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!

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, 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 images
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

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 both expensive and time-consuming. Not only professionals' honorariums can be high, 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 images yourself presents the same problems.

As you just learned, stock images 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, certainly much lower than that 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, you are in the right place here.

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, …)

You can use stock images for most commercial, editorial, and personal purposes. 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.

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 images that are common to most license types:

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 image 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?

That depends on the type of license you're acquiring, and the agency you're buying from. But there are average prices.

  • 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 agencies 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!

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.
Expert Buyer Tips

So now you know: stock images 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 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 non copyright images.

It's very tempting to just download photos from Google or to surf the web looking for free images for public use. But the truth is, except for Public Domain images and some (only some) Creative Commons images, most images in 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 in your blog or website is such a bad idea.

When authors upload their images to a stock imagery 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!


When you buy a stock image, you're only buying a 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, 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 imagery 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 the 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” 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 for commercial use have been checked for releases.

Editorial 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. 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.

You can find them 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 image that serves your needs.

Boost Up your Projects with Stock Images

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

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

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.

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  2. Very informative article. Thank you!

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