The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

In case you haven’t noticed, at Stock Photo Secrets we LOVE stock photos! And this passion leads us to know it all about the stock photo market – and stock media as a whole.

This resourceful, versatile and accessible market does a great job serving every creative’s visual needs, and we think it’s time for you know all about it too!

Join us in this complete stock photo research, a full overview of the stock photo market today and discover just how big and wide this industry is, and everything you can get from it!

Psst! If you landed here while on the pursuit of business-themed photos (say, a photo of people on a business meeting, for example), don't worry! Here's your shortcut to the Best Business Images and where to find them!
Want an updated insight on the stock photo market? Check our analysis of Adobe's 2020 Creativity News & Survey report!

How Big is the Stock Photo Market?

Market Size - Number of Companies30+ dominant agencies   
Revenue Generation$4 Billion by 2023
Industry Growth Rate5% Annually
Main ProductStill images (Stock Photos and Vector Illustrations)
Number of Images Available350 million+
Geographic segmentationNorth America, Europe, APAC and ROW.
The latest Global Stock Images and Video Market Report by Aritzon threw that the stock photography market will be generating over 4 Billion dollars in revenue by 2023, which is an annual growth rate of 5%.

Not bad, huh? And wait until you know this!

Between macrostock and microstock agencies combined, there is an archive of an estimated over 350 million stock images available online today.

How about that? This is no niche market, my friend! And it's not only about photos, though they sure are the most prominent: 

From 2017 onwards, the market for still images has grown 5% each year, with 3/4 (three quarters) of all images sold being for commercial purposes such as marketing, advertising and social media usage. Furthermore, the trend of embedding images in audiovisual and/or interactive productions keeps fueling the demand for stock images today.

And where are all these original images coming from?

Between top, prominent and rising stock image websites, there are about 30 companies dominating the stock photo industry right now.

As you see, many a photo buyer prefers stock images over custom photography. For marketing and advertising, for social media like Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, to illustrate a blog post or to add visual impact to an app. Creatives around the world are using stock photos to make it happen. 

This is a prolific and very interesting market to analyse and as an avid stock photo researcher I'm all for it. 

Ready to dwell into the details?

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Stock Photo Agencies: Know the Players, Know the Game

Let’s start with the seller side. Now when you think of stock photos, you may assume the seller would be a stock photographer. But in the stock photo market, you actually buy from a middleman: the stock photo agencies.

These companies compile large catalogues of professional photos (created by talented artists) all cleared for commercial purpose and they sell/manage licenses for their use in exchange of a fee, later splitting the profit with the artists.

Let’s get to know these players better!

Types of Stock Photo Agencies

Stock photo agencies divide into two main groups:

  • Traditional or macrostock agencies – Most of them got started way before the Internet era, later jumping onto the web and digitalising their libraries, but sticking to their system of selling Rights Managed image on demand, which are custom and tend to be costly.
  • Microstock agencies –  They surged in the early 00s with the boom of massive Internet access and revolutionised the stock photography industry. These are online-based businesses that sell flexible, preset Royalty Free licenses at very low prices under a micropayment system based in volume sales, be it on demand packages or monthly/annual subscriptions.

While some traditional agencies are still very important in the industry –Getty Images, anyone?–, microstock agencies have completely taken over the market in the last almost two decades and some of the biggest names in the field –like Shutterstock, iStock… — work under the microstock model. For this reason, at Stock Photo Secrets we focus almost exclusively on them.

This is quite a dynamic space, too. There's a continuous emergence of new companies, others that close their doors, and a constant flow of acquisitions, fusions, partnerships and what have you. To keep up with all these headlines and announcements, we have a dedicated News section you should check!

Top Stock Photo Agencies

Stock Photo AgenciesImages in LibraryYear of LaunchSubscription PlansOn-demand PurchasesLicense TypePricing Range per Image
Stock Photo Secrets Shop5 million+ 2014YesYesRoyalty Free$0,16 to $7,80
iStock100 million+2000YesYesRoyalty Free$0,21 to $33
Shutterstock220 million+2003YesYesRoyalty Free$0,26 to $9,80
Getty ImagesHundreds of millions1995No (tailored enterprise solutions)YesRights Managed - additionally Royalty Free (not all images)$115 to thousands of dollars
Adobe Stock160 million+2015YesYesRoyalty Free$0,26 to $9,99
PhotocaseMillions of images2001NoYesRoyalty Free$8 to $20
Depositphotos100 million+2009YesYesRoyalty Free$0,22 to $4,90
123RF110 million+2005YesYesRoyalty Free$0,22 to $10
Dreamstime105 million+2004YesYesRoyalty Free
Bigstock82 milion+2004YesYesRoyalty Free$0.16 to $21
PhotoduneMillions2011NoYesRoyalty Free$2 to $30
Storyblocks400,00+ in wholly-owned library / 10 million+ in contributor's marketplace2017 (2001)YesYes (contributors' marketplace only)Royalty FreeCents (unlimited downloads) to $9,99

The companies at top of the game today are mostly early birds that got the worms, pioneers that launched in the early 00s when digital imagery, mass-access to the Internet and online shopping was relatively new. However, they deserve all the credit for growing their business and maintaining their position across almost two decades in an increasingly competitive space, and most of all for redefining the stock media industry as a whole.

