What are Stock Images? One of the Best Image Resources Explained

If you are a graphic designer or creative, or if you're just needing images to use in different projects, you must have come across the term “stock images” or “stock photos“. But what are stock images? How can you use them?

Stock images are a great resource to get high-quality and cheap photos that you can use in your designs for various purposes. They are perfect for marketing and advertising, promotional work, personal, or commercial creative projects, publishing, websites and blogs, and more.

Want to learn all you need to know about this useful imagery resource and how you can benefit from it? Keep reading!

wwww.shutterstock.com editor

Stock Photography

Stock photography is existing photos –already created– made available for license by paying a fee to both the artists that produced them and the stock agencies managing them, acquiring the right to use them legally in different ways, while the author retains the copyright of their work.

Stock imagery is a lot wider than just photography, though. You can find vector files –in the form of illustrations, customizable templates for print materials, social media graphics, or even infographics–, soundtracks, stock footage, and even 3D models, all available for licensing.

Most popular stock photo categories
There are stock images in every topic and style imaginable, but you can also easily identify the most sought-after ones. Discover them!

Lifestyle photos (a.k.a. photos of people)
Authentic style
Diversity images
Photos of women (and also styled photography)
Medical stock photos
Disability pictures
Business images
Nature stock photos
Technology pictures
Fashion photography
Transportation stock images
Family pictures
Industrial stock photos
Education photos
Signs and symbols images
Interiors stock images

As you can see, inclusive stock photography covers all kinds of topics and styles and you will find what you need for your personal projects at stock agencies.

Benefits of Stock Images

Stock images (that include stock photography, vectors, and illustrations) have many perks for businesses and creatives, but the main, most immediate, and most evident benefits are time and money savings.

Hiring a photographer or graphic designer to create a custom image for you is expensive and time-consuming. Not only professionals' honorariums can be high (especially if you need lots of images for a campaign design), but also the estimated times between the hiring and the delivery of the final images can be of weeks, if not more. Getting the necessary equipment and skills to create your own photos presents the same problems.

As you just learned, stock photos are already created and ready to use. As soon as you pay for a license, you can download it and use it within the accepted terms. And some of them (Royalty Free images, which we'll soon explain) are very affordable. In general terms, at any stock photo website, you can find stock photography priced much lower than the cost of commissioning a photographer or graphic artist.

More importantly, most stock images are crafted with commercial use in mind –photographers know that marketers and business owners are their main end-users–, and they have it all to be high-converting visuals.

If you want to learn more about the costs of stock images and the pricing of relevant stock agencies such as Shutterstock and Adobe Stock, you are in the right place here.

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That's why they are such a great resource for anyone needing images for professional use. Their immediate availability and low cost solve both: time and budget.

How Can you Use Stock Images (Commercial Use, Social Media, …)

How can stock photo files be used is a very common question, and in the answer lies one of the biggest plus of this creative resource: You can use stock photos for most commercial, editorial, and personal purposes. This versatility is very useful.

A Royalty-Free license allows for a wide range of uses. Rights Managed images enable pretty much the same possible uses, but limit it to one use per license. Learn more about the types of stock photo licenses, for example, Shutterstock´s license.

Stock photo agencies let you use the images only as part of a greater design. You cannot display the image just as you downloaded it, but rather edit it and modify it, customizing it to your project. Most stock image sites are ok with even the slightest edit, though – things like a little cropping or an image filter, for example, qualify as edits.

There are different allowed uses depending on the license. You can find all the acceptable uses of Royalty Free images here, and the allowed uses for Rights Managed images here.

That cleared, here are some of the various uses for stock photos that are common to most license types on many stock photo websites:

Business, Marketing, and Advertising

Discover what makes the best photos for marketing!

Promotional (not for sale)

  • Flyers
  • Posters
  • Greeting cards
  • Postcards

Entertainment and Editorial


Ace your designs and brand image with the perfect color combinations for brands!

Personal use (not for sale)

  • Posters
  • Prints
  • Reproductions
  • Art

Stock photos and illustrations have endless potential when you use them wisely. If you are a hands-on creative person, don't miss our 102 tips to create visual content with stock images!

As a final annotation, if you want to use the picture in products you will then resale or redistribute (like t-shirts and other physical products or like digital web templates) you can do so with an Extended license (learn about this license below). If you are interested in this use, check out the guide on buying photos for products for resale.

