nevertheless, I don’t think that there is a license for this. If there is any, then the extended license might cover this. I would certainly ask Shutterstock directly about this.

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