Just a glance over their websites is enough to know these agencies are huge today: high-end designs, top-notch technology, massive image libraries, great offers and cool bonus services are a common trait among them.

To know them in-depth, see our list of the 20+ Best Stock Photo Sites.
To learn more about one agency in particular, visit our Stock Agencies section, full of detailed reviews!

But let’s have a quick roundup right now anyway:

Stock Photo Secrets Shop Banner 1 > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2014
  • Over 5 million images – adds up to 100,000 new files every month
  • Royalty Free
  • Subscriptions and On Demand
  • Photos, vectors and videos 

Quick Highlights

  • Specially aimed at small and medium-sized businesses
  • Flexible plans
  • Important member discounts

iStock Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2000 – Owned by Getty Images since 2005
  • Over 100 million images
  • Royalty Free
  • On Demand and Subscriptions
  • Photos, vectors, videos and audio

Quick Highlights

  • Exclusive collection – Signature has photos that are only available at iStock
  • Credits system for on-demand allows buying any media type with the same credits
  • Subscriptions tailored to the collection – prices reflecting it 

Shutterstock Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2003
  • Over 220 million images
  • Royalty Free
  • Subscriptions and On Demand
  • Photos, vectors, video and audio

Quick Highlights

  • Largest online collection of stock images
  • A high-tech site with bonus features
  • Great content variety and commercial value of images

Getty Images Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Macrostock
  • Founded in 1995
  • Hundreds of millions of images
  • Rights Managed and additionally Royalty Free
  • On Demand, tailored solutions for enterprise clients
  • Photos, vectors and video

Quick Highlights

  • Globally renowned company with over two decades in the stock photography business
  • One of the biggest providers in editorial imagery
  • Exclusive, high-profile content thanks to a proprietary network of photographers and exclusive access deals

Adobe Stock Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2015
  • Over 160 million images
  • Royalty Free
  • Subscriptions and credit system for on demand
  • Photos, vectors and video

Quick Highlights

  • Fully integrated into Adobe Creative Cloud platform
  • Developed by Adobe on the base of former top stock photo agency Fotolia
  • High-tech site and service ideal for Adobe users

Photocase Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2001
  • Millions of images
  • Royalty Free
  • On-demand only
  • Photos and vectors

Quick Highlights

  • Exclusive niche library specialised in artistic, unique, authentic stock images
  • Purposely small collection thanks to a tight curation process
  • Image style has a very strong, modern Berlin vibe


123RF Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2005
  • Over 110 million images
  • Royalty Free
  • Subscriptions and on demand
  • Photos, vectors and video

Quick Highlights

  • Competitive pricing
  • Intelligent tech features
  • Good customer service

Dreamstime Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2004
  • 105 million images
  • Royalty Free
  • On-demand and subscriptions
  • Photos, vectors, video and audio

Quick Highlights

  • Free photo section for users – signup to access them
  • One-week free trial
  • Bonus services

Bigstock Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2004 – acquired by Shutterstock in 2009
  • Over 82 million images
  • Royalty Free
  • Subscriptions and on demand
  • Photos, vectors and video

Quick Highlights

  • Owned and operated by top stock photo agency Shutterstock
  • Free photos and videos upon registration – free of charge
  • Free one-week trial for new customers

Photodune Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2011 – Part of Envato, a network of stock media marketplaces
  • Millions of images
  • Royalty Free
  • On-demand
  • Photos and vectors

Quick Highlights

  • It is part of Envato's platform of specialised stock media sites
  • Offers monthly freebies from PhotoDune and other marketplaces – available upon signup
  • Adds useful tutorials for designers

Storyblocks Banner > The Stock Photo Market: What, Who, How and Where of Stock Photos in 2020

Basic Facts

  • Microstock
  • Founded in 2001 – Rebranded in 2017
  • Over 400,000 images
  • Royalty Free
  • Subscriptions – on demand on a supplementary marketplace
  • Photos and vectors – video and audio available within the same network

Quick Highlights

  • The company started as Storyblocks, focused on footage only. Rebranded into Storyblocks in 2017 adding a stock photo service
  • Unlimited downloads plan (and small volume plan) for their wholly-owned library
  • On-demand purchases from a contributor-based marketplace

What About Free Stock Photo Sites?

You may wonder why we aren't including those stock photography websites that offer stock images free of charge. After all, there are a lot of creatives that when in need of a picture or illustration, resort to these sites that let them download images for free, usually under a variation of creative commons license or under public domain.

There are two main reasons as a researcher we are not focusing on these providers:

Not as relevant – The fact they don't generate revenue makes it less valuable info for buyers and sellers alike.