All licenses come with certain restrictions on the way you can use the images. Learn the restrictions for Royalty Free images here. And find the forbidden uses for Rights Managed images here.

It's always very important to read the license agreement carefully and fully understand its terms before using a stock image, to ensure you're using it in an accepted and legal way.

How Much Do Stock Images Cost? Where can I Buy Cheap Stock Photos?

How much stock photos cost depends on the type of license you're acquiring, and the agency you're buying from. But there are average prices in the stock photography industry.

  • Royalty-Free license is more flexible, and it's preset for all images. Plus it's a non-exclusive license that allows the same image to be licensed many times, and this contributes to reducing its price. Royalty-Free images are very affordable. Some stock photography websites price them according to the resolution too, but in general, their price is between $1 and $15 per image.

However, many stock agencies offer stock photo subscriptions: periodic plans that give you a larger number of images per period in exchange for a flat recurrent fee. These plans reduce the cost of the images considerably, taking the single image price down to as little as $0.30 each!

On the other hand, you can also find exclusive stock photography collections –available only on one stock agency and not on any others– that come at slightly higher price points.

Bonus: Test a stock photo site's service and enjoy beautiful, professional photos without paying a penny, by simply exploiting one of the many stock photo free trials we have listed for you!
  • Rights Managed license is tailored for your specific usage needs, and its price varies depending on your intended use and the extension or limitation of rights you include, as well as the image size and resolution, falling anywhere between $50 and up to thousands of dollars. Rights-managed was a popular license model in traditional stock photography –the old days of physical image catalogs and printed licensing contracts–, and while it's still in use, it's much less popular today.
Expert Buyer Tips

So now you know: stock photos are very valuable, as they can be used in so many ways.

However, there are still a few key features about them that you must know if you're going to be using them:

Copyright and Ownership

Most stock images are copyrighted: the professional photographer or designer who created them retains the ownership and intellectual property over the photo or illustration.

For this reason, you cannot use the images without their express permission, and without paying them the due royalties or crediting them when required.

You may also find non-copyrighted images that have no owner and are free to use. But you'll be at your own risk using them for commercial projects. More info, in our guide, to find noncopyright images.

It's very tempting to just download photos from Google or to surf the web looking for free photos for public use. But the truth is, except for Public Domain images and some (only some) Creative Commons images, most images on those websites are copyrighted too, and they do not verify that the right user permissions are in order. To resume: you can infringe on the author's copyright and get into legal trouble. Learn here why using free photos on your blog or website is such a bad idea.

When professional stock photographers upload their images to a stock photography agency, they give their express permission for the agency to license them (paying them and cutting a commission fee). Plus, agencies always revise every image, making sure all the permits are correct, and the image is safe to use.

Watermarks and their meaning
Stock photo agencies need to display their images (who would buy stock photos if they can't see them, right?). To avoid Internet users stealing photos from their catalog without paying for them, agencies employ watermarks: semi-transparent stamps (usually, the company logo) overlaid on the images. Shutterstock, for example, uses watermarks on all image previews on their site.
Don't worry, when you pay for a license, you get to download the high-resolution, non-watermarked version of the photos you see in the library.
Read here to find out great ways to download Shutterstock images without watermark, both free and paid methods included!

If you are a stock photographer or want to become one, check our honest guide to selling stock photos! It's good for amateur photographers, too!

Royalty-Free and Rights-Managed Licenses

When you buy a stock image, you're only buying an image license to use the image in certain allowed ways. You are NOT acquiring ownership of the image. The author still owns it, you're just paying for the right to use it. Learn more about how copyright and licensing work here. 

There are different types of image licensing agreements, but the most common ones are Royalty-Free and Rights Managed.

  • Royalty-Free is the most popular licensing model, as it's the most affordable and flexible. It's important to know that Royalty Free images are NOT FREE. You must still pay for the license. The name refers to the fact that it's a one-time-fee license model: once you've paid, you can use the image without ever requiring to pay further royalties.

This license gives you multiple, non-exclusive usage rights for both commercial and editorial purposes, without time limitation. Once you pay for the license, the image is yours to use forever, in as many projects as you want, and for as long as you want, always within the accepted terms.

