Stock photography has become essential to modern digital marketing and advertising, providing businesses with endless high-quality visual content.
But how did that come to be? When did stock photography become a thing? Was it always the way it is now? And where is it going from here?
In this article, we will take a deep dive into the history of stock photography, from its beginnings in the 1920s to the present day, with all the technological advances and market trends that impacted it on the way. And we’ll also explore the impact of novel technology like artificial intelligence on the industry's future.
|Time Period||Key Developments|
|1920s to 1940s||Stock photography industry began. Creation of the first stock photo agencies.|
|1940s to 1980s||Expansion and solidification of stock photo industry. Introduction of license model.|
|1980s to 1990s||Introduction of digital cameras. Transition to more modern business models.|
|2000s to Present||Emergence of microstock model. Introduction of video collections. Shift in content style.|
|2023 – future||Arrival of AI-driven era. Rise of AI-generated images and AI-powered editing.|
The stock photography industry was born in the 1920s, impulsed by photographers trying to earn more from their work. Throughout the 20th century, establishing stock photography agencies, stock photo archives, and licensing models helped cement this initial business idea into a proper industry.
Nearing the new Millennium, this industry was impacted by the digital revolution, resulting in the digitalization of catalogs and, in the early 2000s, the birth of microstock, a 100% online, affordable, and natively digital stock imagery business. Microstock has grown exponentially over the last two decades and prevails today.
And now, the rise of generative AI models capable of synthesizing and editing images is set to revolutionize the industry once again.
The one factor that remains constant and fueling this 100-year-old industry is the need for high-quality, visually stunning images that capture audiences' attention and drive business.
Back then, newspapers and magazines were a relevant source of income for professional photographers, as those were the leading companies commissioning their services. Such publications had been using photos since the 1880s. Besides illustrating news and articles, the printing press was already discovered as a golden resource for advertisement, and photos proved one of the most efficient resources for marketing.
In the 1920s, we have a well-documented case of what is arguably the first stock photo ever created: American photographer H. Armstrong Roberts made the people he portrayed next to an airplane sign model releases, intending to be able to sell the photo to other publishers, art directors, and advertisers in the future.
And those also saw the value in this idea, as licensing images already created was significantly cheaper and more accessible than commissioning a photographer or buying out the rights for a freelancer’s shots, and the chance to quickly access photos readily made sped up their workflows considerably. H. Armstrong Roberts founded one of the first stock photography libraries, Retrofile.
In the 1930s, German librarian Otto Bettman took the business further by amassing a personally-owned collection (initially of 15,000 images but constantly expanded), organizing them into a catalog index –now named the Bettman Archive–, and selling copies to newspapers, magazines, and other willing buyers.
These (and other) early pioneers that explored new business models to make money from photographs helped convert stock photography into a proper business.
In this period, stock photo libraries proliferated worldwide, in number and volume, with some of them turning into real historical archives documenting the most relevant historical events of the then-latest years: the Great Depression, World War II, and more. Some of the now-standard image indexing and classification models were created at that point to respond to the needs of growing stock photo libraries like the prestigious Hulton Archive.
The first libraries that sought to supply images for commercial needs began around the 1980s, too. British photographer Tony Stone, for example, had a famous archive of thousands of mountain landscape photos that were used mainly in chocolate adverts, and he ended up building an extensive catalog of commercial images –Tony Stone Images– using his trained eye and marketing sense to produce interesting photos he knew advertisers would need and choose.
Did you know? Tony Stone served on the board of Getty Images in the 90s!
The overall trend was that these stock photo libraries sold images of a specific “niche” by region or topic –one would be a science photo library, another image bank would focus on travel pictures, another archive was solely made of editorial images, and so on– although a few larger providers offered a more comprehensive range of content. The technology was what today we’d call “old school”: cameras were analog, and the images were produced, cataloged, stored, and shown to buyers in print, slide, or transparency format. Companies that sold stock images were referred to as “stock photo libraries” with physical offices.
This time also saw the standardization of a license model for stock photos: Rights Managed. This custom license agreement gives the buyer a specific usage right (like for a print advert or a billboard), often exclusive to this buyer, for a certain period. The final price of the license varies according to the rights included.
The Rights Managed license is still used by some companies today, although it’s no longer the preferred model (more on this later).
Another surge of this period is the stock photographer or stock photo contributor's figure. While companies were still buying entire image collections or producing their own photos for their libraries, they also started to accept independent photographers’ pictures and split the profits with them if they sold. Some started dedicating themselves solely to this business, becoming full-time stock photographers. This model is still in use today.
Stock photography was now officially an industry in its own right.