Not as useful – Public domain images and free stock photos in general, are just not as valuable as paid royalty-free images. It's very often impossible to know the copyright holder has actually given permission to have the pictures distributed this way, as well as granting all models and property depicted are correctly waived for commercial use. Add that several creative commons licenses require attribution. Way too many risks and hassle to use these images safely.

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Stock Photo Buyers: Meet your Tribe

Let’s now turn to the other side and look at who buys stock photos. You know why YOU need them, but have you ever been curious to know what other people do with stock images? Being such a profitable industry, have you wondered in what kind of company you are as a customer to stock photo agencies? This is where you get your answers.

Stock Photography Has a Transversal Customer Base

One of the most interesting facts about the stock photo industry is that despite being somewhat narrow in concept, it serves people and companies of all shapes and sizes, and from the most varied backgrounds.

Perhaps because of the affordable nature of the offers, one could assume the buyer bunch in this market would be made out just of little fish, but that’s not the case. Yes, small and medium-sized budgets are still making up for a considerable portion of stock photo buyers, but this product attracts bigger companies and even large corporations too, for the same reasons: it’s an instant solution to a problem (and larger businesses tend to have a bigger and more periodic visual content needs) and it’s very cost-effective. Plus, many agencies offer premium accounts and enterprise services that are tailored to the higher end of the buyer side.

Like this, you can be a graphic designer kickstarting your freelance career and committing a hundred bucks a month to a stock photo subscription for materials, and the customer next to you may well be a Fortune 500 company seizing the deal with a large volume subscription and downloading hundreds of images every month.

Stock Photos are a Must for the Creative Community

It’ll come as no surprise that many of those who work with stock photos are creative professionals: graphic designers and artists, marketers and advertisers, media and communications experts, you know the lot.

These are the people that turn stock images into finalised, unique visuals. And the photography element is an essential part of their work.

For the creative community stock photography solves many needs at once and so a lot of the stock photo agencies’ services and bonus features are aimed at them: free image editing tools for basic graphic design, intelligent image search engines and reverse image search, curated image collections, blog posts and more additionals that intend to help inspire their creativity and ease their workflow.

Businesses are the Most Prominent Clients

One of the most appealing points in the stock photo offer (particularly the Royalty Free stock photo segment) is that these are images suitable for commercial use, legally-wise. So it makes perfect sense that the ones consuming stock imagery the most are those who utilize it for commercial purposes: businesses.

As we said not long ago, businesses of all kinds and all sizes are benefitting from stock pictures. This includes one-man projects, startups, mamas and papas shops, medium-sized companies and big corporate organisations. And you will find people buying images to use in anything from flower shops and Etsy-like projects to banking and global product brands.

Be it for marketing and advertising, social media presence or brand image awareness, businesses and people working for them certainly get the best out of stock photos.

The Publishing Crowd is Into Stock Images Too

Bloggers and publishers make for a customer segment that is growing exponentially in latest years, which also explains why so many agencies are constantly developing services with it in mind.

For the same reasons businesses choose stock imagery, the publishing field also benefits from affordable and professional-like photographs. Editorial content becomes more attractive when visuals are part of it, and having pictures available to include in blog posts, online publishing, books, eBooks and the like at low prices are very appealing to publishers.

While most commercial-ready stock photographs work to use in publications, these customers tend to be after a type of images that can only be offered for editorial purposes: newsworthy shots, celebrity portraits, etc.

Because most of the people depicted in such images have not (and will not) authorize the use of their likeness for commercial use, it’s absolutely illegal to use them in that way. But they can, however, be used just for editorial reasons like informing and covering issues of public interest.

As more and more bloggers and publishers are out there looking for cheap photos for their content, stock photo agencies are more and more eager to build large collections of editorial stock images to cater to their needs, and having editorial-marked stock photos simplifies photo research for publishers too.

Stock Images are Good for Public Entities, NGOs and Non-Profits

Not only businesses and publishers need visuals to achieve their goals. Governmental and public entities also need good photography to deliver their messages to the public, NGOs and non-profit organizations certainly know they get to more people and in a stronger way if they use beautiful images.

In a sense, their needs are the same as those of marketing and advertising, only with a different objective. So, of course, stock photography works for them, especially since it’s a low-cost alternative and most these groups work on tight budgets or at least see great value in spending less.

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Move Around the Stock Photo Market like a Connoisseur

And that’s the end of the tour! You now know more about the two sides of this vibrant industry that is online stock photography and have more insider knowledge to use in your favour.

Having a better idea of who the stock photo agencies are, why they do what they do, and how others are using their services surely gives you a greater understanding of where you’re standing in the stock photo market, and also of where this business is going from here.

Did you know any of these details about the stock photo market? How do you plan to use these insights in the road ahead? Do let us know!

I am Content Manager, Researcher and Author in Stock Photo Press and its many stock media oriented publications. I am a passioned communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. I was lucky to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, and I am happy to share my research, insights and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers and stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

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