Glossary of Terms in Stock Photography

With images needed more and more to catch the attention of readers and manage your design projects, terms used in the photo industry are hard for the new or seasoned user to understand. If you are in the industry, these terms are understood. If you are a stock photo buyer or user or even getting into using more images, some of it if not all of it can seem like a foreign language, on a good day.It is up to the user to learn the terms that apply to images, terms that define how images can be used legally and what the buyer or user needs to comply with in order to use free or paid for images.

Subscription Images

Subscription images refers to a stock photo agency payment option. A subscription is when a buyer pays a monthly or annual fee to the stock photo agency and are then awarded a set amount of images for that monthly or annual free. Each stock photo agency defines their subscription prices, conditions and number of downloads and many include the resolution or size of photo as well.

Editorial Photo

An editorial photo refers to an identifiable person (celebrity or public figure) or place (white house, empire state building) or event (royal wedding, olympics) that has a set licensing terms that determine how this type of photo can be used. Editorial images use requirements are different from a Royalty free image with the major difference being that an editorial image can not be used in promotional or advertising materials as the subject is a public person, event or place that has the right to determine how their image is used.

Extended License

This refers to a licensing option that enables a buyer to use a photo in a way that is more than the regular Royalty Free rights and includes using the image or photo on commercially sold items. This license is more expensive and includes more uses than other licensing options but does have defined and definitive uses.

Royalty Free (RF)

This is a licensing term used in the creative industry of stock photography that enables a stock photo buyer to use a purchased photo as many times as the stock agency license outlines in their terms and conditions without having to pay a royalty to the photographer. In many creative arts industries, royalties are paid to the creator (musicians, authors) when a creative piece is sold over and over again. If you are familiar with royalties in other creative or arts based industries this makes sense. Stock photo agencies did not want to have to track how many times a photos was used by a buyer hence the term royalty free.

Rights Managed (RM)

This is another licensing term used in the stock photo business that restricts the use of a photo with very clear terms and conditions but provides the buyer with more exclusive use of the photo. Rights managed photos provide the buyer with exclusive rights to a photo for a period of time and for a set amount of copies. This option guarantees the buyer that this photo will not show up on every blog, on every website or in digital media making their use look mainstream instead of a photo that could set their business apart from others.

Attribution refers to the public credit used to identify the photographer or creator of an image, video, audio or creative commons piece. Credit link provides the same identifier as attribution but provides a link to a webpage or digital source of the artist or creator. Free stock photos and creative common photos (audio, video or illustration as well) require that if used need to add either the attribution or credit link as a stimulation for using the photo. Stock photos which are royalty free photos do not carry this same stipulation.


The term resolution when used to describe a photo or image refers to the number of dots per square inch are used to crate the photo. The higher the resolution the better the quality of an image. In the photography world, 72 dpi and 300 dpi are the resolutions that are generally used, 72 dpi being a lower resolution so the file is smaller and 300 dpi so the image is shaper and generally of better quality for printing. Low resolution photos are used for internet purposes so web-based pages load quickly and 300 dpi images are used for print so the photo when printed is sharp and clear.


Microstock is a term used by stock photo agencies that promote photographers, both professional and amateur, to buyers and sell licenses to mainly Royalty Free images. Microstock was a term that enable stock photo agencies to separate their business model from that of independent photographers who were selling licenses to their images. Microstock is a business that reviews photographers work and through a commission based model, sells licenses to thousands of buyers who need images. Microstock has now expanded their model to include vector illustrations, audio, video, editorial and CA images.

Creative Commons (CC)

This is a license used by photographers that allows them to offer their photos for free but the user still has to comply with certain licensing items in order to use the photo. If a creative commons licensed photo is used the photographer has to be credited for the photo with the copyright symbol, photos can not be used for commercial purposes (advertising, digital ads), and the user should be aware that this option is available so a photographer can get noticed for their work.


License refers to the terms under which the photo has been purchased. The two main licenses are Royalty Free (RF) or Rights Managed (RM). Each license differs and outlines how the photo can be used, under what conditions the photo can be used with all licenses forbidding the re-sale of a photo. All licenses are not created equal so it is important to check the terms of a license as defined by the agency before you buy. When you buy a stock photo you are not purchasing a photo but a license to use that photo as set out by the seller/stock photo agency.

Public Domain (PD)

PD stands for Public Domain, a term used for creative images where the copyright has expired. If a photo is in the Public Domain then there are no limits or terms that specify how the photo can be used. Public Domain images are generally not as well shot as stock photos or custom photos but can provide you with what you need.

Stock Photo

Stock photo is a term used to describe an image that is bought from the photographer or stock agency directly. These images are sold with the intention to sell them multiple times to different buyers for use in graphic designs, websites, digital designs, or used as a photo. This option was created so that people did not have to have a custom photo created for their use. It was an option that made photos easy to find, easy to buy and easy to use. The term stock photo is used to separate this idea of buying as you need a photo versus a photo as art, editorial or custom shots. Think of it as going to Costco for a photo versus having a photographer create a photo for you. Stock photos do have terms attached to their use that are outlined by the stock agency that sells them.

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