The rise of digital cameras changed the game significantly: going from snapping a photo to having it ready for use was much faster and more efficient, and producing high quality photos became more accessible as well. Storing digital files was less costly and stopped requiring physical space. And as more businesses and individuals began using computers, shipping images in digital format simplified things a lot.
Finally, the dawn of the dot-com era and the rapid rising of websites and online storefronts gave the industry a new push with an increasing demand for imagery to fill this new digital space and a way to scale up their business with stock photography websites that could reach more customers.
As a result, during the 90s, most libraries started digitalizing their catalogs –and using keywords to categorize and find images quickly–expanding their content coverage, selling digital image files via CDs, and setting up their websites. They started to refer to themselves as stock photo agencies.
Photodisc was a pioneer digitalized stock photography agency. Born in 1991 and opening up their stock photography website in 1995, they sold large batches of stock images on different themes via mail-shipped CD-ROMs and introduced a new licensing model: Royalty-Free. Instead of being specifically tailored for the customer’s use, this license gave several preset usage rights over an image for an equally pre-established price and without time restrictions.
Because of how much simpler it was compared to Rights Managed, how much more affordable it was considering the buyer could use the images indefinitely, and the fact it allowed to license the same image multiple times simultaneously (thus earning more from it), the royalty-free license became the new industry standard (as you're about to see).
Some of the biggest and most prestigious stock photography agencies were established around this time, too, including the notorious Getty Images (which resulted from the acquisition of Photodisc by the Getty company), Corbis (owned by Bill Gates, now merged into Getty), and Alamy.
The microstock model adapted stock photography for the masses and turned the stock market into a primarily online business: companies offer large image catalogs online, searchable by keywords and previewable for quality, and customers can buy royalty-free licenses for these images at low unitary prices, but with a minimum payment requirement in the form of image packs (micro stock = micropayment stock photography).
|Major Stock Photography Agencies||Major Contributions|
|iStockphoto (now iStock)||Established in 2000, pioneering the digital stock photo agency|
|Shutterstock||Founded in 2003, microstock agency that sell royalty-free images, video and music|
|Fotolia||Acquired by Adobe in 2015 to offering content with the Adobe Creative Cloud|
|Photocase||Established in 2001, offers royalty free images with a focus on authenticity, modernism, and style|
Today’s dominant microstock agencies were all established in the initial 00s: iStockphoto –now iStock– in 2000, Shutterstock in 2003, Fotolia –now merged into Adobe Stock– in 2005, Photocase in 2001, Dreamstime in 2000, 123RF in 2005. Just to name a few.
If you wish to see how big the industry is today, here is an up-to-date overview of the stock photo market.
Interestingly, big corporative ventures were a minority in this field. Photographers, visual artists, and tech entrepreneurs bootstrapped most of these companies, just like in the early days.
And they brought significant changes with them. iStockphoto is labeled as the first microstock agency of all, and they introduced the concept of minimum payment threshold and low-priced royalty-free licenses. Shutterstock is credited as the inventor of the stock photo subscription model –to buy a set number of image downloads per month for a flat fee– that pretty much all competitors adopted afterward as it is the preferred buying option for most customers (not surprisingly, it lets them get all the images they want for a lower cost).
Thanks to microstock agencies, royalty free stock photos became a widely used resource, no longer only for marketers, advertisers, and big corporations but also for small businesses and freelance professionals (graphic designers, web designers, etc.). This allowed seasoned but also amateur photographers and illustrators to monetize their images online with minimal effort. In fact, in the early 00s, more than one professional photographer made bank selling stock royalty free photos, though that is hardly possible any more today.
The expansion in this period continued beyond media formats. Stock footage became a thing. Shutterstock, iStock, and the rest of the early stock photo sites introduced licensable video collections on their platforms between 2006 and 2010. Some video-first agencies also came to life around then, including Pond5 –now owned by Shutterstock– and Videoblocks (rebranded Storyblocks).
And then, from 2010 to today, one of the most relevant developments in the industry has been the radical shift in content style: almost from the beginning of stock photography, well into the 2000s and especially during the rise of microstock, the most sought-after imagery looked what we now call “stocky” generic images: overly posed, excessively polished and setting impossible standards –think of the women laughing as they eat their perfectly arranged salads, the businessmen in suits smiling at the lens as they confidently shake each other hands, or the cover-girl looking housewife proudly standing in her spotless kitchen.
But from 2010 onwards, the strong influence of social media and smartphones, which made every person a photographer eager to share their vision of the world with everyone, made businesses, brands, image researchers, and photo editors prefer authentic styled pictures that looked spontaneous (even if they weren’t), realistic and relatable. This style has remained predominant in microstock photos and photography trends for over a decade now.