  • Rights Managed is a license tailored for specific uses: it covers one use case only, and it's limited by time, geographic location, audience size, and reproduction/copy run, among other parameters. The main advantage of this license is that it lets you get greater usage rights for big commercial uses (like mainstream media or large marketing campaigns) and that may include exclusive usage rights – you may get the right to be the only person using a particular image, for the time your license is valid.

Some uses are not allowed with the Standard Royalty-Free license, but they are included in the Extended license version, which comes at a higher price.

If you wonder what license is better for your particular needs, check our comprehensive comparative guide for Royalty-Free and Rights Managed license types.

A keynote here is that every stock photo agency sets up its own licensing terms within these two license types. They customize the license to their own criteria, therefore the rights and limitations may vary from one agency to the other.

It's very important that you read the license agreement carefully before using an image, to make sure your use is allowed by their terms.

Model Releases and Commercial Use

For an image depicting people to be used with commercial intentions, it's required that the people who appear in the image sign a legal permit expressing their agreement to have their likeness displayed and used for commercial purposes. Such a legal permit is called a “model release” document (find a list of model release apps here).

The same goes for private property — estates, trademark logos or product design, etc. –: in order to use an image including them commercially, you need the owner to sign a “property release” – a document stating they agree to have their property depicted and used in commercial endeavors. This is very important to ensure the legally safe use of the images.

Stock imagery agencies police release carefully, granting you that all the images available on their stock libraries have been checked for releases and are greenlighted for commercial use. Professional stock photographers usually organize commercial photo shoots and make sure to have all signed model releases in place, too.

Editorial Use of Stock Images

When the releases are not in place, or it's impossible to sort them, images depicting people are sold for Editorial use only. This means you can only use them to accompany or illustrate a newsworthy, entertainment, or public interest topic, but not for profit – this means they cannot be used for marketing materials.  Learn more about the Editorial Use license here.

Most common editorial images are those of celebrities and renowned individuals, worldwide newsworthy events, big crowds, etc.

It's important to remember that Commercial images can be used for both commercial and editorial projects, but Editorial images can be used only for editorial purposes. 

Image Quality

Stock images are available in different sizes and resolutions, but what it's important to note is they are high quality.

Agencies sell images in anything from small Web resolution and up to large, high-resolution files. Whatever your project's requirements are, you're very much likely going to find a stock digital image that serves your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions About Stock Images

What is meant by stock images?

A stock image is one that is already shot and made available for others to use, with the appropriate permission (usually, a license).
Stock photography is akin to buying photos “off the shelf” instead of hiring a photographer to shoot them on spec.

Is it free to use stock images?

Not by default. Stock photography agencies normally sell licenses to use stock photos, so you have to pay for them.
There are however free stock photos sites and stock agencies that give away stock photos to use for free.

Why you shouldn't use stock images?

Some detractors think you shouldn't use stock photos because they are of inferior quality and because they are generic and used by multiple people at once, so they dilute your brand image and value.
However, they are wrong: In our days, stock photo companies offer high quality photos with great artistic and commercial value, and through creative editing, you can make them look on-brand and unique.
We believe you should definitely take advantage of stock photography for your visual needs.

Are stock photos illegal?

No. Every time a stock photo has a valid license (meaning the copyright owner authorized it, all model and property releases are in place, and the customer acquired the license through the authorized channels), it is a perfectly legal image you can use in the approved ways, safely.
Stock photos become illegal to use when you download them through fraudulent means. This is why we strongly recommend to buy stock photos from a legitimate stock photo company and avoiding free stock photo websites with dubious credentials.

Boost Up your Projects with Stock Images

As you see, stock images are a great way to add visual appeal to your editorial, personal, and commercial projects at a very low cost.

In a world that is every day more visual, boosting up the eye-catching power of your work is one of the main factors to succeed in your endeavors. Microstock photography lets you get all the photos you need to achieve this, at a fraction of the cost.

So don't hesitate, to start licensing compelling, high-quality, and cheap stock images for your projects today!

Ivanna Attié
Ivanna Attié

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in StockPhotoSecrets.com 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.

  1. I was searching for it and i found your article on this. Good work. This article can be helpful too.

  2. Avatar of Mansoor Abedin
    Mansoor Abedin March 2, 2022 at 7:43 pm

    Very informative article. Thank you!

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