Furthermore, since around 2015, the majority of image requests are for diversity and inclusivity, particularly for an accurate representation of minorities: the various ethnicities that make up the human race, the different gender identities, lifestyle choices, and age segments, the disabilities some people live with every day, among others.
For the best part of the last ten years, most stock photo sites have committed themselves to sourcing the freshest, most authentic, and most inclusive images possible.
|Features||Microstock Photography||Macro (Normal) Stock Photography|
|Pricing||Lower, affordable prices||Higher, premium prices|
|Accessibility||Available for everyone, from small businesses to individuals||Targeted towards big businesses and professionals|
|Quality||High-quality, but bulk quantity can affect the uniqueness of photos||High-quality, professional, and exclusive photos|
|Licensing Model||Mostly Royalty-Free licenses which are easier to understand||Mostly Rights-Managed licenses, giving exclusive rights to the images for a specified use and period|
|Audience||Small businesses, individuals, bloggers, freelance graphic designers||Marketing and advertising agencies, large corporations, publishing houses|
|Image Originality||Variable originality due to large quantities and variety of contributors||More unique and specialized content|
|Production||Images are often crowd-sourced, with multiple contributors||Typically from professional photographers or image collections|
|Market Reach||Global reach due to the prevalence of online platforms||Often caters to specific regions or industries|
|Volume||High volume due to the low price point and variety of content||Lower volume due to high price point and targeted content|
So far in 2023, we have seen AI tech labs launch upgraded version after version of AI image generators, capable of producing more photorealistic, synthetic images each time – such as Dall-E 2, Midjourney, or Stable Diffusion. AI image editing tools are also gaining popularity, with companies like Adobe, Canva, and Skylum offering AI applications that can perform complex image manipulation tasks with great ease and superb results.
The biggest stock photo companies have gotten into the race, not only adapting their license agreements to be able to sell AI-generated images but developing their own AI image-generative apps and addressing critical legal matters that still need to be fully resolved. Copyright issues stemming from developers using human artists’ work to train their AI models without authorization, the uncertainty over whether AI-generated images can be copyrighted, and how to establish and police ethical and safe use guidelines for AI image generation, for example.
All this expands creative horizons beyond imagination. Anyone can create the perfect image for their project by typing a description and editing their images with ease, even if they have no real editing skills.
Not entirely. Many photographers and visual artists are increasingly concerned about the impact of generative AI on their livelihoods, with the possibility of AI-generated images replacing human-created content and so many developers using their work to train generative AI models without paying. Some are very vocal about these worries and have started acting to protect themselves and all artists.
Right now, the future is still being defined beyond knowing AI will transform stock photography as we know it. But how far will it go, how much will it take over, and which applications of generative AI will dominate? All that depends on things that still need to be defined.
Will AI images be copyrightable? Will developers be law-enforced to pay artists to use their work in AI training? Will the industry at large reach a consensus regarding user guidelines and restrictions? Will brands and businesses massively adopt synthetic media for their visual needs?
That part of the history is yet to be written.
Why do stock photos exist?
Stock photographs were created as a way to give publishers and art directors faster access to images, letting photographers earn more money from their already-created pictures at the same time. Stock photos still exist today because the product and business model simply works and is still beneficial for customers to quickly license high quality images for their creative projects and for artists to earn passive income from their shots.
Who is the most famous stock photo? (Model)
How do I find the origin of a stock photo?
Most stock agencies display the author and all other relevant information about the creation of each image they offer. At the same time, most royalty free images can be easily tracked back to find their origin by conducting a reverse image search, for example, on the popular Google Images search engine.
What is original photography vs stock photography?
Original photos tend to be referring to those photographs you create yourself (or hire someone to shoot images for you) with a specific purpose in mind. In contrast, stock images are pictures previously created and available to use –with a license– for various potential purposes.
The history of stock photography is one of innovation and change, with technology, artist entrepreneurship, and market demand driving the industry forward.
From its beginnings in the 1920s to the present, the industry has undergone significant changes, with the impact of digital technology and the rise of microstock photography being some of the most important.
The industry's future will bring even more change, with the rise of AI-generated images and AI-powered image editing set to revolutionize the industry once again.
However, despite these changes, one thing remains constant: the need for high-quality, visually stunning images that capture audiences' attention and drive business success.
Header graphic: Image copyright left to right, top to bottom: mal / photocase.com, Laurin08 / photocase.com, Addictive Stock / photocase.com, aoo3771 / photocase.com, all rights reserved